Casino

Directed by Martin Scorsese

 

Appropriating what Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland, in Las Vegas there is no there THERE. No port for import and export commerce, no town square or neighborhoods that naturally evolved. It is a completely manufactured place and "Casino" illustrates how and why it continued to evolve as it was originally devised in the last 30 odd years. "Casino" is a gigantic, downright operatic portrait of Vegas and will not be as appreciated on video as it is on the big screen. Shot in Super 35mm, it’s a huge, in-your-face canvas of the inner workings of the casino’s in Vegas when they were subsidized by Teamster money. An era long gone when the dealers knew your name, what you drank and what your games were. Similar to how "GoodFellas" was a guided tour of how one becomes a member of the mob, "Casino" is a guided tour of the hell of Vegas where you’re shown a world of gesture and nuance, allegiance and hegemony, protocol and etiquette that has been swept away by time, Mafia negligence and corporate money, and describes in painstaking detail just how the casinos operated, and how money, LOTS of money, was "skimmed" off the top and laundered in a mom and pop store in Kansas City on a weekly basis.

A lot of complaints about the film concern it’s length (2 hours and 45 minutes) but that is to underestimate the scope that Martin Scorsese is working with. If this film is too long, than so are the Godfather films. Any fan of films about the Mafia inherently understands that the level of evil associated with the mob is not something that can be cut and trimmed to fit into nice packages. The themes here are guilt vs. evil, and each of the seven deadly sins are investigated and accounted for. If it takes a while to unravel the consequences of these actions in all their repercussive scope, than so be it. My second viewing revealed a substantial amount that I missed the first time, as I’m sure subsequent viewings will as well (also, like GoodFellas).

This is not simply a story of greed and debauchery, but the comptrollers guided tour of hell, as Yves put it. The character of Sam "Ace" Rothstein (Robert De Niro, looking like Lyle Lovett after a bad gig) goes to elaborate lengths in order to let the viewer know how much a casino owner, any casino owner, must be hypersensitive to EVERY SINGLE DETAIL that occurs in his building, because people are constantly using whatever ingenious methods they can to try and break the bank, especially since the raison d’Ítre of a casino is not to let someone win, but to simply keep them playing. This is also Scorsese’s public service warning to the middle class who have developed quite a fawning relationship with the place since the mob moved out in the early 80s and the corporations stepped in. Although the narrative techniques are very similar to GoodFellas, and, yes, it could be considered "GoodFellas Goes To Vegas," the protagonist’s character of Ray Liotta in that film (who really was able to practically glamorize the mob) is nowhere to be found in Casino. In fact, there is no single protagonist at all in this film, just the counterpoint of Ace and Nicky (Joe Pesci) and the friendship and feuds they are drawn into because of the nature of their respective businesses. (In fact, towards the end of the film a third voice-over is introduced and utilized in a very key scene in order to underline the fact that at any given time only one person can hold ALL the cards.) The narrative voice-over is shared by both Ace and Nicky, and the movie seems like it’s been playing for about a full hour until you start to realize the voice-over isn’t there any more. Not only is a ton of information being thrown at the viewer in order to echo the relentless amount of details the casino owner had to keep track of, but it underlines the narrative distance, therefore creating a spiritual railing. In the very first scene, Ace says, "we had it all, and we fucked it up BIG TIME." And the whole rest of the film is almost like a beautiful parabolic arc spanning the destruction from within of the Tangiers hotel.

Sharon Stone as Ginger gets her chance to be a stunning screen presence for only about half an hour before she has to really act, and when she does, she proves that she really can act. Playing off De Niro there’s no way of slacking, and her portrayal as De Niro’s jewel, then wife, then grossly negligent mother is excellent. She should get an acting nomination for her portrayal and will most likely win as well. (See the sidebar article Heaven or Las Vegas? for a more fully realized discussion of her role.)

The use of the soundtrack in Casino is practically a textbook case of how to use it effectively to introduce and define characters. A cross between KIXI’s greatest hits (to remind you that you’re in Vegas) and old blues standards (to ground you in the "back home" scenes in Chicago), the film uses songs to outline the story much like George Lucas used songs to advance the narrative in his 1973 film American Graffiti. Since Scorsese doesn’t use a composer for his films, his knowledge of the jukebox must be (and obviously is) encyclopedic. One of the finest touches in the film is the way he dog-ears the Rolling Stones with Lefty’s character as a parallel with the "new," imported blues edging it’s way into the indigenous blues era the film initially identifies the genre with. Out of DOZENS of songs on the soundtrack, the only song Scorsese uses in its entirety is the Stones song "Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?" When the opening riff is heard, Joe Pesci’s character has just been 86ed from all the Casino’s in Vegas. He has his name in the little black book next to Al Capone’s. Over the course of the next seven minutes of the song (Can’t you hear me knockin’ trying to get back into Vegas?) Scorsese shows how Nicky gradually was able to reinstate his stature and not only get back into Vegas on his own terms, but to supersede his buddy Ace. It’s an absolutely stunning sequence that is perfectly timed and edited with the rhythms of the song. Thelma Schoonmaker (also the editor of GoodFellas, who lost the Oscar that year to Neil Travis’ work in Dances With Wolves) should get the Oscar for it this year. In fact, I really think this might be Marty’s year. For a man who has been unjustly ignored longer than Speilberg, this film just might sweep this year. Casino will probably be head to head with Carrington in every major category: Best Picture, Director, Best Actor (De Niro AND Pesci), Actress (Stone), Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction and Set Direction. Speaking of the decor of the film, apparently there are 52 costume changes for De Niro and 40 for Pesci, which is not to even mention the ties! Stone’s wardrobe is pretty intense, too.

Don Rickles and Alan King are fine in supporting roles, if you can call them that. They’re only cast, as are quite a number of the mob guys, for the way they look and carry themselves. These are guys you simply don’t see anymore, relics of another era gone to that great prime rib steakhouse in the sky.

I don’t want to say any more because this film is a visual feast that needs to be experienced, as if we’ve come to expect anything but the best from Scorsese.

The non-fiction book the film was based on, also called Casino by Nicholas Pileggi, has been released simultaneously and is in hardback. The original names of the actual people are used in the book, whereas they have been altered for the film. Trying to keep one step ahead of the lawyers.