“Casino” - Martin Scorsese (1995)

Martin Scorsese has won fame for a variety of films, but his signature productions have been his films about mobster life.  In particular we can point to what is now Scorsese’s tetralogy on the mafia, featuring in each case Robert De Niro in a pivotal role – Mean Streets (1973), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), and The Irishman (2019).  All four of those films are dark, but I would say the darkest one is Casino.

Like Goodfellas, Casino was based on a non-fiction book by Nicholas Pileggi, and both of those films were co-scripted by Scorsese and Pileggi.  In the case of Casino, Pileggi’s book was Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, and it was based on the real-life experiences of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Tony Spilotro, two Chicago Syndicate gangsters who moved to Las Vegas to get involved in casino operations there.  But although Scorsese’s film here may have been inspired by facts, the finished product is so laden with such expressionistic colorings that one feels they can only could have come from a dark imagination.

The story of Casino begins with Sam "Ace" Rothstein (played by Robert De Niro) providing his voiceover-assisted account of events in his past that led to a car-bombing attack on his life in the early 1980s.  We are told that in 1973 Ace, a gambling expert for the Chicago Syndicate gangster organization, was sent to Las Vegas to take over the running of the casino in the Tangiers hotel there.  The casino was owned by the corrupt Teamster’s Union, which was allied with the Chicago Syndicate.  The Chicago Syndicate also sent Ace’s boyhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), to Las Vegas to look after shadier aspects of the mob’s activities.  Ace was just supposed to attend to the casino’s gambling operations, while Nicky was expected to employ his customarily brutal strong-arm actions to enforce the mob’s will. 

When Nicky appears in the story, his account of things is covered in voiceover, too, so the film now has two largely parallel voiceover-driven threads – Ace’s account mostly inside the casino and Nicky’s brutal coercion activities outside.  In both of these threads, reports of mob corruption are presented in brutal detail.  So much of the first two-thirds of this nearly three-hours-long film provides almost an instruction manual in how the mob swindled its customers and the government and in so doing made its fortune in Las Vegas.  In this respect critic Roger Ebert has commented [1]:
“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 [I will come to her next], 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.”
So what about the personal narratives of Ace and Nicky?  Well, some of that starts to creep into the story.  Nicky’s relentlessly hot-tempered acts of vengeful violence, which even go beyond what the mob has sanctioned him to do, eventually get him banned from all the casino’s in Vegas.  Meanwhile Ace meets beautiful dancer and hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) and immediately falls madly in love with her.  Although Ginger is not so hot on Ace, Ace has by now built up a fortune from his gambling activities, and he lures her with money and jewels.  Ginger is essentially hedonistic and greedy, and she can’t really resist Ace’s enticements; and so she eventually agrees to marry him.  Although they soon have a child, their marriage begins to fall apart because of Ginger’s self-centeredness and wandering eye.  In particular, Ginger can’t let go of her old boyfriend, Lester Diamond (James Woods), who seems to be nothing but a good-for-nothing lowlife.  Eventually Ace finds out about Ginger’s continued affair with Lester and also discovers that Lester has just swindled Ginger out of $25,000.  So he arranges for Nicky and his thugs to brutally beat up Lester and put him permanently out of the way.  Ginger then sinks into depression and alcoholism.  After some more disputes with Sam, Ginger even starts a sexual affair with Nicky, which after some further machinations eventually leads to their mutual estrangement.

Finally, the FBI begins to get wind of what the viewer has been informed of all along – that the Syndicate’s operation in Las Vegas has been cheating in its business operations and also skimming the casinos’ profits off the top in order to avoid paying taxes.  The FBI begin closing in on the culprits in the late 1970s and discovering more and more details about the illegal operations.  So the mob bosses respond by beginning to kill off any of their underlings whom they fear might make deals with the authorities and squeal on them.  This is what is behind the murderous attacks on both Ace and Nicky late in the story.

In the end what we have is, as Roger Ebert suggested, more of a historical account of the mafia’s pernicious operations in Las Vegas casinos and not so much of a narrative concerning interesting characters.  After all, the principal characters in Casino – Ace Rothstein, Nicky Santoro, and Ginger McKenna – are all greedy and seem to be only interested in money.  Actually, there are some other personality traits associated to varying degrees with these characters, such as egotistical pride, personal dominance, and revenge.  But these are all of the same narcissistic stripe.

So there are no sympathetic characters here to draw the viewer’s interest into a compelling narrative journey [2].  This is not atypical of a Scorsese film, as I remarked in connection with my review of Goodfellas [3]:      
Actually, narrative structure is not one of Scorsese’s strongest points.  He is something of a master in creating a social milieu, often employing improvisational, ensemble acting that captures the spontaneity of a group situation.  But many times the engaging social environment never encompasses any real narrative goals, and the episodic story just seems to tail off at the end of the film, without achieving any closure.
So does that mean that Casino has nothing of interest for the viewer?  I would say that there is something of interest here, and that is due to Scorsese’s compelling, expressionistic cinematography.  What Scorsese, together with cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, have given us is a cinematic depiction of Hell.  The film features an incessant stream of winding tracking shots that endlessly pull the viewer down through disturbing, confined spaces that evoke a vague psychological feeling of entrapment.  These tracking shots are embellished with countless sweeping swish pans that also contribute to the viewer’s sense of disorientation.  In this way the viewer is drawn into a labyrinthine nightmare that was paradoxically created by man for man.  The patrons of the casino, who are suckers drawn into this serpentine inferno, are fecklessly looking for good luck.  But the notions of honesty and fair play are nonexistent there, and there is no chance that good fortune will befall them.  In fact even the vendors in this hell – Ace, Ginger, and Nicky – are unknowingly and hopelessly trapped in it, too. 

So it is Scorsese’s vivid, expressionistic presentation of a nightmarish setting that may ultimately appeal to some viewers of Casino.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Casino”, RogerEbert.com, (22 November 1995).    
  2. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Casino”, Austin Chronicle, (22 November 1995).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘Goodfellas’ - Martin Scorsese”, The Film Sufi, (7 March 2013).   


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