Holy Hell! Casino Turns 20

Holy Hell! Casino Turns 20

Casino is brilliant not because it’s unique in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre, but because it’s familiar.

Search for “Goodfellas” on the Rotten Tomatoes page for Casino to see just how poorly the latter was received, even among those who liked it. Like its more celebrated predecessor, Casino is a three-hour film that stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci as mobsters, opens in media res, features cocky and increasingly paranoid voiceovers and dazzles with the kind of frenetic camerawork that has come to define Martin Scorsese. Unfortunately for Casino, Goodfellas was a revelation, and its reputation as perhaps the best American film of the ‘90s has only grown. What separates Casino from all the other Goodfellas clones is that at least Scorsese is cloning himself. As years of reevaluation have shown, that’s not a bad thing.

Casino had its champions upon its initial release, and time has been kind to it. Scorsese has been even kinder. His most recent film was a long and stylish showcase for the director’s new muse, starring as a man obsessed with power and wealth. Like its gangster prototypes, The Wolf of Wall Street was controversial, seeming to endorse its wretched real-life protagonists and accused of being Goodfellas 3. Whether or not it was any good, hadn’t we seen this before? But the director’s most recent film makes it easier to appreciate the nuances of the overlooked middle installment in Scorsese’s American Dream trilogy.

The trilogy began with Goodfellas, a film about floor-level employees putting their lives on the line so they can have a table held for them. Its characters are the puppets of unseen, powerful forces. The Wolf of Wall Street is its opposite: the man at the top turns everyone into his puppet so he can reap the benefits. He was ignored by the law because Jordon Belfort, unlike Henry Hill, knows what kind of crime attracts attention.
Casino is in the middle, a view from the front rather than the floor or the top, about a goodfella posing as a wolf – not of Wall Street, but of a casino. The movie is about the futility of even the luckiest of gangsters, and the hypocrisy that pervades their lifestyle. These men live by a code that’s not unlike the code of law. Casino is a vital bridge between what is arguably Scorsese’s most recognizable film and his most recent one. The resonances make all three films better.

Casino focuses on mob associate Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro), a former sports handicapper hired to oversee the everyday operations of the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas, where the economy is stripped to its most basic transaction: the physical exchange of money. Ace and caporegime Nicky (Pesci) rise and fall in business and in love (with Sharon Stone, in a film-stealing performance), paranoia and emasculation leads to betrayals, double-crosses and violence. Far from groundbreaking, the movie recalls both Mean Streets and Goodfellas. But a Scorsese film is more about the “how” than the “what,” and a new perspective further develops the director’s key themes of masculinity, power, paranoia and the relationships among them.

Perspective itself is a key point of the film, which is littered with subjective voiceovers (and not just by Ace) and uses camera placement and montage to emphasize the limits of knowledge and importance of place and power in discerning information. Close-ups of poker hands, slot machines and surveillance footage frequently accompany voiceovers, and even shot/reverse-shot conversations take place behind desks or on an axis that emphasizes power relationships.

Nicky informs us early that “the bottom line is money,” and Ace tries to buy Ginger’s (Sharon Stone) love with a few million dollars in cash and jewelry. But Casino offers a perspective unique among the three films, as the mob lifestyle almost becomes a sideshow, the focus turning on Ace’s personal life to an extent that Goodfellas doesn’t. Stone gives the best performance in the film as a drug-using mother and hysteric—at least that’s how Ace sees her. But the film’s highly subjective points-of-view mean that everything we learn about her is filtered through the lens of a mobster who tries to fix his private life the way he fixes his business. Hill had a wife and a mistress because he felt he could get away with it; Belfort left his wife, the film’s moral compass, for a trophy; Ginger seems like a monster to Ace, but she stubbornly refuses to play the part. Every grimace, scream and remark spoken through Stone is a desperate cry for sympathy, a constant reminder of our limited perspective.

In Wolf, the more you buy, the more you lose. The way Ace sees it, “the longer they stay, the more they lose,” a self-fulfilling prophecy as winners are always spotted and shaken down. It’s just one of the codes that govern character actions and relationships. While violence breaks out spontaneously in Goodfellas, the violence in Casino comes about because somebody higher up the food-chain (Nicky) orders it. Rules and codes don’t need to be constantly restated because they are simply assumed. Nobody gets jumped for telling someone to go home to get their shine box because nobody with the kind of power of Casino’s characters would step so far out of line as to even ask. As with the law, there is a strict chain-of-command, and, as we see, nepotism and corruption are equally prevalent in both. When something rubs Ace the wrong way, he keeps his hands clean by asking a lackey to do his bidding.

It’s all in vain. Ace ends up back where he started, unable to buy love, reminded that he’s still just one a criminal, a tool used by powerful men above him to make money. He may not live the rest of his life as a schnook like Hill does, but unlike Belfort, he will never make it to the top again.

Casino is brilliant not because it’s unique in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but because it’s familiar. It fine-tunes a particular type of Scorsese film and shifts emphasis from mob life to home life, from the man on the floor to the man on the front, and uncovers patterns and variations across these different permutations. Seen 20 years later, with the director’s career trajectory and influence in better focus, Casino looks like a crucial turning point when a master proved that sticking to an established brand can generate results as thrilling as something new. It’s easy to get lost in the surface of a Scorsese film—in the great performances, the swooping camera, controlled tracking shots and cocky dialogue, but Casino reminds us what we get when we dig a little deeper into both the film and the filmmaker.

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