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‘Casino’ Has Always Been About More Than the Neon Vegas Lights

Martin Scorsese’s 1995 epic, which turns 25 this weekend, was derided as a retread of some of his previous work. But there’s more to it than underworld intrigue.

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

“When you love someone you gotta trust ’em … there’s no other way.” So says Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro) in the opening moments of Casino, outlining a worldview that would seem to be at odds with his status as Las Vegas’s reigning bettor extraordinaire. In gambling, love and trust are dicey propositions; most of the time, you’re better off relying on blind chance.

A few seconds after delivering that line, Ace turns the key on his vehicle’s ignition and is seemingly incinerated by a secretly placed car bomb—a sign, perhaps, that this long-serving mob associate’s loyalty and/or affections have been misplaced. But the joke—and it’s a good one, even if it takes most of the film’s three-hour run time to reach the punch line—is that the master handicapper is saved by a stroke of luck: A metal stabilization plate under the driver’s seat turns out to be Ace’s ace in the hole.

In 1995, Martin Scorsese was not only beloved, but trusted—firstly and always by an international cinephile community that’d considered him a good bet since the early 1970s, but also by the Hollywood moneymen he’d alienated at one point with a series of box-office flops. Taken together, the run between New York, New York, Raging Bull, The King of Comedy, and After Hours provided ample evidence of Scorsese’s artistic daring while damaging his perceived commercial viability; the common denominator between these very different (and equally extraordinary) movies was a lack of mainstream interest. The strategic rebound of The Color of Money, a custom-tooled showcase for Tom Cruise, suggested that the director was still willing to play (eight) ball, and after leveraging that film’s success to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese shifted his trajectory toward edgy moneymakers like Goodfellas and Cape Fear.

More specifically, it was the healthy return on investment of Goodfellas—which penetrated the popular consciousness and grossed more than $46.8 million in the United States—that prompted Universal to sign off on Casino. The film was packaged as a sort of spiritual sequel: another organized crime epic from a fact-based book by Nicholas Pileggi—this one based on the life and times of casino executive Frank Rosenthal—and prominently featuring two of Goodfellas goodfellas (De Niro and Joe Pesci, completing a collaborative trilogy begun in Raging Bull). In a moment when violent, profane criminality was in vogue thanks to the breakthrough of Quentin Tarantino—one of several millennial auteurs indebted to Scorsese—Casino looked like a monster hit in waiting. The film was unveiled with a flourish in November 1995, which was a choice awards-season release date that positioned it as a major Oscar contender. Reviews were respectful, but the consensus was that Scorsese was retreading familiar territory, and the only Academy Award nomination the film received was for Sharon Stone for Best Actress.

Stone is indeed superb in Casino as Ginger McKenna, the statuesque hustler who wins—and subsequently betrays—Ace’s love and trust to the point of obliterating his high-rolling lifestyle. That said, one of the subtler points of Scorsese and Pileggi’s screenplay is that her husband is equally, if not more, to blame for their mutual misery. Self-destruction is one of Scorsese’s great themes, and Casino offers up not one but three characters whose outsized ambitions get the better of them in different ways as casualties of Las Vegas’s addictive atmosphere. For Ginger, an inveterate and expert gold digger who prizes independence, the fatal mistake was buying into a counterfeit notion of domestic bliss. For Ace, the mistake was offering up such a doomed bargain in the first place. As for Pesci’s Nicky Santoro—Ace’s main enforcer and an erratic, impulsive cousin to the actor’s signature role as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, minus the psychopathic cackle—his completely avoidable error is interjecting himself into the middle of a fractured marriage. Convinced of his white-knight status, he gives his loyal pal Ace the cold shoulder while offering Ginger the other one to cry on. Bad call. “It should have been perfect,” sighs Nicky, who gets his own voice-over in counterpoint to Ace’s. “But in the end, we fucked it all up.”

Casino has the long, clean dramatic lines of a tragedy and little of the slapstick humor that made Goodfellas so quotable and prime for affectionate parodies and homages from everyone from Animaniacs to Jay-Z. Casino isn’t quite as omnipresent, although a case can be made that The Weeknd’s entire quarantine look has been a sustained tribute. Goodfellas is rewatchable because it’s seductive, swift, and nasty: It’s a fable of initiation in which Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill ends up strung out on a fast-paced, nocturnal lifestyle well before he’s hooked on cocaine. In its way, Goodfellas plays as a parody of a coming-of-age movie, with Henry simultaneously moving up the ranks and descending into a moral void; the key to Liotta’s performance is that he plays him at all times like a callow, overgrown kid.

Casino’s protagonist, though, is a grown-up. Ace is already middle-aged when the story begins in 1973, and he ages visibly through the narrative (anticipating an even deeper focus on obsolescence and mortality in Scorsese’s The Irishman). Goodfellas and Casino were made only five years apart, yet it’s still fascinating to mark their contrasting tones and what they say about the man behind the camera. With the earlier film, it’s as if Scorsese was trying for a show of youthful force—the cinematic equivalent of the triumphant moment in The Color of Money when Paul Newman’s “Fast” Eddie Felson hits a clattering clean break and proclaims “I’m back!” Casino has a few bravura set pieces and its own brand of filmmaking excitement—cinematographer Robert Richardson goes all the way off, saturating his palette with the colors of money and bestowing a frighteningly blank, lunar scale on the scenes set in the Nevada desert—and yet the showmanship is judicious. The sensibility here is less exuberant than rueful, and carefully attuned to institutional systems of grift.

Like Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—the other great Las Vegas movie of 1995—Casino is not just set in Sin City but about it: It’s a civic portrait scribbled in neon in the shape of a rigged wheel. In a brilliantly constructed early sequence with deliberate echoes of Goodfellas’ Copacabana interlude—another prowling Steadicam, gliding through closed doors and into an illicit inner circle—we see the money counting room of the mighty Tangiers Casino, where skimming off the till is an art, one that Ace countenances as long as the kickbacks go to a group of old-school bosses in Kansas City.

Anybody who tries to cheat out on the floor, though, is subject to surveillance; if they’re spotted, they get thrown out or worse. One con artist is caught figuratively red-handed and then rendered literally so by a well-placed sledgehammer—the first act of horrific violence in a movie that pushes the envelope in that department. Scorsese doesn’t pause to underline the hypocrisy of men who are willing to maim to preserve the rules they themselves habitually break. Instead, he blends the shady ethical contradictions of Ace’s job and the flat-out brutality of Nicky’s gig into a troublingly even-keeled evocation of business as usual.

It’s Stone who spikes the movie’s energy toward the end of the first act. Circa 1995, the actress was trying to parlay the notoriety of her role in Basic Instinct, and her performance in Casino both builds on and inverts her star-making turn. Like Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell, Ginger exults in her ability to seduce and control men (“smart hustlers like her could keep a guy awake for two or three days,” Ace says admiringly) while lacking any ability to rein herself in. She’s a perpetual motion machine, holding and at times leading the camera’s gaze. You can’t take your eyes off of her. But at the same time that she casts a spell on Vegas’s high rollers—Ace included—Ginger exists in thrall to her own Svengali: Cue James Woods in scraggly beta-male mode as her supremely shitty ex-boyfriend Lester, a pimp and addict who keeps hitting her up for money after she and Ace get hitched.

Part of what drives Ace to despair is that his wife—who was, to her credit, up front about not exactly being madly in love when they wed—would keep running off to a guy with a sex-offender mustache and a mesh T-shirt. Woods digs deep into his bag of scumbag tricks to play arguably the most pathetic and unsympathetic character in any Scorsese film ever (and that’s saying something), punctuating his performance by sneering like an asshole at the adorable little girl playing Ginger’s daughter.

Ace is trying to wrangle his wife behind the scenes, and so he overdoes it on other fronts, styling himself as a local celebrity and talk-show host and incurring the wrath of both his unofficial higher-ups (who think he’s in the midst of a power grab) and the cowboy-hatted desert power brokers who resent a “kike” encroaching on their territory. No filmmaker is better at exploring male rituals of one-upmanship and overcompensation than Scorsese, whose films tend to emphasize their protagonists’ vengeful excesses. Without judging his characters, he has their number. Ace sees himself as a principled, old-school operator, at one point refusing to help the FBI in their investigation of Nicky even though he has reason to believe his best friend is currently sleeping with his wife. But Casino doesn’t confuse its protagonist for any kind of dashing underworld hero: As De Niro plays him, Ace is actually a bit smaller than life.

In a movie like Casino, it’s crucial to draw a line between the thugs who see themselves as the last honest practitioners of a tough racket and their actual actions; Scorsese’s refusal to draw a line between depiction and endorsement is his hallmark as an artist. (See also The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that’s actually much closer to Casino than Goodfellas.) For all his tender rhetoric about love and trust, Ace proves to be a heartless son of a bitch—not more so than others in his orbit, perhaps, but still guided by a demagnetized moral compass. Scorsese’s ambivalence is also evident in Casino’s truly hellacious violence, including a torture-by-vice sequence featuring a popped eyeball and a shockingly edited and sound-designed baseball bat-beating, both of which had to be trimmed to avoid an NC-17 rating.

Without stinting on the viciousness, Scorsese still conveys an element of nostalgia in Casino, although it’s less because the movie is convinced by Ace and Nicky’s vision of the good old days than it is skepticism over what will eventually replace them. Like Boogie Nights a couple of years later, Casino is a ’70s period piece that imagines the ’80s (and beyond) as a hellscape—albeit one that’s deserving of hate mostly for being so carefully sanitized. “The town will never be the same,” Ace says in the film’s final scene over images of the Tangiers’ demolition, lamenting the transformation of Las Vegas into a family-friendly theme park. “Today it looks like Disneyland.” The point, of course, is not that the place has gone legit, but that it operates at the leisure of white-collar corporate overlords instead of hard-edged capos. If there’s an allegory in there about an increasingly centralized, anodyne, and coldly profitous movie industry—i.e., the kind that could marginalize as virtuoso an artist as Martin Scorsese—so be it.

Throughout the 2000s, Scorsese would make increasingly massive gambles with studio resources, producing five $100 million-plus movies, a fact that doesn’t undermine Casino’s despairing subtext so much as vindicate it from the inside out. “I could still make money for all kinds of people back home,” says Ace by way of explaining why, after the loss of everyone he rightly or wrongly loved or trusted and the reupholstering of his stomping grounds, he refuses to budge. He plays the game because it’s the only game in town. For him—and for Scorsese—there’s no other way.