Director Martin Scorsese’s collaboration with author Nicholas Pileggi on GOODFELLAS (1990) led to arguably the biggest success of either man’s careers. Their shared affinity and thorough knowledge of Italian American culture as focused through the prism of organized crime created one of the best films of the 1990’s. So when Scorsese heard that Pileggi was sniffing around a story on the golden heyday of Las Vegas and the mafiosos who ran it, a second collaboration seemed inevitable. The project was inspired by a newspaper article about a car bombing that nearly claimed the life of Stardust Casino boss Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal— an event which was only the latest salvo in a long-standing war between the organized crime families that ran Las Vegas. Before Pileggi could finish his non-fiction book on the subject, Scorsese already had him collaborating on a screenplay that would serve as something of a spiritual sequel to GOODFELLAS. While CASINO isn’t quite the runaway success that GOODFELLAS was, it nevertheless stands apart as its own triumph and ranks amongst Scorsese’s very best work.
CASINO depicts the freewheeling golden days of Las Vegas, circa 1973-1983—before the corporations took over the Strip and turned it into a family-friendly Disneyland in the desert. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) runs the fictional Tangiers casino (realized in the film via The Riviera) like a mayor runs a town, overseeing all aspects and making himself highly visible and available to his employees. Bequeathed this post by his mob associates back home in Chicago, Ace finds he has a real knack for the business, and CASINO follows his meteoric rise in a culture defined by excess and pleasure. Despite all his wealth and the ability to buy anything he’s ever wanted, there’s one thing he just can’t seem to have—love. He marries blond bombshell Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) knowing full well she doesn’t love him, but that doesn’t stop him from hoping she might one day grow to love him back. Unfortunately for him, Ginger only cares about herself, her jewels, and her money. As Ace’s American Dream turns into disillusionment, his ties with the Powers That Be back home sours as his relationship to their local figurehead, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) begins to fray against a barrage of deceit and treachery. As Ace struggles with the realization that his golden days are behind him, he finds that not only is his ownership of the Tangiers on the line– so is his life.
Scorsese and De Niro had come up together through the decades, forming a mutually beneficial symbiosis that propelled both men to the forefront of their craft. As of this writing, CASINO would serve as their last collaboration together, and while De Niro’s performance as “Ace” Rothstein might not match the iconic status of Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, he nonetheless hits it out of the park as a ruthlessly determined and savvy casino boss. His low-key, non-flashy personality is offset by a flamboyant sense of style, and his Jewish nature sets him apart from the Mafioso types that surround him. Sharon Stone was nominated for an Academy Award for her unhinged performance as Ace’s wife, Ginger— a woman who initially strikes us as glamorous and confidently rebellious, but grows increasingly more manipulative and vindictive as the years pass. Joe Pesci, in his third and final collaboration with Scorsese, plays the unpredictably explosive east coast transplant Nicky Santoro. Despite playing a character archetype quite similar to his role in GOODFELLAS, Pesci turns Nicky Santoro into an altogether different animal—a loose cannon with a pinpoint laser focus.
CASINO’s supporting cast is an inspired mix of eclectic actors and actresses, led by James Woods as the gloriously sleazy Lester Diamond, a smalltime pimp and Ginger’s longtime love interest. Woods effortlessly affects a low-class sleaze and poor taste that conveys how broke he truly is. Comedian Don Rickles plays Billy Sherbet, the affable Tangiers floor manager and Ace’s right hand man. Scorsese stalwart Frank Vincent plays Frank Marino, a lackey of Pesci’s who betrays him quite brutally in the film’s denouement. Finally, there’s Scorsese mother Catherine in the latest of a long string of cameos, playing a mother to a mob boss operating a Kansas grocery store. Her comedic chops are on full display, hilariously prickling at her son’s constant profanity and verbal tirades like only a strong, no-bullshit Italian mother can.
CASINO’s visual style can be summed up in one word: excess. Scorsese takes the kinetic, roaring style he established in GOODFELLAS and amps it into overdrive. Every aspect of the film– the camerawork, the music, the lighting, the voiceover narration featuring multiple perspectives, even the costumes– are taken to their outermost limits (the costume budget alone was reportedly one million dollars). Scorsese’s regular cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus was unavailable to work on CASINO, so instead the director turned to first-time collaborator, Robert Richardson, who Scorsese had previously known for his work shooting the films of Oliver Stone (a student of Scorsese’s from his side gig teaching film at New York University). Richardson has since gone on to lens several further Scorsese works and become a regular collaborator akin to Ballhaus, a fact that’s evidenced by the strong work on display in CASINO. Shooting on Super35mm film and once again in the 2.35:1 anamorphic aspect ratio, Scorsese and Richardson render the world of Las Vegas in lurid, glowing neon and gaudy, twinkling lights. Like GOODFELLAS before it, Scorsese utilizes dynamic, virtuoso camerawork to give his story a screaming pace and slick sense of motion. By this point, Scorsese has distilled his style into an eclectic mix of crane shots, steadicam moves, whip-pans, canted angles, freeze frames, speed ramps, iris shots, split-focus diopter compositions, and his signature “scream-in” technique (in addition to the new usage of grandiose helicopter-mounted shots). CASINO is less of a film with linear scenes conveying plot than it is one long montage encompassing a decade of high times and bad behavior, and regular editor Thelma Schoonmaker expertly puts every little piece in just the right place, making sense out of what must’ve been an incomprehensible jumble of dailies and fashioning it into the definitive Las Vegas film. Iconic titles designer Saul Bass also returns, creating an unforgettable opening credits sequence that alludes to Ace’s narrative arc as a swift free fall into the fiery depths of hell.
With CASINO, Scorsese’s career-long habit of peppering the soundtracks to his films with preexisting rock, blues, and jukebox hits is dialed up to an unprecedented degree. The aforementioned excessive style that Scorsese is after translates to a nonstop string of wall-to-wall music. While some might this call this indulgent, it’s a choice that fits right in line with the world he’s depicting onscreen. Because he has to cover a decade’s worth of story in just under three hours, Scorsese adopts the conventions of montage and applies them on a macro scale. The constant, ADD-style switchover to various rock, blues, jazz, country, and even operatic classical tracks communicates the passage of time as well as the characters’ dizzying, fast-paced lifestyle quite efficiently. The Animals’ “House Of The Rising Sun” is emphasized quite heavily in the narrative as a musical allegory for the dangers of a life lived in vice, but Scorsese also channels the spirit and character of Las Vegas itself through the use of tracks from Frank Sinatra and other members of The Rat Pack. And of course, a Scorsese film wouldn’t be complete without an appearance by The Rolling Stones, and several of their tracks make it into CASINO—including “Gimme Shelter”, which had previously been used in GOODFELLAS and has become something of a theme song for Scorsese’s work itself.
Like GOODFELLAS before it, CASINO is seen as one of Scorsese’s most archetypically “Scorsese” films. This is thanks to the narrative’s “rise and fall” format, which in the context of Scorsese’s body of work takes the form of Italian-American lowlifes and hoods as the protagonists, trying to achieve a materialistic version of The American Dream through illicit criminal means. While they succeed for a while, they are forced to watch their hard work implode around them in a frenzied fit of chaotic violence, domestic treachery, and legal consequences. When it comes to the depiction of essential components of this lifestyle—excessive profanity, nudity and violence—Scorsese doesn’t shy away from their hard R-rated portrayal, yet he doesn’t sensationalize it either. To these characters, delivering a lead slug to the back of some schmuck’s skull is as everyday and routine as fetching the paper or making a pot of coffee. Some of Scorsese’s other identifiable tropes– like the archetype of the blonde bombshell/femme fatale– are exaggerated to an over-the-top degree, while others—Roman Catholic imagery and dogma—are relegated to mere cameo appearances. If GOODFELLAS was the height of what might be considered a “Scorsese” movie, then CASINO’s highly exaggerated, almost-absurd appropriation of that same aesthetic could be considered a parody (despite its pitch-black seriousness).
This sense of indulgence on all fronts might be why CASINO isn’t held in the same regard as its sister film GOODFELLAS, but it doesn’t make it any less important to Scorsese’s body of work. Much like TAXI DRIVER is a document of the seedy decay of Times Square before Giuliani turned it into a corporate tourist trap, so to does CASINO preserve the character of a Las Vegas that no longer exists—a haven for sin and vice that was paved over to make way for one big family-friendly amusement park. CASINO ends with the demolition of several of Old Las Vegas’ most iconic landmarks, marking the end of an era. In some ways, it was also the end of an era for Scorsese himself: CASINO would serve (as of this writing) as the director and De Niro’s last collaboration together—a collaboration that lasted nearly thirty years and gave us eight unforgettable performances that would define both men’s careers. Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Jimmy Conway, Max Cady, and Ace Rothstein loom large in the collective cinematic psyche, each one a testament to the extraordinary relationship between director and actor.
While Scorsese has tried to recapture that magic in recent days with Leonardo DiCaprio and found success, their collaboration will always pale in comparison to his works with De Niro. Both men are still alive and still actively working, and as such could easily get together once again and give us yet another iconic character, but perhaps it’s best that they stopped here with CASINO. Filmmaking, like gambling, is a game of both skill and chance—a triumphant outcome is never guaranteed, no matter how good you are at counting cards or framing up shots. With CASINO, Scorsese and De Niro had come out ahead with a jackpot of creative fortune, and now perhaps the time had come to triumphantly cash out.
CASINO is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.
Produced by: Barbara De Fina
Written by: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi
Director of Photography: Robert Richardson
Production Designer: Dante Ferretti
Edited by: Thelma Schoonmaker
Titles: Saul Bass