Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XXV: Casino

Casino (1995) ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Nicolas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Sam 'Ace' Rothstein), Sharon Stone (Ginger McKenna), Joe Pesci (Nicky Santoro), James Woods (Lester Diamond), Frank Vincent (Frank Marino), Pasquale Cajano (Remo Gaggi), Kevin Pollak (Phillip Green), Don Rickles (Billy Sherbert), Vinny Vella (Artie Piscano), Alan King (Andy Stone), L.Q. Jones (Pat Webb), Dick Smothers (Senator).

To many critics it seems like Martin Scorsese Casino will always be viewed as the poor cousin to his more acclaimed film GoodFellas. And while I definitely see the connection between the two films (you’d have to be blind and deaf to miss it), Casino is a great film in its own right. In its own way it is as much a tribute to the Hollywood of yesteryear as New York, New York was. It’s epic running time, it’s bright, garish costumes, the inevitable tragic nature of the films arc. While GoodFellas certain did invoke the spirit of the gangster films of the past, Casino thrives on them. The most of films like The Public Enemy and The Roaring Twenties hangs over every frame of this film.

In the early 1970s the mob pretty ran Las Vegas. There wasn’t a major Casino in town that wasn’t connected in some way to organized crime. Vegas, which was pretty formed by gangster Bugsy Siegel decades before (Barry Levinson’s great Bugsy tells his story) had never really modernized. The mob loved the money that the casinos made for them, and they were not about to relinquish control of them without a fight. This is where Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) comes in. A Jew from New York, Rothstein was a talented gambler, who studied gambling every second of every day, and knew precisely what to bet and when to do it. He made a lot of money for the folks back home, so they send him to Vegas to run the Tangiers Casino for them. It doesn’t matter that he has some convictions back East that make it impossible for him to get a gaming license in Nevada. All he has to do is file the paperwork, and can work until the application comes up. They have such a backlog, that will never happen. He makes the Tangiers into a huge success, and it likely would have stayed that way if Ace hadn’t had got involved with two people – his wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) and his old friend from back east Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci). No matter how brilliant Ace is, he cannot control these two people, who between them, pretty much destroy Ace’s life.

He meets Ginger at the Casino and is immediately drawn to her because of her beauty. Like Hitchcock used to do often (and Scorsese has done in previous films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), Scorsese introduces his beautiful blonde bombshell in slow motion. When their eyes meet on the casino floor, Ace is hooked. That she is a hustler, a former prostitute who still loves her former pimp Lester (James Woods, who has never been more deliciously slimy, and that’s saying something), or even the fact that she tells him that she doesn’t really love him, doesn’t really phase Ace. He thinks he has the money and the glamour to be able to hold a woman like Ginger. For a while, he is even right, but you cannot change someone as Ace learns. Ginger will never be the wife he wants her to be. This connects Ginger to the women in Scorsese’s other films. The men always seem to be drawn to the wrong girl. They do not seem to understand that you cannot have the beautiful, glamorous wife who is the life of the party, as well as the loving wife and mother to your children that you want. By picking one, you sacrifice the other. The poor saps never realize this until it is too late.

Nicky is a character that no one other than Joe Pesci could have played this well. While many see him as just a clone of his character from GoodFellas, Nicky is a much more controlled character than Tommy was in that film. Both are capable of violent, bloody outbursts at the drop of a hat, but Nicky always seems to have a reason for doing what he does. He’s much smarter than Tommy was in that he is able to control himself more.

Both Ace and Nick speed up their own downfall with their arrogance. For Ace, he becomes one of the most powerful men in Las Vegas, and he forgets that like every town in America, success is as dependent on politics as anything else. He starts to think that he is untouchable, and then he starts to do stupid things. Nick does something very similar. Even after he is barred from all the casinos in Las Vegas, he is still robbing the city blind, and killing people at will. Even worse, he starts sleeping with Ginger, which even the bosses back home don’t look kindly on. Things go wrong for both of these men, and while they have no one to blame but themselves.

Casino is definitely divided into a classic three arc structure. The first hour of the movie is the hero’s rise, as well as an inside look at how a casino operates. Ever wonder how the mob bosses were able to skim millions off of a casino, including their portion of the slots winnings which of course means literally tons of quarters? Casino has the answer for you. Everything goes right in that first hour. The cracks start to show in hour two, sometime around Ace’s wedding to Ginger when Ace catches her on the phone with Lester. This relationship, that he has fooled himself into thinking is perfect, is already in trouble almost before it starts. He will never truly trust her again, and although it’s clear that their relationship is doomed for failure from the beginning because of Ginger’s vices, Ace certainly gooses things along. The second hour is all about those cracks becoming bigger, the problems mounting. Vegas is no longer quite the paradise it was in the first hour. The third hour is when everything comes crashing down around the characters. In this world, you cannot live that high without expecting everything to come crashing down around you. By the time the conclusion comes, with all its blood split and the dead bodies piling up, the characters have each descended into their own personal hell. It’s here where I think the echoes of the gangster films of old ring strongest. Whether it’s James Cagney in The Public Enemy or The Roar Twenties, Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar or Paul Muni in Scarface, their stories are invariably the same as the ones in this movie. They start from nothing, make themselves into success, then grow too big until they have to be brought down. Scorsese even borrows a favorite shot from those movies as a climatic murder is done off-screen, and we simply see the man stumble out slowly bleeding to death. Except for the exclamation mark Scorsese puts on this scene, it could be James Cagney in The Public Enemy stumbling out of that house.

As with all of Scorsese’s films, the filmmaking here is impeccable. Robert Richardson’s brilliant cinematography keeps the traditional of Scorsese’s restless camera alive. The camera always seems to be in motion, capturing the smallest details just right. The production design, and particularly the costume design (DeNiro’s very colorful suits especially) invoke 1970s Las Vegas in all its glory. The pacing of the movie is merciless, diving headlong into its story and not coming up for air for three hours. Scorsese draws us towards the inevitable conclusion with a mounting sense of dread in every scene.

And of course, the performances are brilliant. Sharon Stone was never given a role as good as Ginger either before or since this movie, but she doesn’t waste it. Yes, it is a showcase role a drinking, drug addicted hooker, but Stone doesn’t just play it shrill, but gets under Ginger’s skin – she even makes you feel sorry for the woman. Pesci is not merely reprising his role in GoodFellas, but he makes Nicky seem even more dangerous than he was in that movie. He has got power and clout this time around, and he grows into it. He thinks he’s invincible right up until his final voiceover is interrupted by a baseball bat. DeNiro in some ways is playing the straight man – he is the most “normal” character in the movie, a business man who knows precisely what he wants, and is used to getting his way. He gets frustrated because Nicky and Ginger don’t fit in like they should. Surrounding these three is an amazing cast – Don Rickles, Kevin Pollock, Scorsese regular Frank Vincent (who after being beaten up by Pesci in Raging Bull and GoodFellas finally gets some revenge), Alan King, L.Q. Jones. But no is better than James Woods, who makes Lester into just about the skuzziest pimp I can recall seeing in a movie. All macho posturing, and lovey dovey proclamations to Ginger he is really, like everyone else in the movie, just looking out for himself.

Casino is perhaps one of Scorsese’s most underrated films. I have loved it from the first time I saw it back in 1995, and each viewing (and there have many by now) simply increases my love of the film. The movie is relentless in its style and pacing, and it makes us follow these characters right up until their tragic ending. Far from being just a clone of the great GoodFellas, Casino is a masterpiece in its own right.

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