A crime movie, directed by Martin Scorsese, co-written by Nicholas Pillegi and starring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci that isn’t Goodfellas? Upon release in 1995, Casino was met with good reviews and a pretty decent box office run, but there was a feeling at the time that it wasn’t quite Goodfellas.
To walk into Casino expecting another Goodfellas is perhaps unfair because while it is very much a Scorsese film about crime with many key Goodfellas alumni involved, both in front of and behind the camera, Casino is a considerably denser beast than the story of Henry Hill and his eventual ratting out of his friends to the Feds.
Goodfellas was very much a street-level film compared to recently releases in the Hollywood gangster hall of fame; it wasn’t as Shakespearean as The Godfather, nor was as it intensely over the top as Brian De Palma’s Scarface, and yet being ‘a Martin Scorsese picture’ meant that it had all the hallmarks of a Scorsese film; freeze frames, voiceovers, Rolling Stones on the soundtrack and a sense of style that never overtook the film having substance. Henry’s story opened with a car, as does Casino, only where Henry’s story began on a darkened road and a violent murder in the trunk of a car, Ace Rothstein’s story, as portrayed by Robert De Niro, opens in a literally explosive manner, segueing into an intensely spectacular Saul Bass and Elaine Bass credit sequence that is ghastly, brilliant and so over the top that it pretty much sums up perfectly the three hour epic to follow. It’s a character’s journey, or their soul, straight into hell and it’s very much where Casino is going to take us.
Anybody coming to Casino expecting another Goodfellas or even Mean Streets might be somewhat shocked at the more vulgar leanings of Scorsese’s 1995 work. Any vulgarities are intentional, however. These aren’t the characters that grew up on the streets and committed airport robberies in Queens, New York, nor are they in any world that Coppola would have thought up; the Vegas of Scorsese is vastly different to the one that the Corleones would ‘inherit’ from Moe Green.
Casino is awash in the neon colours of Vegas, all gorgeously shot by Director of Photography Robert Richardson, meaning that we might be stepping into a world more akin to that of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, and certainly there are horrifying moments of violence here that could give the chainsaw scene from that film a run for its money.
In fact, if one wanted to make any comparisons to any of Scorsese’s other pictures, you might want to jump forward twenty years to The Wolf of Wall Street. Like that film, Casino comes with a three hour running time and yet it does so with a relentless pace and an obsession with money and characters behaving unscrupulously in an epic manner.
Like so many of Scorsese’s films, there is an attention to detail here that borders on the incredible, with the inner works of the Tangier Casino laid out brilliantly, allowing the audience to step into a world that looks complex but which is explained fully and without pandering, so that when the plot hits certain beats we know well what is going on.
The Scorsese/Pillegi/De Niro/Pesci connections here mean that it comes as a shock that the more grounded level of Goodfellas has been replaced by something more grandiose, but the characters themselves are for the most part from a similarly grounded level as Jimmy Conway and Tommy De Vito, it’s just that this time they’re in way over their heads, and inevitably a downfall awaits.
Crime never pays – this is Hollywood after all – but like Goodfellas the film offers up a character who, upon his punishment and banishment away from the world of wise guys and living it up like a movie star, actually mourns the loss of that world even though – unlike some – he kind of gets away from it clean.
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The reception afforded to Casino is one of the most interesting in Scorsese’s career. While it was met with good reviews, there is a feeling that many were either disappointed with it or didn’t react to it as well as they did with other De Niro/Pesci/Scorsese collaborations such as Raging Bull or Goodfellas. The latter having only been released five years previously meant that it was still very fresh in the minds of critics and audiences.
There has always been something strangely warm-hearted about certain aspects of Goodfellas. Yes, its characters do terrible things, but there are points where it can let you off the hook just a little to enjoy the more improvisational humour, or the intricacies of the other mob characters (Jimmy Two-Times for instance, or Karen’s amazement at the world she has entered into). Casino offers no such good humour or moments of levity, and that might come as a surprise for a film with a three hour run time.
Even The Wolf of Wall Street has moments of dazzling dark comedy dotted throughout, and while there are a few moments that can make you smile here, that humour is pitch black and sometimes uncomfortable. A desert-set meeting between Ace and Nicky (Pesci) is uncomfortably humorous for the level of vitriol that Nicky is throwing at Ace, and the chalk and cheese demeanour of both characters what with Pesci on particularly fire cracking form and De Niro playing with a nonchalant reaction to Pesci’s increasing vitriol. (Side note: the television edit of this scene tones down Pesci’s language and yet manages to make one key phrase more offensive than what’s said in the uncut version.)
Yes, Casino is a much more dense beast, but it boasts some of Scorsese’s best direction. And for a director who gets criticised a lot – sometimes for justifiable reasons – on his female characters, in Sharon Stone’s performance as Ginger we have one of the best female characters in a Scorsese-crime film, alongside Lorraine Bracco’s performance as Karen in Goodfellas.
Like so many of the characters that populate Casino, Ginger is almost unapologetically unsympathetic at times and yet Stone’s performance allows us to feel sympathy for her at various moments. There is a brilliant complexity here that sometimes isn’t afforded to the wives or partners of gangsters in crime cinema. Deservedly, Stone was nominated for an Academy Award and more than proved that there was more to her than the erotic thriller-starring femme fatale character that Hollywood wanted to typecast her as.
Nearly twenty five years after its release, Casino’s power has only proven to be more potent. Like so much of Scorsese’s best work, both inside and outside of the crime genre, it manages to revel in the possibilities that cinema can afford. Even for a director who is (mistakenly) labelled a gangster movie director, it shows that even when he’s playing with tropes and stories that he is often associated with, he can still deliver something brilliantly grand and cinematic like nobody else.