Casino is one of Martin Scorsese’s generally underrated films. Thing is, when you have such a vast and praised filmography like Scorsese’s even a long, gritty, and gripping epic like Casino can be dismissed as ‘minor’ in comparison to the likes of Goodfellas, or Raging Bull. However, I really like Casino. There’s something about the allure of gambling films that’s entirely unique. The risk, the seedy underground nature of it all, and the heavily ironic opulent atmosphere. We rationalize casinos as classy places, an excuse to wear a suit or look smart. The irony lies in the hookers, the shady business deals, fraud, the presence of hired muscle and drug-filled pockets. Casino captures that to a tee. It’s textured and glitzy, and you know from the very beginning it’ll all fall down, just not how or why.
Casino is a fairly long film at 2:52:00 or so, so I won’t bore you with my traditional narrative synopsis, i’ll just briefly summarize it for you folks. Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert Deniro) is a sports handicapper and a mob associate who is put in charge of a Casino known as the Tangiers. He doesn’t have a gaming license, nor does he care as he simply changes his job title and simply runs the casino from afar. Things become seedy as his childhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) moves to Vegas and begins to hustle the very casino Sam works at. Nicky receives a gaming ban, and as a result begins to cement himself as an underworld power in Las Vegas. In addition, Sam’s wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) soon begins to change from the glamorous siren she once was, into a lying and cheating coke addict, as she threatens to drive a wedge between Sam and Nicky’s already strained relationship. Things end messily.
Casino is a strange formula for a film. It acts and for all intensive purposes is an epic, a long narrative told by multiple points of view that spans a relatively large time period. But in many ways it isn’t. In epics, specifically in Scorcese’s you start with a rise to power before the struggle to maintain it. But in the opening minutes of the film Sam Rothstein gains control of the Casino, and his power is made evident pretty much then throughout the entire film. Also of note is Sam’s car exploding at the beginning, and the flashback to current events. I didn’t really see the point in this choice retrospectively? I’m not quite sure what it adds to the film, it seems mostly unneeded. However, it is very much epic in it’s ‘fall’. Much like Greek tragedies and very traditional storytelling Casino details the fall of our three protagonists in great agonizing detail. Nick Santoro is buried in the desert, still breathing along with his brother. Ginger dies of an overdose. Sam’s empire is mostly collapsed with the Tangiers casino being knocked down.
Although, while I did say it was fundamentally different a series of remarkable similarities can be drawn between Casino, and Scorsese’s other films. In particular, in it’s story-line structure it bares a likeness to Gangs of New York, and Raging Bull. All three of these films take place within a particular turbulent time, and inevitably build up to the end of that period. Raging Bull depicts a boxers career wind down to crushing defeat, Gangs of New York documents the military ending a time of revelry and gang warfare. While Casino depicts the end of mob dealings and influence in the casinos, as Ace’s long uninterrupted prologue at the end tells us:
The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior’s college money on the poker slots. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s like checkin’ into an airport – Sam Rothstein
Scorcese depicts the turbulence, the violence, the warfare, ending on a period of calm as order is restored. Quite honestly it’s because audiences like chaos, we don’t wanna see the order. We’re glued to insane and dominant figures like Nick Santoro, Jake Lamotta, Bill the Butcher. The reason why these situations and characters seem so real and vibrant is primarily because they are, ripped from the pages of history.
Casino is also very notable for his use of minor or supporting characters. It stars James Woods as the lurid and despicable Lester Diamond, the man who constantly uses Sam’s wife Ginger. He’s important because he really helps clarify the character of Sam. Sam deals with Lester by sending men, having him beaten to a bloody pulp outside in front of his wife. He is of power, thinks of himself as a man of standing and wouldn’t get his hands dirty with Lester. If it was Nick Santoro in this situation, he might have stabbed Lester several times in the jugular with a fountain pen, which happened in earlier scenes. Lester functions as a narrative trigger, to cause the tension between Sam and Ginger, which in turn leads to the tragic downfall of all three of our characters. In addition it stars long-term collaborator Frank Vincent as Frankie Marino. Frankie is primarily Nick’s second banana, his right-hand man, his extra muscle. He betrays Nick, and beats him and his brother to a bloody pulp with a baseball bat. This could have been anyone, but to see this character who was always by Nick’s side do it, added surprise and shock to an otherwise inevitable end. I also liked the irony that Nicky always talked about burying people in the desert during his monologues, and the only person we see buried is him.
Casino is incredibly textured, authentic, and well-written. The only real flaw I could say for it is that the monologues and narration ultimately makes the whole thing predictable. But I guess anyone who’d really seen anything from the gangster/casino genre could have guessed. Not to mention Pesci’s performance is priceless, no one plays the threatening and terrifying small man so well as Pesci. Deniro is fantastic as usual, as per all of his collaborations with Scorsese. Casino is a fantastic film, it deserves more respect than it gets I think.