Friday Editor’s Pick: Casino (1995)

by on April 28, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri May 4 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]

The always dependable annual “Fashion in Film Festival” at MOMI picks “If Looks Could Kill” could kill as its theme and supplies a fine lineup of thriller, gangster, film noir, and horror. Things fittingly kick off with Scorsese’s lavish spectacle.

Says Jonathan Romney in the New Statesman: “My choice of best and most underrated film of the decade has to be Martin Scorsese’s sublime, misunderstood Casino – a sprawling, overreaching mess in some ways, but the nearest that recent US cinema has come to producing a ‘how-we-live-today’ statement of the Zola school.”
Alt Screen editor Nathan Lee for the New York Times:

“Goodfellas” in Vegas: that’s how a lot of people greeted Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” when it came out in 1995. After all, both movies took their screenplays from Nicholas Pileggi books that burrow deep into the muck and minutiae of organized crime. In both, Joe Pesci plays an unhinged thug. Equal in scope and ambition, these epic cautionary tales are about vice, capitalism and the American Way. Unmistakably, they are also about the virtuosity of their maker. “Casino” supercharges the “Goodfellas” paradigm: wall-to-wall pop music, crackerjack montage, a quicksilver camera that glides through the scenery with curving, craning, whiplash sinuosity. Yes, “Mr. Scorsese has been here and done this already,” as Janet Maslin wrote in her review of “Casino” in The New York Times, “but not with his new film’s blistering bitterness or its peacock extravagance.” And not with Sharon Stone (above, with Robert De Niro) in the performance of a lifetime as Ginger McKenna, an ambitious, unstable Strip hustler who catches the eye of the casino boss Sam Rothstein (Mr. De Niro, in a splendidly restrained performance that makes amends for his histrionics in “Cape Fear”). Mr. Scorsese is no more repetitive than Balzac and just as talented a historian. We should be so lucky as to see “Goodfellas” in Kansas, California or Washington



Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

The Las Vegas that Martin Scorsese shows us in “Casino” — a metropolis ringed by deserts, blood and dreams — is set in the 1970s and ’80s, but it evokes an era that now seems ages away. Here, it’s the high noon of the city’s mob era. The movie crackles with an infernal energy and immediacy, but there’s a distanced quality that suggests some biblical kingdom about to be destroyed by flood or fire. Wealth, pleasure and promiscuity have gone mad — and at the center of it all, the stunning star trio of Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone — are caught in a vicious triangle. Playing Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Pesci), two key Las Vegas figures and lifelong friends who turn on each other, these two great actors make the movie a thrilling, no-holds-barred theatrical battleground, tearing at each other with roaring expertise as they fight over Vegas and Stone’s poisonous vixen Ginger.


Elaine Dutka on the clothes for the Los Angeles Times:

During the opening credits of “Casino,” Martin Scorsese serves up an image of Robert De Niro nearly as memorable as the car bomb that hurls his character, Sam (Ace) Rothstein, into the air moments later. Decked out in a coral jacket with matching apricot shirt, tie and socks, the Vegas mobster fairly radiates “cocky” and “flamboyant.” From costumes to casting, the look of “Casino” was crucial to Scorsese, a director renowned for his dazzling visual sense.
More than 7,000 extras–from go-go girls to hotel clerks–had to be clothed at a cost of $150 to $200 each, much higher than the Hollywood norm. And, though the 30-plus outfits worn by hustler-turned-trophy-wife Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) were a mix of vintage and custom-made, all of Rothstein’s 70 costumes–not to mention those worn by Joe Pesci, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak and James Woods–had to be “built” from scratch. Long, pointed, locked collars separated the older, more traditional Wise Guys from the up-and-comers. Solid ties conveyed a sense of slickness. White or light beige clothing provided visual counterpoint to the brutality of certain scenes. “These characters, for the most part, were low-life people who worked their way up the gambling hierarchy,” observes co-costume designer John Dunn. “Presentation was more important than ability when it came to reinventing themselves.”
“It was a gaudy, trashy period–a time of great excess,” [co-costume designer John] Dunn says. “The fashion world was trying to foist the idea of better-living-through-chemistry fabrics on us. We paid a fortune to rent bad ’70s clothing–shiny Qiana material, platform shoes, bell bottoms–things we all donated to the Salvation Army. We actually reveled in the horribleness of it all.” “As Rothstein acquired more power in the gaming industry, his look became more flamboyant,” [designer Rita] Ryack says. “Though the loud print linings in De Niro’s jackets were never on display, it was important for an actor like him to know that they were next to his skin. No one else could pull off audacious clothing like that without appearing cartoonish. De Niro still seemed sexy and dangerous.”


Gavin Smith for Film Comment:

Beginning with an explosion whose shockwaves expand across time and space like a narrative Big Bang, Casino is Scorsese’s Gotterdammerung, a blistering and haunting last word on the culture of American violence, criminal enterprise, and civic life that he’s mined since Mean Streets. Many commentators have held that Casino‘s impersonal, epic scale, baroque and overwrought narrative construction, and determinedly emphatic style are components of a multilevel critique he’s never before attempted. True enough; yet at the same time Scorsese is bringing things full circle. Like the modestly scaled, personally expressed, and psychologically observed Mean Streets, Casino is a fundamentally introspective film that embroiders a classic tragic narrative of hubris and retribution with an episodic surfeit of incidentals, anecdotes, and asides. And its ultimate concerns are much the same as Mean Streets, in a much different register. Both films are about the price paid by those who serve the Mob, still vital in Mean Streets progressively more decadent and enfeebled in Casino.
Whereas GoodFellas is Scorsese’s least complicated and conflicted film, his most ironic, its characters’ pursuit of the Good Life and its trappings almost naive, Casino is a far more ambivalent and troubled vision, depicting the acquisitive urge in all its savagery, ruthless manipulation, neurotic compulsion, and rush to destruction. And the stakes are higher than in GoodFellas: Casino‘s mobsters are the cynical architects of an already corrupt civilization’s accelerated decline, exploiting a mythic American Dream the better to realize their own. Per Casino, late 20th century civilization has perfected Darwinism into a scientifically controlled industrial process, its managers as in thrall to its guiding fictions as their victims. How many of the film’s arguments and conversations revolve around money. To his masters Ace is “a cash register,” and nothing could be more apposite for a man who reduces people to objects, who can only imagine Ginger (Sharon Stone) loving him for mercenary motives. In lieu of wedding night consummation, we see Ace showing Ginger around their new dream home and the two of them stuffing cash into a safe deposit box–whose key occupies the narrative space normally reserved for the wedding ring. Amongst the film’s more haunting images: Ginger curled up in mesmerized contemplation of the jewelry Ace has given her, her narcotic ecstasy insulating her more surely than the coke ever could. Here is an authentic glimpse of the spiritual vacancy of a life of things, a horror GoodFellas never quite admits.



Rob Nelson for City Pages:

Even by his own enormous standards, Casino represents a new level of ambition: Who else would have dared to conceive a ’70s-era mob movie that brings to bear four years of journalistic research (by co-screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi), spans a decade, runs 178 minutes, and incorporates over 50 vintage pop songs into some 269 individual scenes? Probably the highest compliment to pay Casino is to say that it’s thoroughly resistant to the sort of thumb-pointing evaluation that passes for most film reviewing these days. Nevertheless, plenty of critics have already reduced the movie to capsule summaries and stupid puns about how Scorsese has rolled the dice and drawn snake eyes.
Nearly all the director’s movies are masterful exercises in narrative design and cinematic chutzpah, although they hardly read as the product of natural talent. Instead, their achievement seems to stem from the director’s compulsive interest in challenging himself to the furthest ends. The reasoning goes: If the artist stacks incredible odds against his own ability to succeed, then agrees to strain for a masterpiece for as long as it takes, and at whatever the cost, how can he lose? No wonder Casino conveys exhaustion and despair more than–as in GoodFellas–exhilaration. But fortunately for Scorsese, that’s more or less the story he means to tell here.
It’s in keeping with Scorsese’s unpredictable nature that, just at the time he’d be pegged as a genre chameleon, he returns to the form that he knows best. But the familiarity is a tease: He uses the notion of Casino as GoodFellas to to disarm the viewer before introducing something altogether richer, more complex, more personal, and more mysterious.



Roderick Heath for Ferdy on Films:

Casino presents the rare, inspiring sight of a director pushing his capacities, obsessions, and stylistic experimentation to the limit. Scorsese’s attempts to shunt narrative and explore worlds through montage and voiceover, to fuse high and low culture, to gain panoramic insight into America, to show violence as harsh and ugly as possible—all pushed to the far edge in Casino. If The Age of Innocence is Scorsese at his most poised, Casino is Marty gone wild. It’s a film where a shot from within a cocaine snorter’s straw, white flakes hoovered up towards the camera like a sandstorm, seems subtle. The film that erupts in its opening scene—literally, as Robert De Niro seems to be blown sky high by a car bomb to strains of Bach’s “Matthaus Passion”—becomes an opera of the sordid (the credits also represent the last work of the great film editor and title designer Saul Bass). Scorsese’s first film in 12 years without Michael Ballhaus is instead filmed in the bolder colors and light-diffusing style of Robert Richardson. Richardson’s camera drinks in a landscape of bad wigs and make-up caked faces, cocaine and blood, phony glamour and phonier humanity.
Casino is Scorsese’s great burn-it-down statement, the furthest end of his disgust and delight in everything seamy in American culture. He films Las Vegas in all its Technicolor glory and grotesquery, a symphonic swirl of lights, sex, currency, and gore. Sam does his job with micromanagerial finesse and ice-cold authority. His awareness of systems— systems of control, systems of surveillance, and the systems of luck—is brilliantly spelled out by Scorsese’s ever-mobile camera. He knows that, for all the illusions the town presents, the house almost always wins, and even when it doesn’t, it can be dealt with. He can sabotage big winners, as he does with a Japanese high roller, keeping him stranded in town until he gambles away all he has won, and ruthlessly punishes cheats. One gets his hand smashed with a hammer by his partner, who is offered a choice between “the money and the hammer” or walking away. In a fashion, Sam and the rest in Casino also have chosen the money and the hammer.
Casino fulfills Scorsese’s interest in the mechanics of violence, power, and criminality, and opens up territory suggested in The Age of Innocence and Raging Bull in studying not just social outsiders, but its winners, to study how often in American society that old adage of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s about there being no second acts in American lives, proves true, and why. It moves from Goodfellas’ true-crime black comedy to a new realm, one of classical tragedy. As in Euripides and Shakespeare, it uses the extreme lives of its colossal characters to reflect on ordinary human faults, allowed to reach an extreme through the scale of their lives. Most people only feel like the world collapses when their marriage busts up, but in Casino it literally does.


Ian Christie introduces his interview with the director for Sight & Sound:

Intense like a Jacobean tragedy, in the case of Casino. Except this blood-spattered triangle of love and revenge isn’t set in some renaissance court, but in a modern equivalent – the neon and rhinestone baroque of a Vegas casino. The stuff of legend and archetype, the story of Ace, Nicky and Ginger could be told any number of ways. Co-screenwriter Nick Pileggi has told it once already in his book Casino: the true account of Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, Anthony Tony the Ant’ Spilotro and Geri McGee (the real-life counterparts of Ace, Nicky and Ginger respectively), and how they rode the rollercoaster of mob influence in Las Vegas during the 70s. Or the story could be told as a Western, somewhere between John Sturges’ The Law and Jack Wade and Brando’s brooding One-Eyed Jacks, with Ace as a bad man who strikes lucky in the West and marries a saloon girl, before his past catches up with him, and unwanted acquaintances come calling.
But isn’t it also GoodFellas 2? Yes, in that it deals with the 70s after the 60s of GoodFellas, finding Las Vegas an ideal microcosm of that decade’s false glamour. Yes also, insofar as Scorsese and Pileggi have mined another rich vein of America’s grim history of organised crime and revel insolently in their findings. But it’s also darker, more complex and more ambitious. It shows with pseudo-documentary precision how Vegas ruthlessly preys on gamblers large and small to feed the insatiable appetite of the crime bosses. It shows a glittering, festering latterday Babylon surrounded by desert, in which appearance is everything, and nothing is what it seems.
Most daring of all, in the midst of this decadence, shot through with the horrors of men clubbed to death, tortured and blown up, we’re invited to laugh at its rulers’ foibles, admire their wit and enterprise, and finally grieve over their destruction. The Rolling Stones and Bach’s St Matthew Passion are juxtaposed on the soundtrack, as if GoodFellas was erupting into the drawing rooms of The Age of Innocence. When the real Frank Rosenfeld launched a self-advertising television show from his casino, the opening edition was hit by technical faults and the station transmitted instead, with an irony entirely appropriate to Casino, The Fall of the Roman Empire. Like Syberberg ‘tempting’ us with the seductive appeal of the Führer in Hitler, A Film From Germany, or Eisenstein lavishing his montage magic on the luxury of the Romanov dynasty in October, Scorsese in Casino challenges us to face up to the lure of evil, the deep fascination of Lucifer and the fallen angels that Milton understood. Eisenstein? Milton? Come on – surely it’s only rock’n’roll? Yet Scorsese’s films have a habit of ageing into classic status. Again and again, his precarious miracles have been found wanting at first sight, only to reappear as milestones. Only time will tell whether Casino has truly done it again for him.


And some excerpts from his chat with Marty:

Was Las Vegas unfamiliar territory for you?

I’m pretty familiar with the characters around the tables and in the offices, but the actual place, and the gaming, were new to me. What interested me was the idea of excess, no limits. People become successful like in no other city.
It gives Ace a chance to create something, rather like an oldtime prospector going west, who lands in a small town and by sheer hard work makes his fortune. But because he makes the classic mistake of loving without being loved, he falls.
Well, it’s his own fault. He says, “I know all the stories about her, but I don’t care, I’m Ace Rothstein and I can change her.” But he couldn’t change her. And he couldn’t control the muscle – Nicky – because if you try to control someone like that you’ll be dead. When his car was blown up it was pretty obvious who gave the order for that. But as Nicky says at one point in the film, so long as they’re earning with the prick they’ll never OK anything – the gods, that is – meaning they’ll never authorise killing him. But Nicky likes to be prepared, so he orders two holes to be dug in the desert. That’s the way they talk. This is the actual dialogue from a witness protection programme source that we had.
It’s really Sodom or Gomorrah, surrounded by the desert, isn’t it?

Yes it is. We don’t want to lay it on too heavily, but that was the idea. Gaining Paradise and losing it, through pride and through greed – it’s the old-fashioned Old Testament story. Ace is given Paradise on Earth. In fact, he’s there to keep everybody happy and keep everything in order, and to make as much money as possible so they can take more on the skim. But the problem is that he has to give way at times to certain people and certain pressures, which he won’t do because of who he is.
Why does the film have to be so long?

You have to work through the whole process of these three people who can’t get away from each other. Every way they turn they’re with each other. It’s not even a story about infidelity. It’s bad enough that they both were unfaithful to each other – the marriage was in terrible shape as it was – but worse that she starts with Nicky, because Nicky is the muscle. If anybody can get her the money and jewels it’s Nicky.
The most remarkable thing about the film’s structure is that you start with Ace being blown up.

In the very first script we started with the scene of them fighting on the lawn. Then we realised that it’s too detailed and didn’t create enough dramatic satisfaction at the end of the picture. So Nick and I figured we would start with the car exploding, and he goes up into the air and you see him in slow motion, flying over the flames like a soul about to take a dive into hell.


They continue:

You’ve become really interested in voiceover. What does it do for the spectator?

There’s something interesting about voiceover: it lets you in on the secret thoughts of the characters, or secret observations by an omniscient viewer. And for me it has a wonderful comforting tone of someone telling you a story. And then it has a kind of irony much of the time. Suppose you see two people saying goodnight, and the voiceover says, “They had a wonderful time that evening, but that was the last time before so-and-so died.” You’re still seeing the person, but the voiceover is telling you they died a week later, and it takes on a resonance, and for me a depth and a sadness, when used at moments like that. The voiceover in this particular film is also open to tirades by Micky. If you listen to him complaining – about the bosses back home, how he’s the one out here, the one in the trenches – then you begin to understand his point of view. Why should I have to work for somebody? Why don’t I go into business for myself? You can see the kind of person he is from these tirades in voiceover.
You’ve worked with Dante Ferretti on a number of films. What kind of relationship do you have in terms of planning the overall look of a film?

The casino we used, the Riviera, looked like the 70s, although it was only built in the late 70s. That was the centrepiece. Then we were trying to find houses that were built in the late 50s or early 60s, which are very rare. There was one house which we finally got, and I laid all my shots there, rehearsed, and then about two weeks later we lost it. Then we had to find another house, and finally it all worked out for the best, because that’s the best one we found. It was an era of glitz – a word I heard for the first time in the 70s – and I think you can tell what Dante brings to a film when you just look at the bedroom. Especially in the wide shots, in the scene where she’s taken too many pills and she’s crying, and he’s trying to help her. There’s something about the way the bed is elevated and it looks like an imperial bed, a king’s or a queen’s bed. There’s something about the wallpaper everything, the dishes on the walls – that says a great deal about character. Dante made it regal, not just in bad taste – even though some of it is bad taste – but the quality is good, and that moiré silk headboard is a backdrop for a battleground, a silk battleground.
I’m interested you say ‘regal’, because I also found myself thinking the film is about a court, with a king who chooses a consort, and what we see is the rise and fall of a little dynasty.

Exactly. They’re on display all the time. Appearance is everything, to the point where he didn’t want people to smile at him or say hello. You can see it in how he stands and looks around.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Like “The Godfather,” it makes us feel like eavesdroppers in a secret place. Scorsese tells his story with the energy and pacing he’s famous for, and with a wealth of little details that feel just right. Not only the details of tacky 1970s period decor, but little moments such as when Ace orders the casino cooks to put “exactly the same amount of blueberries in every muffin.” Or when airborne feds are circling a golf course while spying on the hoods, and their plane runs out of gas and they have to make an emergency landing right on the green.
Unlike his other Mafia movies (“Mean Streets” and “GoodFellas”), Scorsese’s “Casino” is as concerned with history as with plot and character. The city of Las Vegas is his subject, and he shows how it permitted people like Ace, Ginger and Nicky to flourish, and then spit them out, because the Vegas machine is too profitable and powerful to allow anyone to slow its operation. When the Mafia, using funds from the Teamsters union, was ejected in the late 1970s, the 1980s ushered in a new source of financing: junk bonds. The guys who floated those might be the inspiration for “Casino II.” “The big corporations took over,” the narrator observes, almost sadly. “Today, it works like Disneyland.” Which brings us back to our opening insight. In a sense, people need to believe a town like Vegas is run by guys like Ace and Nicky.
In a place that breaks the rules, maybe you can break some, too. For those with the gambler mentality, it’s actually less reassuring to know that giant corporations, financed by bonds and run by accountants, operate the Vegas machine. They know all the odds, and the house always wins. With Ace in charge, who knows what might happen?


Smith continues Film Comment:

In Casino the Gangster Film faces challenges from and incorporates elements of the Western, the Musical, Fifties melodrama, and Sci-Fi – it’s as if Scorsese’s film stands for The Movies in general. This perhaps sanctions the film’s fascinatingly parodic reflex, inherent in Las Vegas itself and frequently flirted with and latent in the psychic anguish of the Scorsese oeuvre. Casino‘s absurd repetitions and flights to travesty (as if in illustration of the dictum: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce) are echoed in the parodic headlock indicating camera style of certain scenes (e.g., panning from bag to drop box and back in the count room), not to mention such devices as joke titles (BACK HOME YEARS AGO), subtitles when Ace and Nicky talk in code, and the posed, idealized introductory shots of the main characters (the mob bosses back East framed in a Last Supper tableau vivant). The soundtrack’s no-expense-spared use of kitsch pop songs like “Nights in White Satin” may originate in the same impulse, but the sons transcend their pop contexts to achieve remarkable pathos, as with the unbearable yearning heartache of Nilsson’s “Without You” when Ginger snorts coke in front of her daughter, or the soaring poignance of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” over the climactic wave of killings.
Scorsese has always been obsessed with breaking down and reinventing cinematic language, and Casino may be his ultimate experiment in Broken Film. The film’s reckless, overloaded exposition parades broken rules and berserk visual mannerisms (whip pans, speed shifts, dizzying tilts, freeze frames) and neologisms (like the triple jump-cut dissolves when Nicky first meets Ginger) that constantly threaten to topple the movie into pure hyperbolic gesture. These are less objective correlatives for the destructive impulses of the film’s characters than manifestations of Scorsese’s own sense of moviemaking – or movie business – crisis. His BFI/Channel Four/Miramax Personal Journey Through American Movies begins by considering the classic question of creative control (clips from Sullivan’s Travels and The Bad and the Beautiful) observing that the “Iron Rule” is that “Every decision is shaped by the producer’s perception of what the audience wanted.” Critics have interpreted Casino‘s wanton disregard for cinematic decorum and classic screenwriting values, and its pushing of formal control beyond breaking point, as symptoms of a great director going through the motions. On the contrary, they express Scorsese’s if anything too-intense engagement with and abstraction of his material.


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