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Non-Review Review: Casino

You didn’t see the scam? You didn’t see what was goin’ on?

Well, there’s no way to determine that, Sam.

Yes, there is. An infallible way! They won!

Sam explains how Las Vegas works to Ward

If you ask a bunch of people to name their favourite Scorsese film, you’ll get a bunch of different answers. Some will go for his iconic gangster tale, Goodfellas. Others will go for the superb drama of Raging Bull. Some might even opt for the unforgettable Taxi Driver. I, on the other hand, am probably the only guy in the room who is going to opt for Casino. Conventional wisdom would argue that Casino is merely a bloated and over-loaded attempt to re-tread ground Scorsese already covered in Goodfellas, but I can’t bring myself to agree with that. While Goodfellas feels like a personal tale of greed and corruption, and the implosion that inevitably followed, there’s something grander to Casino. Offering the social history of Las Vegas, the rise and fall of the mob’s empire, it feels like large-scale tragedy. There’s just such an impressively epic scale to Scorsese’s film that I can’t help but admire it.

No dice...

To be fair, there are a bunch of similarities between Goodfellas and Casino. Most obviously to casual movie-goers, they both feature the mob. Joe Pesci plays a very similar character in both films, a hyper-aggressive tough-guy. There are even some similarities between the characters played by Robert DeNiro, with both becoming increasingly paranoid as the movie goes on. Both follow the conventional arc of a mob film, showing us the glory of their criminal empire before brutally dismantling it during the last act. And, it seems, the greatest sin a man can have is pride.

I’m not convinced that these similarities make Casino immediately inferior, or that they must diminish either film. After all, there’s a significant overlap between Scorsese’s work and most other gangster films – whether then or now. What distinguishes Scorsese’s work from most other directors of similar films is a dazzling and intimidating knowledge of his craft. And if Casino and Goodfellas have that in common, I think there are more important things to worry about.

Movie of note...

However, I do think that there’s a very distinctive flavour to Goodfellas and Casinos, despite what many critics might argue. The most obvious difference is the character of Henry Hill, who appeared in Goodfellas as played by Ray Liotta. There’s no similar entry-level character here, nobody joining the organisation and offering us an insider’s view as he moves to the heart of the organisation. The narration is mostly handled by DeNiro’s Ace Rothstein, but Joe Pesci’s Nicky and even Frank Vincent’s Frank get to share their thoughts with the audience.

While DeNiro’s Ace is undoubtedly our main character, Scorsese eschews giving him a particularly obvious character arc. In fact, he’s one of very few Scorsese protagonists to escape the movie entirely unscathed, no better or worse than when he started. While the movie ends with the rather brutal dismantling of the Vegas operation by the mob bosses, Ace manages to survive and revert back to the job he held before he was asked to run the Tangiers. “I could still pick winners,” he explains, “and I could still make money for all kinds of people back home. And why mess up a good thing?” As much time as we spend with Ace, and as wonderful as DeNiro’s central performance is, he is not a conventional Scorsese protagonist, and I’d argue that this isn’t a conventional Scorsese film.

Ace's high?

The movie isn’t necessarily about Ace, although Scorsese does make room for us to get an insight into the man running things. It’s more about the culture of the time. Scorsese is more interested in charting the history of the mob’s involvement in Las Vegas than he is in telling the story of a particular person. While Goodfellas was the story of Henry Hill with a significant focus on the New York mob, Casino is the story of the Las Vegas mob with a significant focus on Ace. I hope that distinction makes sense.

Scorsese is exploring the rise and fall of Las Vegas gangsters, telling a sort of oral history to the audience. I think it’s a far more challenging way of framing a movie, and it’s probably much more ambitious than Goodfellas. I’ve always harboured a soft spot of Scorsese’s incredibly ambitious storytelling, if only because he takes so many brilliantly inspired risks when he could be resting comfortably on his laurels as one of the great living directors. That, incidentally, is why I’m a much bigger fan of Gangs of New York or Shutter Island than most.

Walking the floor...

Casino opens with about half-an-hour of oral testimony before we get into any sort of story involving the characters. There’s a half-an-hour of voice-over set-up as Scorsese gives us a brief history of the city and introduces us to his key characters and relationships. Now, imagine how awkward that would sound coming from any other director. Instead, Scorsese does it with a deft ease, keeping us interested and engaged while moving at breakneck speed. There’s wit and humour to be found in those opening thirty minutes, without ever slowing anything down or ever losing track of it. I think those thirty minutes serve as a beautiful example of Scorsese’s technique.

Casino is something like a fairy tale, much like Goodfellas. It’s a very moral warning against hedonism and excesses. “But in the end we %#@!ed it all up,” Nicky tells us towards the start of the film. “It should’a been so sweet, too. But it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that %#@!in’ valuable again.” I think, though, that Casino has a much heftier sense of tragedy, because there was a way that this whole adventure out West could have worked out for all those involved. While Henry Hill’s membership of the mafia was never going to end well, Las Vegas was working for a while, and had found something akin to equilibrium.

The matter is in hand...

That makes it so poetic, as Ace is able to spot the flaws in others that he is blind to in himself and in his colleagues. Discussing a cheater at a table, Ace is quick to point to one of the seven deadly sins as the cause of the poor guy’s downfall. “If he wasn’t so %#@!in’ greedy,” Ace explains, “he’d have been tougher to spot. But in the end, they’re all greedy.” It’s no coincidence that the mob falls victim to the same greed in a city “made of money”, and that they pursue that vice to the bitter end.

Nicky is pretty much that short-sighted crook with an inability to sacrifice immediate pleasure for long-term gains. “A million times I wanted to yell in his %#@!in’ ear: ‘This is Las Vegas! We’re supposed to be out here robbin’, you dumb %#@!in’ Heeb.’ The irony is, of course, that had everybody been content with the millions of dollars that they were earning legitimately, the empire never would have collapsed or decayed.

Bright light city gonna set my soul on fire...

It seemed almost like Ace had found a perfect scheme, but the human character was not strong enough to resist the temptation to excess. Nicky, despite being one of the primary reasons that the whole thing fell apart, is quick to point out the very fundamental corruption at the heart of the mob’s Vegas operation “You gotta know that a guy who helps you steal, even if you take care of him real well, I mean, he’s gonna steal a little bit extra for himself. Makes sense, don’t it? Right?” That sort of moral corruption and decay tends to spread outwards, weakening the foundations and the walls. Eventually the whole house of cards collapses around everybody.

You can see a lot of Scorsese’s Catholic upbringing in the film. There’s always a powerful morality to Scorsese’s work, not unlike that found in Tarantino’s films. Indeed, the opening sequence, with Ace’s silhouette tumbling through the neon lights of Vegas, is supposed to symbolise his soul passing through hell. He even sets the closing montage, where everything truly falls apart, to The House of the Rising Sun. With its blaring organ, it sounds almost like a hymn, and its lyrics serve as a similarly cautionary tale:

Well mothers tell your children

Not to do what I have done

While you spend your life in sin and misery

In the House of the Rising Sun

I’ve always liked that about Scorsese’s film-making, the way that he manages to make mob life look so incredibly flamboyant, while still making it so utterly repellent.

Viva Las Vegas...

All Scorsese’s major characters here are guilty of cardinal sins. While the moral transgressions that Nicky makes are also illegal, Robert DeNiro’s failings are of a more moral character. When he fires an incompetent employee, something he was well within his rights to do, he’s too proud to acknowledge that it could have consequences for him. Even when the other parties involved are reasonable, Ace refuses to budge.

He pressures Ginger into a marriage, it’s not one based on love. “I’m not in love with you,” she tells him, and it doesn’t phase him. He continues with his proposal. “What are you pitching me?”she asks, as if listening to a business proposal. After all, it wouldn’t be Las Vegas without a sham marriage. All of Ace’s problems, at least the ones not driven by Nicky, stem from those two decisions, neither of which was really illegal. Perhaps it’s the nature of those two sins that allow Ace to escape the film relatively unharmed.

Tough call...

Another aspect of Casino that I love, and that I’d argue sets it marginally above Goodfellas in my estimation, is the sheer absurdity of the story. There are some moments in the film that are so utterly ridiculous they can’t be made up. I adore that sequence with the FBI agents running out of fuel while spying on Nicky from their plane (and having to land on a golf course). Or the way the loopholes Nicky has to run through to shake police and FBI attention. “Nicky couldn’t even go for a ride without changing cars at least six times before he could shake all his tails.” Or the hilarious sight of Nicky and Frank having to cover their mouths while they speak to stop the FBI from lip-reading.

I also love the idea that was expense accounts that brought the mob down. I think it’s a brilliant commentary on how incredibly structured (and yet intrinsically corrupt) the Vegas mobsters had become that one guy complaining about not getting his expenses covered could cause the collapse of the entire operation. I think that’s the perfect denouement to a story like this, and it suits the more flamboyant character of Las Vegas.

Never corny...

I think that Casino offers Scorsese at his finest. Despite a near-three-hour runtime, the movie just flows elegantly, and he seamlessly integrates countless little subplots and characters without missing a beat. The scale of Casino is on-par with a historical epic charting the rise and fall of some ancient empire, and yet – despite the voice-overs and montages – Scorsese manages to keep it strangely personal.We know Nicky and Ginger and Ace, even though we never lose sight of the big picture unfolding.

It’s fascinating that the director manages this by effectively rationing the information he feeds the viewer. He doesn’t tell the audience any more than they need to know. Captions aren’t exceptionally specific. They aren’t labelled “New York” or “Chicago”, but simply “back home.” Scorsese tries to avoid specifically dating his scenes. It means that there’s no information overload as the viewer tries to make sense of it all in their own way. Rather than assaulting the audience with dates and figures, the discerning viewer can generally get a rough estimate on when a particular event took place judging by the fashion or the hairstyles.

Roll with it...

Casino notably took some liberties at with the truth. Specifically, its geography isn’t necessarily true to life, with certain scenes transposed from Chicago to Vegas, for example. However, it’s all in service of a smoother story. I think it’s to Scorsese’s credit that he managed to offer a picture that was both (broadly speaking) relatively accurate and accessible and enjoyable at the same time. As I remarked above, I think Casino is an insanely ambitious project, and I think it’s a sign of Scorsese’s talent that it never skips a beat.

I even think that you can credit Sharon Stone’s Oscar nomination to Scorsese’s direction. The director has a knack for finding strengths for his actors to play to. There’s a reason that Joe Pesci seemed to struggle to find a niche outside Scorsese films, while fitting so perfectly inside them. Cathy Moriarty scored an Oscar nomination for her debut in Raging Bull and then faded from view.

A handy solution to the problem at hand...

Sharon Stone is a solid enough actress in the right kind of role, and can be downright terrible in the wrong type of role, but she’s never been any better than she was here. While I think her performance is great, and that is a huge credit to her as an actress, I think that Scorsese deserves recognition for what he can do with actors who struggle elsewhere. I think you could even make the case that Robert DeNiro has never truly been used better than he was with his string of collaborations with Martin Scorsese.

In short, looking at the reasons I like the movie so much more than most people, I think that Casino works so very well because it’s really Martin Scorsese’s time to shine. I think it’s the perfect illustration of the director’s technique and craft, and I think that the show belongs almost solely to him. In my own opinion, I think that this is Scorsese’s masterpiece because it’s truly the director on his own. Robert DeNiro might be great as Ace, but this isn’t really his film. This film isn’t about Ace and it isn’t about DeNiro’s performance. It’s Martin Scorsese charting the social evolution of Las Vegas, and using it as the backdrop to a fable about human greed and corruption. Everything else in the film is in service of that.

The end is DeNiro...

I’ll concede that I’m probably the only person in the world who feels that way about this film, but if everybody agreed on everything, the world would be a much less interesting place.

6 Responses

  1. Nailed it! Count me as another big fan of this film (and why I selected it for my recent AFI Gangster Film Top 10. Great appreciative piece, my friend.

  2. I was never one of those people who saw ‘Casino’ as a ‘Goodfellas’ rip-off. A very compelling film in its own right.

    BTW it’s Las Vegas, Darren.

  3. A really awsome movie! One of my first Scorsese movies and I fell in love with it from the start. Its up there with Goodfellas, Raging bull and Taxi Driver. There’s a number of unforgettable scenes, too. My favorite has to be the confrontation between Nicky and Ace in the desert

    • Thanks, glad you liked it. There’s so many great ones to choose from. I like the scene with the cheaters, if only because it demonstrates that Ace isn’t keeping his hands clean, despite all his concern about the floor management or the blueberry muffins – it’s the perfect illustration, to me, of how deeply integrated the criminal element was into the structure of Las Vegas.

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