Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel, Billy Bathgate follows the fictitious Billy's entrance into the violent world of Arthur "Dutch Schultz (played by Dustin Hoffman).
Schultz, impressed by the Bronx teenager's boldness, hires him as his errand boy.
The film opens with Schultz brutally killing his one-time hit man, Bo Weinberg (movingly played by Bruce Willis). After Bo's death, his socialite girlfriend, Drew Peston (Nicole Kidman, Dead Calm) hitches up with Schultz. You could say he makes her an offer she can't refused.
Charged with income tax evasion, Schultz moves to upstate New York to await his trial. He is cautioned by his fellow gang member and longtime friend, Otto Berman (played by Steven Hill in a wonderful performance). Trying for respectability, Schultz puts big money in the local bank, calls number at a bingo club and is baptized in the Catholic Church.
Billy is given the task of watching over Drew during the trial and the two foolishly become lovers. Because she knows too much, Billy has to choose between his gang and his girl.
Born into poverty with no apparent future, Billy feels that he's learning a trade by being part of the gang. He listens at open doors and observes quietly -- sort of like on-the-job training.
The acting is topnotch, especially by Kidman as the alluring, party girl and by newcomer Loren Dean (Billy) as the teen who's both excited and yet appalled by the world that he's pushed himself into. Hoffman makes a chilling Schultz, a psychotic who wields his power violently.
Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer) has directed a stylish, classy, beautiful looking gangster movie, as seen through the eyes of an innocent.