Martin Scorsese: A Retrospective in Words
By Roderick Heath
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 primeval. 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.
For all this, Casino is a film about marriage—bad marriage on a Shakespearean scale undone by what kills most marriages: money, distrust, and infidelity. Casino is another logical step up from the street-level quasi-hoods of Mean Streets. It pointedly lacks the comforting blue-collar attitude of the Goodfellas crew; Jimmy the Gent, Tommy, and Paulie are lovable when contrasted with the at-all-costs obscenity of Las Vegas and its resident hoods. In its cut-up aesthetics and spurning of the subtle, Casino was Scorsese’s angriest, most punkish film since Taxi Driver and joined two other exciting films from the mid 90s—Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls —in offering a purposefully excessive take on the city of excess; like those films, though not as severely, Casino was greeted without adulation.
But 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. The film follows the true story of alleged mob tool Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Chicago mobsters Tony “The Ant” Spilotro, and Frank Cullotta, rendered here as Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), and Frank Marino (Frank Vincent). Sam and Nicky are boyhood friends, the closest the film gets to the “years ago back home” vibe of Goodfellas or Mean Streets. Sam is a great gambler, a scientist of chance, who has, up to the early 70s, made his living as a bookie at the behest of the mob. He leaps at the shot at managing the new Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas, theoretically controlled by developer Phillip Green (Kevin Pollak) who’s borrowed financing from the infamous Teamsters Pension Fund. This, of course, means it’s a mob-controlled development. The Mafia dons, headed by Remo Gaggi (Pasquale Cajano), won’t venture any closer to Vegas than Kansas City, the future of their cash cow requiring a squeaky-clean image whilst their finely calibrated skims bring in titanic revenue.
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.
Sam enjoys his apparent acceptance into elite circles, his status, wealth, and power, which he’s never been allowed before. “Vegas was like Lourdes. All our sins were washed away.” Yet Sam isn’t a happy pawn. He wants to be legitimized, gain a Nevada gaming license—requiring years of bureaucracy and bribery—and a wife. He sets his eyes on Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the most beautiful, sexy, clever, greedy hustler in town. Sam uses the omnipresent surveillance system of the Tangiers to watch her bilking a gambler and steps in to save her when he gets uppity. Ginger is a virtual personification of the city, a mesmerizing surface over a heart of steel, greedy, dishonest, and perversely attached to sleazy beginnings. Sam proves his ardor with a nest egg of a million dollars’ worth of jewelry, which Ginger fawns over with childish glee before it’s locked in a safe deposit box at the bank. For Sam, it’s a pledge of trust and fidelity; for her it’s the golden egg from a goose ripe for the dinner table. He doesn’t marry her until they have a daughter together, Amy (Erika von Tagen), a sure way, he thinks, of binding her close.
When Nicky arrives with his crew of heavies, including brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) and Marino, he’s been sent by Remo to protect Sam and the operation. But Nicky has a very different idea of his Vegas mission. He establishes kingpin status, robbing and intimidating left, right, and center. Nicky soon gets himself banned from every casino in town, and attracts an army of police and FBI agents, forlornly trying to catch him on something. Sam knows what the pint-sized psychopath is capable of: he has seen Nicky stab a man in the neck with a fountain pen for a flash of brusque attitude. Nicky thinks nothing of threatening bankers, working over bookies, or shooting Phillip Green’s litigious ex-business partner—a middle-aged, middle-class woman—in the head. When a gang shoots up a local diner, Nicky is ordered to punish them. He tortures their leader, eventually putting his head in a vice and popping an eyeball from its socket, before cutting his throat. He also gets up every morning to make his son breakfast and eagerly chats with cops watching their sons at Little League games.
Sam is unable to restrain Nicky, and is even resented for his attempts to play Mr. Legit: “We’re supposed to be robbin’ this place, you dumb fuckin’ hebe!” Nor can Sam maintain authority over Ginger, who keeps a flame for her first lover and pimp, Lester Diamond (James Woods, defining “sleazeball”), who cajoles her for money whilst keeping her psyche on a short leash. He can hypnotize her over the phone by recalling the “young colt with braces on her teeth” he sold. Sam detests the man as much as Ginger pities and adores him. When Lester taps Ginger for $5,000, Sam gives it to him, but then has Nicky’s goons work him over, to Ginger’s hysterical protest. Ginger descends into drugs and drink. In her unstable, paranoid state, she convinces herself that Sam will have her killed, and begins coming on to Nicky as a potential protector, an act that can only have evil consequences.
Cue what was voted the worst sex scene in screen history by one newspaper’s readers: Joe Pesci screwing Sharon Stone. It’s logical in this film exploring a world of sensual excess. Here, indulgence has long outstripped desire, a substitution which, consistently in Scorsese, is the worst possible sin, and one too readily tempting in rich America. Not for the first time, Scorsese dragged a career-best performance from a star, here Stone, who inhabits her half-mad minx with bodily force. In comparison, Pesci is close to parodic and De Niro’s Sam is a much cooler performance than he usually delivered for Scorsese, fittingly as Rothstein’s relative sympathy contrasts his surrounds, but with some lurches into familiar tics (“Can I trust you?…Can I trust you? Answer me, can I trust you?”). It’s also Scorsese’s last collaboration with De Niro until The Irishman (2019).
The poisonous threesome of Sam-Nicky-Ginger sends this tale careening into insanity, but other events help, like when FBI agents, bugging the grocery store of put-upon don Artie Piscano (Vinnie Vella), overhear him bitching about his responsibilities to his curse-shy mother (Catherine Scorsese, in her last part for her son before dying in 1997). Nicky can still run rings around them. Agents watching Nicky in a light plane run out of petrol and have to land on a golf course where he and his goons are playing; they happily pelt the plane with golf balls. But Nicky has unbalanced Vegas’ stability. The casino cash-counters who perform the skimming soon begin pilfering for themselves. Marino soon finds himself piggy in the middle, having to answer questions from Remo over the dwindling revenue and whether Nicky is screwing Ginger. Worse, Sam gains far too much attention when his refusal to humor local redneck nepotism results in failure to get his license. He explodes at a Gaming Commission, rants to reporters, and gives himself a high-profile television host to justify hanging around the Tangiers.
Sam is the only person in the film who maintains relative dignity and sympathy, for his professionalism and especially his fatherly concern for Amy, who, at one point, is tied to her bed by her mother who wishes to go out for the evening. In the screenplay, Sam was to have had Lester killed by Nicky, but this was left out of the film, perhaps because Sam is the story’s only link to common humanity. Like so many Scorsese heroes, Sam is defined by his yearning, his desire to transcend his lot and live his version of the American dream through Vegas, the institutionalized loophole in American post-puritan morality. Yet his ferocious poise in gambling and management is matched by a lack of emotional smarts, and his willingness to employ thuggery in settling a romantic rival’s hash, his unleashed loathing for an establishment of country club blazers and cowboy hats who won’t let a Jewish bookie join their ranks, all doom him.
The recreated cocaine-stained polyester and sleazestache chic of 70s style is noxiously intense (largely responsible for the glut of 70s retro films of the late 90s), Scorsese’s culture riffing alternately playful—like the painfully exact recreation of Sam’s TV show or caricature of Siegfried and Roy—and carefully planned. Like the soundtrack’s use of three different versions of “Satisfaction”—from the Stones’ driving, declaratory original to Devo’s disintegrating, masturbatory edition—Nicky and Sam’s control dissolves in a welter of blow-induced shootings and soul-grinding jealousies. Scorsese honors his locale with typical idiosyncrasy, by casting Vegas headline comedians like Alan King, Don Rickles (as two of Sam’s casino lieutenants, Andy Stone and Billy Sherbert), and Tom Smothers.
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. Sam, Ginger, and Nicky triumph by being the most exacting, enthusiastic, and ruthless in their fields. They are pure entrepreneurs, but their utter confusion of success with plunder destroys all three of them to varying degrees. Ginger and Nicky are seriously screwed-up people, and Sam’s offering all he has to a woman he knows is venal and untrustworthy reeks of masochism. Casino 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.
Ginger runs off with Lester, taking Amy with her, then crawls back when Lester blows all their money. Sam, fuming, accepts her but bitterly harps on Lester’s waste and finally spits death threats. Ginger only wants to get her hands on her safe deposit box, but Sam won’t hand it over, knowing it’s the only way he can keep her around. His and Ginger’s concussive brawls and mutual abuse result in Sam dragging Ginger by her hair down a hallway and throwing her out, only to have her return in the middle of the night, their rage temporarily spent. Ginger tries to push Sam by declaring Nicky is her new sponsor, but Nicky contemptuously has her thrown out of his restaurant in her hysterical state. Sam, justifiably paranoid that Nicky’s goons will arrive, has Sherbert come with a shotgun. All they get is Ginger instead, repeatedly ramming Sam’s car in their driveway. She uses the police intervention to snatch the key to the safe deposit box, and beats Sam to the bank to make off with her treasure chest, only to be stopped by detectives.
But they’re not after her—they’re drawing the net on the whole operation. They even try to get Sam to rat on Nicky by showing him photos of Nicky and Ginger together; he shuts the door on them. Still, Remo and the bosses, Nicky, Frank, dozens of made men,and parasites are arrested. In reply, the bosses order a bloodbath. Witnesses, weak links, traitors, and the problematic litter the landscape from Kansas to Costa Rica. Nicky and his brother, released on bail, are met in a cornfield by Frank and their crew. The boys, happy at the chance to remove the scary little creep from their lives, hold Nicky down and force him to watch them beat Dominic to a bloody pulp, and then do the same to him, before burying them both alive in a dusty grave. It’s perhaps the rawest scene of violence ever in a mainstream American film, and Scorsese finally confronts a limit here, both of what he can get away with and of the lifestyle of these people. This is what’s at the center of the onion he’s peeled, and fittingly for an angry repudiation of violence, it’s Nicky the psycho who’s the suddenly sympathetic victim. The only amusing aspect is that Frank Vincent finally has revenge for the beatings he received from Pesci in Raging Bull and Goodfellas.
What’s left of Casino’s narrative runs out on burning sand, scored with perhaps Scorsese’s most perfect sound-vision fusion by The Animal’s version of “House of the Rising Sun.” That most iconic of blues songs—like the film—mixes cautionary tale, deterministic social argument, and ironic sensual celebration. Alan Price’s organ burns away as Ginger, as a groaning husk, drops dead in an anonymous hotel hallway, murdered with a hot dose of heroin, her fortune squandered. Sam, we find, is saved from a bomb planted in his car only by incredible fortune. Our last image of an aging, thick-spectacled Ace Rothstein, is another Scorsese Odysseus washed up on the shore, emptied of torturous passions and laden with experience, happy to be simply alive. As old Vegas collapses flames, he muses with due sarcasm about the laundering of the town; gone is, at least, the sense that the town was run by human beings, guys like himself who had risen from nothing, replaced by corporations. America’s playground becomes another place for the bedazzled and hopeful to give their money away to the giants.