Scorsese’s Forgotten Masterpiece, “Casino”

When Martin Scorsese released The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), many of the mostly-positive reviews made a point to compare the film to his earlier masterpiece, Goodfellas (1990). The comparison was apt, as the two films were certainly connected in the director’s mind. Scorsese has said that he wanted the entirety of Goodfellas to evoke the manic energy of the opening minutes of François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (1962), and The Wolf of Wall Street retains that energy, sometimes even dialing it up to 10 for its entire three-hour running time. The more recent film also shows how crime has evolved over the decades: where the crimes of Goodfellas were committed by a small group of men working on the streets, most of them coming from nothing, the crimes of The Wolf of Wall Street operated on a completely different level. Meetings of criminals moved from the backrooms of shady restaurants to well-lit board rooms, and the only street that mattered was Wall Street. The connections between the two films were mostly apt, except for one detail: referring to the most recent film as a spiritual sequel to Goodfellas elides the fact that the films are actually bookends of a trilogy on the evolution of organized crime. At the center of that trilogy is Casino (1995), Scorsese’s self-described sequel and forgotten masterpiece.

The embryonic stages of Casino began during the filming of Goodfellas, when co-writer Nicholas Pileggi learned about the downfall of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who served as the de facto manager of multiple Las Vegas casinos for organized crime out of Chicago. Although Rosenthal was in charge of these casinos for much of the 1970s, he was not actually licensed to do so. Rosenthal was pushed out of the casino business, and after a failed car bombing in the early 1980s, he left Vegas for good to focus on his earlier passion, sports betting (he was also formally banned from all Vegas casinos in 1987). Rosenthal’s story, as well as his tumultuous relationship with his wife, would serve as the basis for Scorsese and Pileggi’s screenplay.

The film opens on Sam “Ace” Rothstein, played by Robert De Niro, musing about love and trust. As he starts his car it explodes in flames (he survives as the result of a design irregularity and poor bomb placement). From there, the film retreats into his past, first as an influential gambler and bookmaker in Illinois, and then to Vegas where he manages a casino for a crime organization in Chicago. De Niro attends to the most minute details, like when he chastises a dealer for tossing chips rather than placing them on the table in a stack, or when he berates an incompetent floor manager for suboptimal slot machine placement. While De Niro makes sure that everything runs smoothly on the floor, envoys from Chicago drop by periodically to skim money from the earnings for their bosses. The Teamsters and crime organizations are the real owners of these casinos, although their names are never on the actual paperwork. The crime bosses also send Nicky Santoro (played by Joe Pesci) to Vegas to keep other criminals in line. Pesci is even more vicious here than in Goodfellas, although he maintains a smidgen of humanity through the love and devotion he shows his young son.

Back on the casino floor, De Niro spends his time trying to hunt out cheaters, but when he spies Ginger McKenna (played by Sharon Stone) stealing chips from a high roller, he doesn’t do anything to step in. He’s completely entranced by her smile and vivaciousness. Instead of throwing her out, he romances her, even as her allegiance is shared between him and her old pimp (James Woods). Despite her affections for De Niro, Woods remains her real love. Their parasitic relationship allows him to request money from her long after any kind of intimate relationship has ended. Money is also what simultaneously binds and repels De Niro and Stone. When it’s clear that she does not love him the same as he loves her, he buys her affections with more money and jewels than she has ever seen. It’s never enough.

Like Scorsese’s other films about organized crime, Casino depicts the moments of its character’s lives when they inevitably fuck up. All three characters seem to be catapulting toward their eventual destruction from the moment they are introduced. De Niro falls victim to hubris, calling himself the boss (despite his lack of license) and firing the incompetent son-in-law of an important regulatory figure. This leads to the state turning down his license request, forcing him to switch to less prestigious titles to run the casino. Pesci’s character becomes increasingly violent, and does little to hide the cheating he and his employees do at the casinos. He’s eventually blackballed from all of the Vegas casinos, forcing him to drive out to the desert to even meet anyone involved in the gambling business. With the loss of his casino revenue, Pesci resorts to robbing houses. Stone’s downfall is tied to her old pimp. When De Niro realizes she is still paying him, he confronts Woods and has him beaten up (by Pesci’s thugs). Stone falls into drug and alcohol addictions from which she will never recover, almost as a rebuke of De Niro’s actions. She and Pesci start sleeping together as a way to get back at De Niro for his perceived abandonment.

These people are living on the edge, and one by one they start to fall. People say things they shouldn’t in buildings rigged with the FBI’s recording equipment, and the real owners of the Vegas casinos are exposed. They set about trying to eliminate every person considered to be a liability; De Niro survives by chance, but others are not so lucky. Ultimately, Vegas is transformed into the corporatized playland we’re now familiar with. One of Scorsese’s final shots is a hilarious and cutting herd of senior citizens with canes and track suits walking through the doors of the casino. Las Vegas has been remade for them, and De Niro and Pesci have no place in it anymore.

On the surface, Casino shares many of the same stylistic traits that defined Goodfellas. The constantly moving camera is back; nearly every shot gives the impression of swooping in from a safe distance to a get a better impression of the depravity of the casino. The omnipresent voice over is back again, this time supplied by De Niro. Scorsese and Pileggi had originally intended to use a much smaller portion of voice over, but found during post-production that the technical aspects of the casino operations required more explanation. Fortunately, the voice over allows De Niro’s relatively introverted character to open up even when he’s just standing stone-faced, staring out at the faceless people playing slot machines. The film also takes more liberties with the narration than Goodfellas did. Here, Joe Pesci’s character also joins the narration, somewhat like Lorraine Bracco’s character did in Goodfellas, but instead of simply narrating scenes that De Niro isn’t present for, his narration contradicts De Niro’s, or offers differing opinions on shared experiences. During the more heated exchanges toward the end of the film, De Niro and Pesci trade barbs more in their narration than through their dialogue.

Despite the similarities to Goodfellas, Casino eventually allows the narrative to slow down and actually breathe. The earlier film’s two-and-a-half hour running time was expanded to three hours, and the extra half hour makes a great difference. Once again, Scorsese’s film is about greed and the downfall of those under its spell; if the film had tried to retain the frenetic pace of Goodfellas, De Niro’s failures or Stone’s escalating addiction would move by so quickly that they would seem more like comedy than tragedy. This is telegraphed from the film’s opening credits, designed by Elaine and Saul Bass. The titles follow a short opening scene of De Niro being blown up by a failed car bombing. His body flies through flames in slow motion (a descent into Hell), and the flames are replaced with abstract images of glowing neon, all scored to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The titles, the last sequence that Bass ever designed, are among his most beautiful and effective. The visuals and music suggest that De Niro’s character will suffer great pain and loss, and the rest of the film delivers just that.

De Niro’s presence in this film is also a departure from Ray Liotta’s lead character in Goodfellas. It was always clear that Liotta was playing a psychopath, so even as the audience might laugh at his exploits, it was impossible to develop any real warmth toward him. De Niro, while content to live amongst crime, has actual aspirations for something more legitimate. He moves from Illinois, where gambling is illegal, to Vegas, where it is very much legal, a move that legitimizes his whole profession (even if the way his casinos are run is completely outside the law). He falls in love with Stone’s character, a former prostitute, and hopes for a happy life with her and their children. De Niro muses on love in the film’s opening sequence narration: “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? For a while, I believed that’s the kind of love I had.” That kind of love and trust would have been completely alien in Goodfellas, where we only understood the relationship between Liotta and Bracco as being mutually beneficial. A man with no empathy for others could never truly feel love, and nothing in Goodfellas comes close to love, but in Casino it is the key to understanding De Niro’s downfall. His own hubris and the greed of his superiors threaten his position, but his misplaced trust and affection for Stone are truly the keys to his downfall.

Even Scorsese’s wall-to-wall plastering of popular music is somewhat different from the earlier film. Where most of the music in Goodfellas was used ironically to distance us, here Scorsese is willing to use it in more traditional ways that give the audience a greater connection to the characters. Robbie Robertson of The Band assisted Scorsese in selecting the music and is responsible for suggesting the film’s most affecting musical cue, Georges Delerue’s Camille theme from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (Scorsese’s favorite Godard film). The cue is heard multiple times throughout the film, at times mimicking its original use in Contempt, scoring scenes of marital bliss and marital strife with no distinction. But Scorsese also uses the cue to evoke the loss of the Vegas that De Niro knows and loves. Devo’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is used repeatedly in the film’s final half hour to score the crumbling of their desert empire. These people will never be satisfied.

So why has Casino failed to enter the culture the same way that Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street have? Part of the reason seems to be simple timing. Casino appeared about five years after Goodfellas, and many of the early film’s innovations were still fresh in the minds of viewers. Audiences and critics saw the similarities in style, but few remarked upon its divergences. Viewers may have also been getting tired of the film’s lead actors; it was the third pairing of De Niro and Pesci, and Casino ended up being De Niro’s last feature role for Scorsese to date (the two have still considered many collaborations that haven’t panned out, and De Niro was even sought out for The Departed before scheduling conflicts scuttled the chance). The man was simply a different actor than he had been during the time of Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. De Niro had been on top of the world during that era, but the ‘80 and ‘90s had given him roles in lesser films that tarnished his image. The De Niro of 1995 simply wasn’t setting the world afire with his performances, even if his work with Scorsese remained top notch.

Casino also pushed the limits of audience members’ tolerance for violence. . The most shocking murder from Goodfellas, in which a man is stabbed to death in a bar, has a similar counterpart in the opening minutes of Casino, in which a man is stabbed in the neck with his own pen (both acts are committed by Pesci). The violence escalates when a man’s head is put into a vise, and the film’s final act of violence in a cornfield is nearly unwatchable. As with all Scorsese films, the violence is never just for shock value. Scorsese has spoken about the impact of organized crime on the neighborhood he grew up in, and how his father had to pay mobsters his whole life for “protection.” When the vise tightens, he wants the audience to know that this is the kind of violence mobsters are capable of, something he is personally familiar with. The violence also serves as a corrective to Goodfellas, or at least a corrective to how much of the audience viewed it. Goodfellas is undeniably funny, but not at all a comedy, and it can be distressing to hear audiences laughing at the violence inflicted in it. Casino doesn’t make that mistake, and there’s no way for the audience to mistake its violence as anything but frightening and inhumane. Scorsese’s attempt to make his violence flat and unstylized works, and there’s nothing romantic about it. Unfortunately, that isn’t quite as fun as what Goodfellas offered, and audiences may have been turned off. Even the title might be to blame for the film’s legacy. Casino is about as bland as it comes, and much less imaginative filmmakers making a movie that had anything to do with Las Vegas might have chosen the same title.

Scorsese’s career is filled with films that never got their due upon release but have been reevaluated in recent years (see The King of Comedy and After Hours). Casino deserves the same reevaluation, but it seems unlikely to get it. The Wolf of Wall Street’s three hour running time was ameliorated by the constant humor and manic energy, both of which are less present in Casino. And the stock of some of its lead actors has dived in recent years. Sharon Stone still works regularly, but has somewhat puzzlingly disappeared from most mainstream cinema. And Joe Pesci has made only a handful of films since Goodfellas, only one of which can be said to be any good. But De Niro seems to be experiencing a career renaissance thanks to his work with David O. Russell, so perhaps younger viewers looking to explore his filmography will make their way to Casino, once they’ve finished Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas. Scorsese and De Niro had one of the greatest acting partnerships in history, and Casino serves as an appropriate swan song for that partnership.

Maybe a more positive interpretation would be that the relative obscurity that has cloaked Casino hasn’t negatively affected Scorsese’s subsequent films. His films of the ‘90s and the new century have shown his constant desire to experiment and challenge himself. And like Casino, Scorsese has shown that he can still make long, ambitious films that perform well at the box office. But it would still be nice to see Casino finally get the appreciation it deserves.  It should be seen as the troubled middle child of his gangster trilogy, rather than just an orphan.

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