Holes in the Desert: Casino at 20


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Editor’s Notes: This month marks the 20th Anniversary of Martin Scorsese’s Casino. Feel free to share your memories of this film in the comments section below. 

Casino, Martin Scorsese’s 1995 gangster epic set in Las Vegas, was the third in an informal mob trilogy that started with 1973’s Mean Streets and continued with Goodfellas in 1990. The connective tissue of these films is that each shows the mob at different levels, Mean Streets showing the really low level guys, moving up the rung a few steps in Goodfellas and finally focusing on the guys at or near the top in Casino. Scorsese doesn’t get as far up the ladder as Coppola did in The Godfather films, but he gets pretty high up.

The story is that of mob influence and control in Las Vegas in the early years of that casino town, specifically the story of the Tangiers Hotel and Casino. The film shows how Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), a Jewish bookie and renowned gambler, is given control of the casino so it can make lots of money, a percentage of which is skimmed off each month and taken back to the Chicago bosses. To ensure Ace has no difficulties running the operation, they send his childhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to enforce the boss’ interests and keep other groups from muscling in on the territory. Ace is ultimately undone by his love of Ginger (Sharon Stone), a prostitute/hustler who despite money, jewels and a child from and with Ace, she never lets go of her ties to her pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods).

Casino, Martin Scorsese’s 1995 gangster epic set in Las Vegas, was the third in an informal mob trilogy that started with 1973’s Mean Streets and continued with Goodfellas in 1990.

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As the film tracks the ups and downs of the casino industry, it also tracks Nicky’s assent to being the boss of Las Vegas when his actions cause him to be banned from the casinos. He’s a brutal enforcer and a cunning thief and makes quite a name for himself, to the detriment of everyone associated with him. Scorsese employs the alternating narration he explored to great success in Goodfellas, using voiceover narration from both Ace and Nicky in an attempt to tell the story from both viewpoints. The difficulty here is that this dueling narration starts almost immediately where in Goodfellas it takes us by surprise when Lorraine Bracco’s Karen just starts narrating, changing the entire nature of the film. In Casino, it’s a gimmick instead of an innovation.

Throughout the film, where the narration fails and is intrusive, the film sings when the story is allowed to unfold before us. The long stretches where there is no voiceover are the best parts, showing us the operations and obstacles that Ace has to deal with, both external and internal and many of his own design. Scorsese and co-writer Pileggi (who also wrote the book that the film was based on, like he did with Goodfellas, the screenplay of which he also collaborated with Scorsese on) set up Ace as the consummate control freak who would have been just fine if not for the chaotic element of Nicky. Nicky is Ace’s mirror image, a man with no regard for structure or control who just does what he wants even if it means spitting in the faces of the people he’s supposed to be listening to.

Casino stands resolutely behind all of its strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to take the good with the bad and showing that it is more than the sum of its parts and it needs its weaknesses to boost its strengths.

The trouble with Casino is that so much of the nearly 3 hour run time is taken up by exposition through voiceover. The reason for this is twofold, both brought up by editor Thelma Schoonmaker in the audio commentary of the film. The first reason is that the screenplay, by director Scorsese and Pileggi, was written before the book Pileggi was writing was finished, leaving the structure up in the air, a problem that was worked on in the editing room after principal photography had wrapped. Here, Scorsese and schoonmaker rewrote the film, both literally in creating more voiceover to be recorded and also in the way the film was ordered. The second problem was test screenings. Schoonmaker states that there was more of an emphasis on showing instead of telling but it confused the test audiences and so more and more voiceover was written and edited into the beginning of the film. This is a crucial mistake when you remember that it was test audiences that cost us the full version of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and would have ruined Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (if he had taken any suggestions from the cards. Instead, he just threw them away and made no changes to his film, as Scorsese should have here). What results is overbearing narration that shifts perspectives so suddenly it’s hard to tell whose story is being told and while they are supposed to set up differing viewpoints, they often collude into the same explanations. Things that are monotonously described in voiceover are later subtly shown in the film, making one of these elements redundant and therefore undermining the picture.

That’s not to say Casino is a bad film, it isn’t at all, it’s just that it feels like it wasn’t allowed to reach the heights it could have due to being rushed into production. If the book had been finished beforehand and had established a structure for the screenplay, the film wouldn’t feel so loose. Looseness in structure isn’t always a bad thing, often it is refreshing to see something that isn’t rigid and can breathe, but in this case something tighter and less aimless would have benefitted the picture greatly.

That being said, where Scorsese the writer is the weak point of the film, Scorsese the director is the highlight. Even with DeNiro, Pesci and Stone delivering knockout performances, along with the myriad of excellently performed supporting roles, many filled with comedians like Don Rickles, Alan King, Dick Smothers and Kevin Pollak in decidedly un-comedic roles, Scorsese is the stand-out. His visual writing far outshines his printed writing with shots showing the progression of people who are watching a casino, starting at the dealer and ending with the ‘eye in the sky’, with each new person introduced with a swish-pan from the previous person. It is precision like that that makes this film work despite its weaknesses. Several times, Scorsese utilizes a point-of-view shot to show the perspective of a car driving up to the casino or Ace working out a signaling scam. His frames are always composed to give the perfect image of how things are in a casino or an office, putting Ace in a higher vantage point than the people across from him to indicate power, until it’s he who is on the receiving end of people more powerful, like in the gaming license hearing when the state senators are seated on a platform and look down on the people giving testimony.

The thing to consider about trying to place a Scorsese film against other films is that like Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese has become so idiosyncratic that his films are now judged almost exclusively against each other and not largely against other people’s films. When that is taken into consideration, Casino ranks in the middle echelon of films for him, below his masterpieces Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas and just under his great-but-not-masterpieces like The Last Temptation of Christ, The King of Comedy, After Hours, Hugo, Gangs of New York and The Departed to name a few and seating it with works like The Age of Innocence, Bringing Out the Dead and Kundun, films that are very good (Scorsese has never made a bad film, though some like Cape Fear and Boxcar Bertha are very close) but don’t rate high enough to be in the conversation of Scorsese’s great films.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore Casino and for everything it has working against it and how feelings toward it can change with each viewing, it’s still a stunningly well composed film that not only invites multiple viewings, it demands it. it’s kind of like Blade Runner in that it worms its way into your head whether you liked it or not and stays there, making you think about it until you see it again and let it change your mind. If it does, it makes you come back to see more of it in the hopes your new assessment will hold and if it doesn’t, it makes you reconsider it again and again, showing off its virtues like a peacock flashing its tail feathers, asking you to overlook its flaws because its strengths are so nice. In many ways, the dueling narration is indicative of the film itself, constantly shifting back and forth in the mind, forcing the viewer to re-evaluate it every time its seen and for that reason it is still discussed these 20 years after its release and will continue to be discussed 20 years from now, which in and of itself may make it a great movie, even if it has some serious defects.

What is important to remember is that not every great film is perfect, many aren’t. What makes a great film is its ability to keep being talked about and stay in the consciousness of viewers long after it’s seen. That is why while it isn’t one of the top Scorsese films, that bar is so high that even something ranking in the middle in terms of his own work is still able to be a great film when judged against the entirety of film, like how a mid-range Pixar film can still be heads and shoulders above any other animated film in a year. Casino is just that: a great film by a great director (quite possibly the greatest living director) that stands the test of time despite having elements that would sink a lesser film.  The sheer magnitude of Casino keeps it standing instead of crippling it as magnitude has the tendency of doing (for reference see the 1967 Doctor Doolittle or It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, films so bloated and long that any enjoyment derived from them is so intermittent that it’s negligible).   Casino stands resolutely behind all of its strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to take the good with the bad and showing that it is more than the sum of its parts and it needs its weaknesses to boost its strengths. It may not be completely successful and it may be Goodfellas lite, but it still packs its own punch and everything good about it outweighs everything bad about it in spades. Casino may present challenges, but it’s a blast to confront them each and every time the film plays.


About Author

I believe film occupies a rare place as art, entertainment, historical records and pure joy. I love all films, good and bad, from every time period with an affinity to Classical Hollywood in general, but samurai, sci-fi and noir specifically. My BA is in Film Studies from Pitt and my MA is in Education. My goal is to be able to ignite a love of film in others that is similar to my own.