By John H. Foote
19. CASINO (1995)
Martin Scorsese’s Casino is among the greatest films of the master’s career, yet only now, 25 years after its initial release, is it finally recognized for being the work of art it is. Upon release the film was slammed for being too much like GoodFellas (1990), his masterpiece, too familiar, when in fact it was an entirely new narrative. Casino joined films such as Citizen Kane (1941) and The Searchers (1956) by being overlooked upon release as the superb film it was, to be re-discovered in years to come.
The film was his eighth collaboration with actor Robert De Niro, and last until The Irishman (2019) two decades later. In that time he found a younger muse, Leonardo Di Caprio, and between 2002-2019 the pair made five films together and are working on a sixth, Killers of the Flower Moon, which will also involve Robert De Niro and is due in the next year. After that he plans to make his long-awaited biography of Roosevelt (the first) with Di Caprio as the courageous young warrior who became President.
Casino was based on the book by Nicholas Pileggi, who also wrote the massive screenplay for the sprawling film.
We follow the life of Ace Rothstein (De Niro), a gifted handicapper who the mob sends to Vegas to run their hotel, the Tangiers. He is given a free hand to do as he pleases, so long as the casino makes money. Nothing else matters in Vegas but money, casinos exist to take yours, that is their sole reason for operating. Sure people win, but the odds favour the casino, and the casino makes hundreds of millions each year. One of the joys of the film’s narrative are the constant explanations of exactly how the casinos win, how they keep you there, happy, gambling because they know most people cannot stop once they are ahead. Ace knows this too; he studies human nature and it makes him very good at his job. With the backing of the mob words spreads very quickly that the Tangiers is no place to mess around.
When his friend Nicky Santuro (Joe Pesci) visits and likes Vegas, he and his wife and little boy make the move to Vegas which alarms Ace. Nicky has no self-control and knows no sense of boundary, he does what he pleases, takes what he wants, and when he must, shakes down or kills anyone in his path. The mob, in the beginning, likes the idea because Nicky provides Ace with the element of fear, but Nicky, who is fearless, goes too far.
During this time Ace meets Ginger (Sharon Stone), a former call girl now a hustler who latches on to rich guys and gets everything she can get out of them before walking away. It is nothing for Ginger to walk out of a casino with two to five thousand dollars a night. Ace knows what she is, who she is, but like most men falls hard for her. He is aware of her attachment to her former pimp Lester (James Woods), a manipulative conman who will continue to have a hold on her even after their marriage. She seems as addicted to him as Lester is to gambling. Lester will not leave them alone and finally, conning Ginger out of $25,000, willing to leave America with Ginger and her child, Ace finds them together in a diner and has his goons beat Lester within an inch of his life. Seeing this Ginger is devastated, but gets into line, for a time.
For awhile Ace and Ginger are happy, they have a child and marry, best friends with Nicky and his wife, all is a sort of bliss. But Nicky cannot get enough, he escalates what he is taking, and the cops close in on him. Eventually he is banned from the casinos, meaning he cannot even walk into one without being arrested, making it very difficult for him to do business. Ace reminds him he warned him about this, which angers Nicky, who thinks he is being pushed around by Ace. Nicky is a “made man” with the mob, meaning he is untouchable unless they say so, whereas Ace is Jewish and an underling to Nicky, at the end of the day. Slowly their friendship erodes, especially when Nicky and Ginger begin an affair right under the nose of Ace, who thinks he knows about it but is never 100% sure. Would his friend really do that to him? He then looks at his wife, one glance and knows his answer, of course he would.
A lonely meeting in the desert ends their friendship with Nicky warning Ace never to interfere with his business again or he might end up in a hole in the wind-swept sand. Though he ends things with Ace, he continues with Ginger until she shows up demanding he kill Ace. It is then Nicky makes clear his loyalty to the mob and Ace, no chance would he kill Ace over a woman? Over her of all people!
The mob becomes aware of Nicky’s affair with Ginger, as they become more and more aware of Ace and his very public persona. They like to keep things quiet, virtually invisible, but these two men insist on being notorious. Ace throws Ginger out of their home and to the curb, never wanting to see her again, and though Nicky is willing to continue the friendship with Ace despite their argument, Ace wants nothing to do with him again. Realizing Nicky has taken it all too far and brought a great deal of attention on their operation, the old men that run the mob out of the back of a grocery store order a hit on Nicky after he attempts to kill Ace with a car bomb. Nicky and his brother go to a meeting in a cornfield, and are beaten with baseball bats, thrown in a pit and covered in quicklime, then buried alive to die. The scene is horrifying and shocking in its gruesome realism. Nicky, once a valuable asset to the mob, is cast aside like garbage and never again thought of.
Ginger dies a hopeless drug addict and Ace, after the car bomb, retires to San Diego where he continues his work as a book maker, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars a week.
There are so many moments in Casino that are memorable, committed to memory the second they are seen. Ace’s array of suits, pastel colors for the most part; his handling of a twosome of gamblers who take the casino, smashing a man’s hands with a hammer while the other is offered the money and the hammer or he can walk away. He leaves. Nicky terrorizing anyone who runs into him, who cannot pay their debts, degenerate gamblers who he loans money too at a high interest price knowing they are going to gamble it away. That horrifying sequence in the corn field where Nicky and his brother are battered to death, the sound of the aluminum unforgettable as it cracks against their skulls. Nicky pitifully watching his little brother beaten to death, tears running down his cheeks, knowing he is next. The sleazy Lester conning Ginger (yet again) knowing the hold he has on her cannot be broken. Ginger’s addiction to drugs, then her cheating with Nicky. And Ace, soaring through the air after the bombing, looking down on the fire and falling back to it, as though he were falling into the fires of hell.
Usually in a film starring Robert De Niro he is giving the best performance but in Casino Joe Pesci steals every single scene he is in and gives the film a charge of grim electricity. His character Nicky is monstrous, a cold-hearted killer and Pesci radiates danger and a dark menace in every scene. Sharon Stone is a revelation as Ginger, attractive, sexual, yet always thinking about how she can take someone, and to this woman even Ace, her husband, is a mark. The covetous greed on her face as she goes through her safety deposit box is shocking, because, child or not, we see what truly matters to her. James Woods is superb as the dangerously sleazy Lester, the personification of a “creep”. He looks as though he never bathes. An observation if I may? I have always wondered what the film would have been with Woods as Ace and De Niro as Lester, or even another actor? Woods is hugely gifted but difficult to work with, maybe Scorsese was aware and saving himself a world of pain, but it is something in my head.
Stone was just three years removed from her explosive performance in Basic Instinct (1992), her breakthrough, and there were still those questioning her ability. She was brilliant in Basic Instinct, naysayers be damned, but in Casino she had a role she could bite into, actors surrounding her who helped her and a gifted director who believed in her. When the Oscar nominations were announced Stone was the lone nominee from the film, earning a nomination for Best Actress, and winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress (Drama). Well-earned, though I believe she was a supporting character.
Don Rickles does a fine job as the pit boss of the casino, a dour looking man who looks for wrong doers and reports them to Ace. With his bald bullet shaped head and bulk, Rickles looks like a gangster and turned down the comedy to zero for the part. So does Dick Smothers, the least funny of the brothers, cast here as a corrupt judge who accepts the gifts of the casino, including show girls, but turns his back on them (and Ace) when he needs them.
Joe Pesci is terrifying as Nicky, which he portrayed in Goodfellas as Tommy, but here he seems twice as frightening because he has no one to tell him to slow down. He kills, maims, threatens and does whatever he wants because he considers himself above the law, above all boundaries and the self-proclaimed Sherriff of Las Vegas. Though small in stature, Pesci has always managed to be a frightening screen presence because of his absolute confidence in the role. When he walks on screen, he commands attention, all eyes go to him because he is so unpredictable in his actions. What is he going to do this time? Who is going to die and in what terrible manner? Yet unlike Tommy in his Oscar winning performance from Goodfellas, we see the soft side of Nicky here, the morning breakfast ritual with his little boy, whom he adores above all else. How can this man walk into an elderly lady’s home, shoot her in the head without remorse, and be home in time to have breakfast with his boy? Pesci makes us believe he can with yet another astonishing performance. Oh that he had worked more as an actor, oh that he had given us more to celebrate. The Academy missed nominating him for Casino and he certainly should have been. He alters his voice pattern somehow for the part, speaking in a different tone, a more nasal sounding voice than before, perhaps to give Nicky some diversity from Tommy.
And De Niro, superb as Ace Rothstein, pacing the casinos ever watchful. Who better to run a casino than a born cheat? He knows all the angles and if he doesn’t, he has those around him who do, and he calls them out when he sees them. The punishment he deals out is swift and unforgettable, he might kick you out of not just the casino but the entire state, he might break your card playing hands with a hammer, he might do as Nicky does and place the head of the offender in a voice and keep squeezing. Cool as a cucumber, the only person who really rattles Ace is Ginger, he simply cannot trust her, but man does he try! When he finally gives up on her, he turns into a block of ice towards her, giving her nothing, taking away all she ever had with him including their daughter. In betrayal he is merciless, and De Niro captures that with icy resolve. This was the actor’s last great performance for years, as he launched into a strange period of comedy and various genres, hitting rock bottom with The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (1999) as the villain. He returned to form as a worried father in Silver Linings Playbook (2013), earning a nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and later was sublime for Scorsese in The Irishman, a towering achievement for actor and director.
I loved the roving cinematography within the film, moving through the casinos, Ace’s home, all the locations as though it were a constant eye in the sky, bringing all of Vegas to us. The desert never looked more foreboding or unforgiving, and the filthy drug den where Ginger dies is disgusting, perfectly captured in the film’s magnificent cinematography. Though the neon shines bright in Vegas, seeing what happens behind it, lessens the glow.
Not always considered among the best of the decade or of Scorsese’s career, Casino is superb on every level.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.