Casino (1995) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone
It’s hard to believe the mixed reception “Casino” received when it was released in 1995. In fact, it’s hard to believe that I didn’t even like the film when I first saw it. But in 13 years it’s grown up to be a masterpiece and one of his most entertaining films.
“Casino” tells the story of Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and his coterie of gangsters who take over Las Vegas in hopes of sucking the city dry of its cash cow industry. Rothstein, a career gambler, and manager of the Tangiers Casino is a cog in this grand decade-long scheme, whose strings are pulled by the Midwest Mafia families. Rothstein’s a streetwise Casino-expert who can separate his business from his pleasure, but when he becomes enraptured with an equally cunning hooker/socialite Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), it marks the beginning of the end for his empire.
Scorsese freely admits “Casino” was meant to be an unofficial sequel to “Goodfellas”. The subject matter and gangster milieu is the same, he casts many of the same actors in similar roles, and he uses the same cinema-language to tell both stories. In fact, my criticism of the film in 1995 was that it was too much like “Goodfellas”. Pesci’s Nicki Santoro is essentially the same loose cannon character as Tommy De Vito; and then there’s the voiceover, which in “Goodfellas” got turned off after the character introductions to let the plot takeover, but in “Casino” voiceover drives the film, which was off-putting.
But over the years, all of these initial criticisms dissipated and the film now seems like a natural, organic piece of brilliance. This is a good example of why I wish more critics would re-review older films when their opinions change.
What makes “Casino” perhaps Scorsese’s most ‘entertaining film’ is the humour. It’s arguably Marty’s funniest film. “Goodfellas”, “King of Comedy”, “After Hours” have moments of absurdist comedy, but “Casino” keeps a comedic tone consistent throughout. For example, Joe Pesci’s opening voiceover describing the numerous ‘holes in the desert’ used to ‘dispose’ of the city’s problems. Pesci takes us on one of many digressions when he humorously describes the logistics of wacking someone in the desert. James Woods’s pathetic pimp who conspires with Ginger to rob Rothstein blind is a great addition to the cast.
There are many digressions in the film, which explains its three-hour running time. It’s an intimidating length, but Scorsese and his usual editor Thelma Schoonmacher create such a blistering pace from the outset, it breezes by without pause. In fact, with the amount of voiceover, much of the film is told in montage – showing us pieces or fragments of scenes to condense time and advance the story. It serves the purpose of reinforcing the main theme of the film – excess.
“Casino” is about the grand age of Las Vegas excess, a time when it really was “sin city”. Money, whores, drugs, gangsters etc etc. Robert Richardson’s neon-drenched wide-angle photography is gorgeous and he employs virtually every camera-gimmick in the book to create a stylistic Vegas-worthy film. Scorsese’s costume and art department run wild as well playing up the tackiness of the period. One of the ongoing gags is Rothstein’s immaculately-tailored pastel suits, which in every scene becomes more ridiculous and over-the-top. In fact my favourite De Niro scene is when LQ Jones’ character visits him at his office. When his secretary calls him, De Niro stands up from behind his desk, revealing he’s wearing a freshly pressed powder blue shirt and no pants. He proceeds to calmly grab a pair of pants from his closet and put them on before Jones enters. It’s priceless moment of deadpan humour.
The bravura moments are two standout scenes of raw cinema-energy between De Niro and Pesci. First is Nicki’s argument with Sam in his living room after Nicki tries to strong arm one of his bankers. It’s a tit-for-tat onslaught of verbal fireworks. The second confrontation is even grander, when the two meet in the middle of the desert for another round of verbal carnage. The ‘fucks’ are thrown around like adverbs.
It’s fun to watch “Casino” and then watch PT Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” back-to-back. The similarities in style, look, humour and theme are uncanny. We all know Anderson is not afraid to hide his influences, and of all his movies his devotion to “Casino” is most in your face. He seemed to find the masterpiece in “Casino” before anyone else did. Enjoy.
Here’s the desert conversation to marvel at: