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“There’s Nobody Here to See Us”: The Untamed Frontier in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino”…

The podcast that I co-host, The 250, continued our belated Summer of Scorsese last week with a look at Goodfellas. This week, we’re looking at Casino. It is a fun and broad discussion that is well worth your time, but it spurred some of my own thoughts about Martin Scorsese’s 1995 gangster classic.

When Casino was released, it experienced something of a minor backlash.

Part of this backlash was motivated by the film’s perceived similarities to Goodfellas – Scorsese had made another soundtrack-heavy period-piece mob movie starring both Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci, adapted from the work of Nicholas Pileggi. To a certain extent, this was fair. There were legitimate concerns that Scorsese was simply repeating himself, and that any comparisons to Goodfellas did not flatter Casino.

These problems were compounded by content. At time of release, Casino was Scorsese’s longest movie, clocking in at just shy of three hours. That is a lot of mobster movie, particularly if that movie felt in anyway derivative of the appreciably shorter Goodfellas. There were also rumblings of the movie’s brutality and violence, which was seen as being particularly excessive and graphic. These complaints circulated even before Casino hit cinemas. Peter Travers summarised the mood, “Even before Casino opened, the black cloud of letdown hung over Scorsese’s epic tale.”

However, time has been kind to Casino. Although the film undoubtedly still exists in the shadow of Goodfellas, it has come to be recognised as one of the great crime films and to merit some appreciation on its own terms. Casino is a fascinating piece of work. It is bold and ambitious, epic and sweeping. However, what is most striking about Casino is not how it compares to Goodfellas, but how it contrasts. The differences are instructive.

Casino is often categorised as a mob movie, and it is definitely that. It is a story about gangsters and organised crime. However, it is also a western. It is perhaps the closest that Scorsese has come to making a traditional western in his entire cinematography. More than that, while Goodfellas is anchored in the character of Henry Hill, Casino lacks a similar hook. Both Sam and Nicky are much more oblique characters than Henry; Sam is less proactive, and Nicky is much more brutal. They are harder to invest in, tougher to root for.

However, this allows Casino to take a much wider view of this world and the people that inhabit it. Casino is arguably a religious parable, a story about mankind’s destruction of paradise and the inevitable exile that followed. In that sense, Casino feels like more of a bridge between Goodfellas and Scorsese’s more overtly religious-tinged parables like Bringing Out the Dead or Silence than it initially seemed. This is a story about heaven on earth, and the fallen sinful human beings who turn that heaven into a nightmarish hell.

Casino underscores this theme from its opening scene. The audience is introduced to Sam as he walks to his car. He gets in, he starts the engine. The car explodes. He is consumer with fire as the soundtrack surges to life. A lot of attention is paid to the carefully curated period-specific soundtrack that Scorsese constructed for Casino, including bands like the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues and even Devo. However, the first song to play on the soundtrack in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, an explicitly religious piece of work which tells the story of the betrayal of Jesus Christ.

This segues neatly into the opening credits sequence, the last opening credits to be designed by iconic graphic designers Saul and Elaine Bass, who had worked with Scorsese on Goodfellas, Cape Fear, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies and The Age of Innocence. Sam is consumed with fire. At the climax of the film, it is revealed that Sam managed to escape the car before it exploded, rendering the imagery purely symbolic – it evokes Sam’s journey into “the fiery depths of hell”, juxtaposed with the bright lights of Las Vegas.

This religious subtext simmers through Casino, most obviously in the choice of language that the characters use to explain the systems at work within the town. “It does for us what Lourdes does for humpbacks and cripples,” Sam explains of the so-called City of Sin. He explains the mechanics of the casino in explicitly religious terms, “The players don’t stand a chance. And their cash flows from the tables to our boxes, through the cage and into the most sacred room in the casino.The place where they add up all the money: the holy of holies, the count room.”

This is not just colourful language. Throughout Casino, characters are preoccupied with whether what they are doing can be seen by more powerful forces. This a Scorsese movie, so voyeurism is arguably to be expected. However, Casino is notable for the inscrutability of Sam Rothstein, who spends so much of the movie hiding behind comically large sunglasses so as to obscure his own eyes from the gaze of the audience.

The question of whether anybody is watching – and whether they have the power to act – is a recurring motif in Casino. Early in the film, Nicky’s narration introduces the audience to “the bosses.” These are abstract figures – some legal issues ensured that Casino has to refer to the gangsters’ Chicago origins using the generic descriptor “back home”, but it plays into the sense that Casino should be read as a parable, despite the level of research and detail that permeates the film.

Casino introduces these criminal overlords in a shot that looks like something from renaissance art – Ian Christie has explicitly likened the shot to “a group painted by Franz Hals.” However, what is most striking about that brief introduction is that the bosses themselves seem to be aware of the camera. Even as Nicky talks about how they cannot see what is happening in Las Vegas, they seem to be able to see through the camera lens. This is in sharp contrast to Sam and Nicky’s narration, which addresses the audience without ever looking at the camera.

This very consciously stylised shot stands out in Casino, particularly in the context of the way that the film portrays these characters in later sequences. Perhaps rejecting the stylings or trappings of The Godfather, Scorsese largely eschews the idea of lavish luxury for these gangsters. They tend to meet and organise in very mundane and grounded locations rather than at large weddings or exclusive compounds. Remo sits in the back of garages and holds meetings in cars parked in dirty alleys. The money passes through a small convenience store.

This serves to ground the mechanics of the mob operations, particularly in contrast to the excess on display in Las Vegas. It’s notable that the very heightened and stylised introduction to the bosses is mirrored only a few minutes later when Las Vegas itself is introduced at night, from the air, through clouds. The bright lights stand out in the black of the desert. “At night, you couldn’t see the desert that surrounds Las Vegas,” Sam explains. “But it’s in the desert where lots of the town’s problems are solved.”

Repeatedly, Sam and Nicky emphasise how nobody can see what is happening in Las Vegas. “You know what the best part is,” Nicky boasts about his plan to take over crime in Las Vegas, “nobody’s gonna know what we’re doing. There’s nobody here to see us.” Of the bosses, he explains, “They were a thousand miles away, and I don’t know anybody who can see that far.” There is no greater authority that can watch and judge. When Nicky discovers the cops are watching him, he simply figures, “If they’re gonna watch me, I’m gonna watch ’em right back.”

This assessement is reinforces with the cinematography. Casino frequently offers a strong visual contrast between light and dark. The movie repeatedly smothers the edge of a frame in darkness, suggesting that the object in focus exists in something of a vacuum – whether that vacuum is historic, moral, or literal. In contrast, the subjects within shots are often lit extremely well, as is surrounded with a glitzy halo. Like the city of Las Vegas itself, there’s a sense in which these characters stand out against the darkness – while also being defined by it.

This effect is heightened and literalised even in the sequences of Nicky hanging out in dingy dive bars at the edge of Las Vegas, where the frame is consistently filled with smoke. Scorsese is too good a filmmaker to ever obscure or distort his lead characters like Sam and Nicky, but he repeatedly emphasises the idea that they are operating in a space that is equivalent to a deep and black moral void or an environment that is so murky that it is difficult to see straight. The act of looking and seeing is important to Scorsese, but it is particularly pronounced in Casino.

Without any higher authority to sit in judgment, there is chaos. Sam explains how people keep each other honest in the casino. “In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else,”he explains. “Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The boxmen are watching the dealers. The floormen are watching the boxmen. The pit bosses are watching the floormen. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I’m watching the casino manager. And the eye in the sky is watching us all.”

This obsession with looking and seeing ripples down even to smaller character moments and dynamics. Ginger is unable to make a break from her pimp Lester, and frequently talks with him over the phone. Those conversations inevitably return to his gaze. “Can you feel my eyes on you?” he asks. “Can you feel me look into your heart?” Later in the film, Nicky turns into a high-end burglar, albeit one with a particular anxiety. “I didn’t like the people I was rippin’ off looking at me,” he narrates. “So I used to turn their f!$kin’ pictures around.”

Inevitably, the fact that nobody is watching allows for all manner of sin. Without any checks or balances, entropy sets in. “The only problem was that – after a while – the bosses noticed that the suitcases were gettin’ a little light,” Nicky explains. “You gotta know that a guy who helps you steal, even if you take care of him real well, he’s gonna steal a little extra for himself. Makes sense, don’t it?” This is the central paradox of any crime film. The kinds of people who participate in organised are rarely the most trustworthy sorts.

This is where the moral commentary of Casino gets interesting. Because these criminals are operating unchecked and unwatched, they grow increasingly brazen. Casino suggests that such inequity and vice cannot remain in the shadows, because if it is tolerated it inevitably seeps out into the light. The gangsters in Casino are eventually undermined because – convinced they aren’t being watched – the gangsters become increasingly brazen in flaunting their sins. Sam begins hosting a late night talk show from the Tangiers. Artie Piscano starts itemising his expenses.

This is not exactly a subtle religious parable. As a filmmaker, Scorsese’s films are infused with a very Catholic sensibility. A recurring anxiety within Scorsese’s films is the question of whether God exists, whether God sees everything, and whether God acts upon this knowledge. Casino is essentially a story about mankind being gifted a space in which they are not watched and are not judged, and how their own selfishness and shortsightedness effectively destroys paradise. It is no surprise that Sam ends the movie exiled from Las Vegas, cast out of paradise.

Casino reinforces this idea with Scorsese’s directorial choices. Casino is populated by shots that literally look down on the cast. Scorsese frequently enters scenes from a high vantage point, inviting the audience to take a divine perspective looking down on the action below and sitting in judgment of the characters. Indeed, there’s something in the recurring imagery of Sam himself frequently positioned as a man looking out over his kingdom – whether the floor of the casino or Las Vegas itself – suggesting the idolatry at play.

What’s especially interesting about Casino is the way in which Scorsese pairs this religious theme with the iconography of the western. Indeed, it’s telling that in press around Casino, Scorsese would deflect from criticisms that he was repeating himself by explicitly citing one of the country’s most recognisable western directors, arguing, “John Ford made the cavalry trilogy – Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande – basically the same picture.” It seems clear why John Ford was on Scorsese’s mind.

Casino marked the first collaboration between Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson, who shot the film on Super35mm in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The film conveys a sense of scale that distinguishes it from Goodfellas, in terms of its use of the striking Nevada desert to Scorsese’s use of helicopter shots to the director’s first significant use of computer-generated imagery to resurrect the Las Vegas of the seventies and eighties to bring it to the screen. The costuming is extremely lavish thanks to the work of Rita Ryatt, with a rumoured $1m spent on DeNiro’s wardrobe.

Casino leans heavily into the cinematic language of the western. This is most obvious at two points in the film. In the first of these, Nicky arranges to meet Sam “a hundred yards down the road” from the casino itself, which translates to the middle of the desert. Scorsese shoots a lot of the scene in wide shot, contrasting Sam’s stylish wardrobe with the wilderness around him. When Nicky comes roaring down the road towards him, the car kicking up dust behind it, it feels very much like a stand-off from the climax of a western.

The two men confront one another in the middle of nowhere, the threat of violence is palpable. Casino as made so much of the fact that nobody is watching, but here it places both characters in a situation where there is nobody around for miles. “Normally, my prospects of coming’ back alive from a meeting’ with Nicky were ninety-nine out of a hundred,” Sam explains. “But this time, when I heard him say ‘a couple of hundred yards down the road’, I gave myself fifty-fifty.” It feels like a Sergio Leone climax, a moment of stillness that may give way to brutal violence.

Later on, when Sam fears that Ginger will bring Nicky down on him, he panics. He calls Billy Sherbert at the Tangiers and asks him for support. “You got a gun at home?” Sam asks. “Bring it over right away.” Billy and Sam wait in the house with a shotgun, expecting trouble to come raining down upon them. This is its own classic western image, a couple of men trying to protect the family homestead from outside attack – it just so happens that the homestead is in Las Vegas suburbia.

More than that, the basic dynamics of Casino are that of a western. The mobsters are literally expanding west, pushing the frontier towards the Pacific in organised crime’s take on manifest destiny. Indeed, Casino has something of a wry sense of humour about this, particularly in the attitudes of these gangsters to the local residents. They frequently insult and ridicule the Nevadans that they encounter, talking about them in the same dismissive tone that cowboys would have talked about indigenous people. “Is he another stupid white man?” sighs Sam of a troublesome employee.

“Without us they’d still be shovelling sh!t,” Sam explains of what the gangsters have brought to Nevada. Nicky immediately embraces the opportunities to exploit the natives, by effectively endebting most of the town’s low-level operators to him. One of the persistent myths of the American frontier is the idea that the European settlers brought “civilisation” with them, taming a lawless land. Casino builds on that, by making it much more explicit what the gangsters have brought: unchecked capitalism.

Casino explicitly parallels the lawless surroundings of Las Vegas with the popular memory of the wild west. It’s no surprise that Nicky calls the jewellery store from which his “desperados” operate “the Gold Rush.” Nicky ties this capitalistic impulse to one of discovery, “Ace saw Vegas one way, but I saw it another. I saw it as untouched.” The idea is that Las Vegas is a new world that can be fashioned into something unlike anything ever seen before. Free from the constraints “back home”, Nicky can build an entirely new world.

This is a recurring theme in Scorsese’s films, particularly relating to American identity. It is explicitly discussed in Age of Innocence, when the New Yorkers consider just how much of their new world customs have been inherited from the European upper classes, and how they’ve fallen into their own rigid social structures and rituals that reveal the “new world” is not so different from the “old world.” Indeed, Age of Innocence is somewhat underappreciated as a bridging film between Goodfellas and Casino.

After all, Scorsese’s films are often about outsiders. Crime films tend to focus on subcultures, often ethnic communities that have been marginalised by the mainstream. The portrayal of Italian Americans in The Godfather is perhaps the most obvious example. What’s interesting about Scorsese’s crime films is the emphasis that they place on the outsiders among these already putside groups. Goodfellas makes a big deal of the fact that Henry Hill is Irish, and so can never be made. Casino repeatedly emphasises Sam’s Jewishness, which makes him stand apart.

One of the abiding myths of American pop culture is the idea of the melting pot, the belief that what makes America great is countless people from countless backgrounds coming together to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Scorsese’s films are wary of this. At one point, Sam even receives a warning from Pat Webb, the County Commissioner, “Mr. Rothstein, your people never will understand the way it works out here. You’re all just our guests. But you act like you’re at home. Let me tell you something, partner. You ain’t home.”

Casino builds on that deconstruction of American mythology and identity by deconstructing the romantic fantasy of the west. Sam and Nicky imagine Las Vegas as a “morality car wash”, where everything is new and fresh. The only problem is that they themselves are not new or fresh. Inevitably, they create systems in their own image, with all their flaws and inadequacies baked into the design. Sam and Nicky can get away from the bosses “back home”, but they cannot escape themselves.

This is a recurring motif in the film. On the phone to Nicky, Ginger sighs of Sam, “He acts like I’m the only one around here with a f%$kin’ past.” Nobody in Casino can escape their past. Ginger cannot break free of her old pimp, Lester. The mob is able to reinvent Arizona real estate hustler Philip Green (“who barely had enough gas money to come and pick up his own f%$kin’ cheque”) as the manager of the casino, but everything is thrown into chaos when an old investor from his past shows up and attempts to sue him.

In the world of Casino, the vast American frontier is not really a blank slate. It cannot offer a new beginning, because none of its characters are able to escape from their own pasts. Instead, the characters in Casino are shaped and defined by the mistakes that they’ve made and by the flaws that they have, and bring those flaws with them to a virgin landscape. This lends Casino the feeling of a grand tragedy, while playing into those classic western tropes.

Indeed, the closing scenes of Casino bring that all full circle. One of the classic western story arcs is the idea of the redundancy of the cowboy, the sense in which the western outlaw was ultimately just a transitional figure who existed at a time of great change and who quickly faded into history. This theme is reflected in any number of western clichés, from the idea that there will be “no more guns in the valley” in Shane through to the inevitable march of the railroad in Once Upon a Time in the West, all heralding the end of the cowboy.

This renders the cowboy as a paradoxical figure. The cowboy is at once an embodiment of a structuring (“civilising”) influence in an untamed wilderness, but also an archetype that has no place in a more rigidly structured (“civilised”) world. It’s notable that the cowboy archetype arguably evolved into the broader criminal outlaw, and then into the gangster, all reflecting American culture’s fascination with rogues and renegades at the margins of civilised society. So there’s a clear evolutionary link from those stories like Shane and Once Upon a Time in the West to Casino.

This tragedy plays out at the end of Casino. Just as the cowboy is an instrument of western “civilisation” that inevitably gives way to the broader systems of western civilisation, the gangsters find themselves replaced. In Casino, it’s rendered explicit what “civilisation” means in this metaphor: unchecked capitalism. Much like the arrival of the railroad signals the end for the cowboy, the gangsters are run out of Las Vegas and replaced by “corporations” and “junk bonds.”

It’s a blisteringly cynical take, but Casino commits to it. One of the frequent criticisms of Casino is that Sam is a much less compelling or dynamic character than Henry Hill in Goodfellas, but this is a conscious choice. Sam is transparently a hollow man in a fancy suit. As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky explains of the film, “its signature point-of-view shot is of snorted cocaine from the perspective of the straw. And that’s Ace Rothstein in a nutshell: the straw for the film’s own addictions.” Sam is the straw through the forces of capitalism flow – a vacuum for money and power.

After all, as much as Sam might categorise Ginger as the love of his life, the film repeatedly stresses that the love is framed as transactional. “Ginger’s mission in life was money,” Sam explains. “In Vegas, for a girl like Ginger, love costs money.” When Sam proposes marriage to Ginger, she replies, “What are you pitching me?” Sam eventually buys Ginger’s hand in marriage by providing her with a safety deposit box with a million dollars worth of jewellery. Ginger explains to their daughter, “Daddy gave me all this jewelry because he loves me so much.”

This is grotesque, providing an interesting mirror to the relationship between Henry and Karen Hill in Goodfellas. In Goodfellas, it is suggested that Karen is attracted to Henry because of his violence and status. Casino pares back the fantasy of machismo to its essence, by explaining that the marriage between Sam and Ginger is based entirely on wealth. Meeting a friend for cocktails, using Sam’s surname to get a better seat, Ginger is told, “Well, you might as well get something out of it.”

Indeed, it’s notable that when Ginger runs away with Lester late in the film, Sam is more concerned about the theft of twenty-five thousand dollars than he is about the reality that his wife cheated on him with her former pimp. He obsesses over how the money was spent, and whether Lester has enough good taste to know the value of an expensive watch. It’s fascinating to watch this eat away at him, as if Sam is putting a cash value on his marriage.

Of course, there’s also a sense in which even Sam himself has put a veneer of respectability on what he is and what he does. The film takes great care to emphasise how carefully Sam maintains appearances, down to working without his pants on for fear of creasing them. Even as Sam is honest about the importance of money within his worldview and the worldview of the people with whom he works, Casino suggests that Sam allows himself some illusions.

After all, Casino repeatedly contrasts Sam’s cultured exterior with Nicky’s more physically aggressive approach. Both men are motivated by greed and desire – both are seduced both by Las Vegas and by Ginger. Casino seems to imply that the biggest difference between Nicky and Ace is simply honesty. “I’m what counts out here,” Nicky chides Sam at one point. “Not your f%$kin’ country clubs or your f%$kin’ TV shows!” He’s right. There’s a reason that Sam is afraid of Nicky, but Nicky never seems afraid of Sam. Nicky is at least honest about who he is and what he does.

Casino is undoubtedly a western, just as much as it is a religious parable or a gangster film. It is just more cynical in its application of the classic western tropes, understanding that the American myth of the frontier has always been a bright and romantic veneer painted over the gaping maw of unchecked avaricious desire. In Casino, everything comes down to money. Money is the primary motivation and the deciding factor.

Casino is a religious parable about a great American religion and a western that strips out a lot of the romance of the frontier. It’s all about capitalism.

One Response

  1. Not related to anything you posted, but the “Carmine’s out” conversation from this movie might be my favorite diplomatic dialogue in a movie ever.

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