Saturday, February 10, 2024

CASINO 1995

A Movie Without A Hero

I've no idea if 19th-century English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray in any way inspired Martin Scorsese's Casino (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese from Pileggi's non-fiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas). But I can't imagine the notoriously cynical author of The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844) and Vanity Fair (1887) would take issue with my updating the latter's subtitle to headline this essay on Martin Scorsese's mythic epic of misanthropy, Casino; an operatically grandiose fall-from-grace fable lacking in even a single virtuous character.  
Robert De Niro as Sam "Ace" Rothstein

Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna
Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro
James Woods as Lester Diamond
Alan King as Andy Stone
Don Rickles as Billy Sherbert

Based on a true story and shot in a lacquered, color-saturated style befitting the over-the-top, tacky opulence of its '70s-era Las Vegas setting, Martin Scorsese's Casino is mobster neo-noir (neon-noir?) on an operatic scale.   
A sprawling, blood-soaked, true-crime chronicle of the days of Mafia-ruled Las Vegas, Casino dramatizes a period in history when Sin City was still a slightly shady, post-Rat Pack, strictly-adults playground (no kid-friendly thrill rides), and the casinos served as the perfect false fronts of legitimacy for the Syndicate's meticulously planned and carried out money-skimming operations. 
As Mob films go, Casino doesn't cover much new ground (especially if you've seen Goodfellas), but as the saying goes, it's not the tale; it's in the telling. 
And from Casino's nearly three-hour running time, ten-year narrative span (1973 to 1983), prodigious body count tally (upwards of 24), and cast of over 100 speaking parts, all sporting more eye-popping retro costumes and hairstyles than a Cher retrospective; the telling is a clear case of form meeting function. Casino is the gangster movie recontextualized as a Paradise Lost parable advocating that you can take the wiseguy out of the mean streets, but you can't take the hood out of the hoodlum.  
The paradox of Las Vegas has always been that it's a city built on games of chance
 that stays profitable by making sure absolutely nothing is left to chance.

Casino kicks off with a (literally) explosive pre-credits sequence that hurls the audience and the just-seconds-old movie into "whodunit" territory with an abruptness of violence we'll come to learn is something of a Casino leitmotif. As an exercise in cinema economy, it's a killer of an opening (heh -heh) that instantly creates tension, disrupts the viewer's equilibrium (you're on guard against the unexpected before you've even had time to develop expectations), and establishes the basis for Casino's told-in-flashback structure and running voiceover narration.
Duel in the Sun
Said voiceover duties are shared (in often amusingly contradictory and self-serving narrative perspectives) by childhood pals Sam "Ace" Rothstein (sports handicapper) and Nicky Santoro (protection racket). A pair of Midwest Mafia golden boys granted (temporarily, as it turns out) the Keys to the Kingdom, and for Ace, an ill-omened stab at absolution through love (enter, traffic-stopping Vegas hustler Ginger McKenna).

For all that I love about Casino—and I am indeed crazy about this flick...exhilarating and ambitious, it's precisely the kind of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with movies in the first place—the main reason it ranks #1 as both my favorite and most re-watched of Scorsese films, is the toxic trio of characters at its center. 
An Ace, A Queen, and A Joker
"It should'a been perfect. I mean, he had me, Nicky Santoro, his best friend, watching his ass. 
And he had Ginger, the woman he loved, on his arm, But in the end, we fucked it all up."

Anyone familiar with this blog is aware that I have a fondness for - as I once described it: "Movies about neurotic characters in mutually dependent relationships, each harboring barely-suppressed hostilities and resentments, yet forced by circumstance to interact" (e.g., Carnage, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Closer, A Delicate Balance). 
So it should come as no surprise that I find the positively electric De Niro-Stone-Pesci/Ace-Ginger-Nicky dynamic of dysfunction the most compelling thing about Casino. No matter how big the film gets, the human scale always towers far above it. Scorsese, the master of the intimate epic, keeps the emotional drama center stage, while the actors somehow pull off the miraculous feat of humanizing these reprehensible characters without glorifying them. 
ROGUES GALLERY
Clockwise from left: Frank Vincent, Kevin Pollak, Dick Smothers, and L.Q. Jones

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
In addition to being fascinated by films about corrosive relationships, I also have a mania for movies about ostensibly "foolproof" schemes that go calamitously wrong (e.g., The Killing -1956, A Simple Plan - 1998, and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead - 2007). Perhaps it's because I've always been somewhat allergic to the self-aggrandizing side of the "hero myth" in American movies (one of the main reasons I've never cared for Westerns, war movies, or sports films); or maybe because real-life keeps offering daily confirmation that America's staunchest and most noble institutions are no match for America's simpletons. 
Whatever the reason (and it could be as simple as me relishing the tenets of film noir), I remain captivated by films that dramatize this almost biblical sociopsychological truth: There is no paradise so abundant, answered prayer so fulfilling, utopia so ideal, or technological advancement so life-changing that humans can't ultimately find a way to fuck it up.
Las Vegas as American Metaphor
Devoted to upholding the illusion of fairness while knowing absolutely everything is rigged

Although I liked Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) a great deal, I'm one of the few (only?) who finds Casino to be the superior film. In melding two of my favorite movie subgenres (dysfunctional relationships/things spiraling out of control), Casino plays less like a gangster film to me and more like a conflict of human nature melodrama. And that's a win.
What's most dramatically compelling to me is how the characters in Casino are handed a Syndicate Shangri-La, yet they can’t get out of the way of their own egos, jealousies, and weaknesses long enough to make it work. In this, Casino has always felt a bit to me like the coin flip-side to Bob Rafelson's The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)…both films share a very late-‘70s, nihilistic sensibility in their attitude towards dreams, dreamers who fly too close to the sun, and the perils of mere mortals thinking they can play fast and loose with The Fates.
"Beautiful title sequence of our lead character falling slowly into hell."
Editor Thelma Schoonmaker on Casino's titles designed by Elaine & Saul Bass 

Religion almost always serves a function in Scorsese's films. Casino's themes reference Christian mythology. Specifically the notion of sin and absolution.   


THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Scorsese is such a gifted visual storyteller. Early in Casino, we're treated to an aerial nighttime view of Las Vegas—an isolated, neon-lit island in a vast sea of darkness—that succinctly captures the precise appeal this desert metropolis holds for  Midwest mobsters: no neighbors.
Set smack in the middle of nowhere, Las Vegas is presented as a place apart. A world unto itself. An uncharted frontier where laws (and hands) can be broken, and ordinary rules of behavior simply don't come into play. No wonder Ace Rothstein calls it a gangster's "Paradise on earth."
While voiceover narration informs us that Vegas was wide open for guys like Ace and Nicky, Casino's visuals tell another story. The world of gambling casinos is a darkness-shrouded time/space limbo devoid of clocks or windows, illuminated exclusively by ceilings of neon suns and electric stars. Scorsese's frequent use of low-angle shots makes these ceilings look oppressive and looming, the casinos, closed-in and claustrophobic. Ace and Nicky like to think of themselves as free agents, but with cameras everywhere and the Mob bosses regularly reported-to, they're just two wealth-cocooned street guys living in garish gilded cages. 
With Plenty of Money and You
Scorsese's Las Vegas- an entire city done in exclamation points- is so isolated that it's not just out of touch with the rest of the world; it's out of touch with reality.
Everything from the cinematography (Casino has the sheen and saturated colors of a movie musical), period costuming (the '70s on steroids), and production design (gaudy glitz) to the editing (kid-in-a-candy-store jittery) reinforce a vision of Las Vegas as an oasis of overstatement. 
Sexy Beast

PERFORMANCES 
It's no surprise that De Niro and Pesci are phenomenal. They exhibit the same natural, improvisational intensity and chemistry they shared in Raging Bull and Goodfellas. (Although I confess that getting used to Pesci's voiceover initially took me a while. Nowadays, I delight in Pesci's profanity-laced commentary, but the first time I saw Casino, it felt as though I were trapped listening to an entire film narrated by Fats, that creepy ventriloquist doll in Magic - 1978). 
But Sharon Stone is the real revelation in Casino. Giving the film's only Oscar-nominated performance,  Stone brings it and is not fucking around. She owns that role and slays in every scene. I'll go to my grave saying she was robbed of the Oscar that year (she lost it to Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking). 
Stone gives a career-best performance, and damn-near steals the entire movie, inhabiting her character with both a granite toughness and raw vulnerability...her skill in conveying the latter is the very thing that makes the Ace/Ginger scenes work: if we didn't get a glimpse of the "other" Ginger that Ace falls in love with, he would simply come across as a fool. Sharon Stone has so many great moments, but one of my favorites is a scene in a hotel room with Pesci. Her delivery of the line: "I know. You don't have to tell me that. What do you think, I'm stupid?" and the look she gives him when he leaves (She's SO not stupid) just lays me out. Stone is hands-down 75% of why Casino ranks so high on my favorites chart.  
The Happy Couple
When I said that Casino is a story lacking in a single virtuous character, that went double for the city of Las Vegas. The story treats Las Vegas as another character in this drama. A character as bereft of a moral core as any of its flesh-and-blood castmates. .  


THE STUFF OF DREAMS
My favorite directors aren't favorites because I like all of their movies. I've seen nearly every film made by Martin Scorsese; some are dreadful (New York Stories – 1989), some are admirably flawed (New York, New York – 1977), some are unforgettable (Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore – 1974),  and some are even masterpieces (Taxi Driver – 1976). 
What tends to make a filmmaker a favorite is that their love of cinema is so passionate that even their failures are fascinating. 
With Scorsese, I always get the feeling that he respects the power of film and enjoys manipulating the tools of the medium (music, editing, camera angles, production design, costuming, casting, dialogue, story) to create authentic cinema experiences. 
Which means he leaves me to discover what I feel about what I see. He trusts me to do the work to interpret the unorthodox and risky. He understands that movies are about that magical exchange between the emotion of the story, the impact of the screen images, and the relationship forged with the viewer. Scorsese is a storyteller, and the obvious delight he takes in crafting a tale and bringing me into his world is as infectious as it is intoxicating. 

So, on that score, Martin Scorsese is not one of those directors I can always count on to deliver a movie that I'm sure to love, but he's a director I definitely trust to deliver a movie that's about something human and real.
Though not very well-received when released, Casino, nevertheless, for me...more than any other film he's made, embodies what I most love about movies and represents what I've come to most respect and admire in Martin Scorsese as an artist and a filmmaker. 
CASINO opened in Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 22, 1995
I saw it that following Saturday at Mann's Plaza Theater in Westwood 



Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2023

16 comments:

  1. Hi Ken.

    Although I don't rank it as highly as GOODFELLAS, I do think CASINO is one of the great Scorsese pictures. (Perhaps my favorite Scorsese scene of all time is Ray Liotta and his mistress Debi Mazar in her tacky abode, which for some reason reminded me of Bruce Dern and Karen Black in THE GREAT GATSBY). I also agree with you that CASINO's main arc is Sharon Stone and how this stunning woman ended up in such a squalid existence. I can't think of any actress in the whole history of movies who could have played this part any better. Interestingly, Elisabeth Shue was also nominated for playing an angelically beautiful Vegas hooker in LEAVING LAS VEGAS and got even better reviews, but I never found her even remotely believable in that role. Stone seems like the real deal.

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    1. Hi Kip – Boy, you really nailed that GATSBY/GOODFELLAS observation! I had to take another look at it to jog my memory, but you're right; that scene in GOODFELLAS with Gina Mastrogiacomo showing her girlfriends around that monumentally tacky apartment is EXACTLY a callback (unintentional or not) to a similar scene with Karen Black in THE GREAT GATSBY. Even down to there being a little furball of a dog involved.
      And your observation about Elizabeth Shue in LEAVING LAS VEGAS is also very keen. I’m with you in not having found her performance or embodiment of the character all that believable. I’d never looked at it before in context with what Stone does with her role, but now that I have…wow. What Sharon Stone makes of that role becomes even more impressive.
      I’m glad you can appreciate CASINO while being a bigger fan of GOODFELLAS. I love GOODFELLAS, too. But CASINO just gets me where I live. Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing (which I’m happy to say has lapsed) and Scorsese framing this film as a quasi-religious sin-redemption polemic.
      Thank you, Kip, for your thoughtful comments and for reading this post (so quickly!) Take care!

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  2. Hi Ken, I check your site weekly, and it’s always a thrill to see a new essay posted. (Despite the hunky guy at the top of your Back To The Beach post, I was getting a little tired of checking in and finding him still there…)

    I skipped Casino when it came out, because I wrongly assumed it would be a retread of Goodfellas. (And I often have a low tolerance for Pesci, particularly if he’s the main character and playing for laughs — I’ve never made it all the way through My Cousin Vinny.)

    But I think tonight, while the rest of the world watches that sportsball thingy (apparently all about Taylor Swift and Usher?), I’m gonna settle in for those 3 hours with Casino. And like you, I’m sometimes (albeit infrequently) underwhelmed by Scorsese, but I’m never bored — there are always rewards.

    And I’m in your camp as to western, war, and sports films, though I’m not sure it’s so much about the mythology of the hero as it is about my being gay and completely uninterested in such subjects — though, to be fair, I watched 10 minutes of Drag Race, and I was completely uninterested in that as well, while ALL of my friends won’t miss it (and then talk about it endlessly)!

    Gotta go, almost time for kickoff— whatever that is…

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    1. HA!
      Hello, Neely (please forgive me if you’ve told me your name and I’ve forgotten it. As you note, it’s been a while).
      To that subject, I can’t tell you how encouragin’ it is (said in Ruth Gordon’s voice) to know you check out my site regularly. Weekly, yet! I was growing tired of Mr. Back to the Beach, as well. So, thanks for letting me know SOMEONE is out there and aware when I’m MIA.

      It’s also encouraging that this essay might inspire you to check out CASINO. One of the most consistent criticisms levied at CASINO is that it is, indeed, a retread of GOODFELLAS, but I’ve always thought it a hollow observation given the similarities of most Mob movies. Both are Scorsese at his best, but only CASINO has Sharon Stone, and that’s like having the Golden Ticket.

      I applaud your plan to seek shelter from that ball event monopolizing the airwaves today, and I got a good laugh (because I identified) from your stated reason for not caring for sports, war, and western films. And I can’t really deal with Drag Race either…at least not since the drag aesthetic has been co-opted by Home Shopping Network and most of the newscasters and weather reporters in LA.

      My partner is interested in seeing Killers of the Flower Moon (which I loved), so maybe we’ll be settling in for 3 ½ hours of Scorsese ourselves, this evening.

      You made my day with your complimentary and very funny comments, Neely. I thank you so much for sticking around and having faith that I hadn’t forgotten my Blogger password or something.
      Hope you enjoy CASINO!

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  3. Hi Ken!

    I have to admit that I can only take Scorsese films in small doses - at least the violent ones anyway. (I love New York, New York and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.)

    Maybe I’m too sensitive or squeamish but overt violence in films really affects me. I can’t “shake it off” for a long time after the movie is over.

    I have seen Casino and agree that Sharon Stone is a revelation. Why, why, why did she not get more meaty roles like this afterward???

    As far as my aversion to cinematic violence, I think what makes me deeply wary of Scorsese’s films is that he makes me CARE about characters I don’t like and their death/harm jolts me out of complacent film going. I mean I could watch dozens of CGI enhanced people die (like in 300) and not bat an eyelash but watching something like Scorsese’s Cape Fear scares the bejesus out of me!

    I do admit, I’m not a fan of the 3-hour films that are becoming more prevalent. Even classics like Lawrence of Arabia lull me to sleep during their long run time. I still haven’t seen Oppenheimer or Killers of the Flower Moon for that reason.

    The best film I have scene this year is detached and compact and all the more jolting because of it. It’s The Zone of Interest. It’s about the dichotomy of the family of the commandant of Auschwitz living a “normal” life beside the death camp. The violence is implied, and for me, all the more devastating.

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    1. Greetings, Roberta!

      It’s like old times hearing from you! I just had a discussion with a friend just this morning who'd read my post and was intrigued about watching CASINO. Be he feels very the same as you about screen violence.
      He asked if I would recommend it, and initially, I thought, "Yes" because when I think of CASINO, I think primarily of the relationships. But then I gave it a thought and reconsidered.

      What you wrote is very accurate. Scorsese DOES have a gift for humanizing his characters (even the ones we don't like) and getting us to care about the dramatic/emotional stakes of the story. When violence erupts, particularly if it's graphic, it can be very disturbing.

      Scorsese is a director I trust, so I'm strangely able to deal with the violence in his movies (that doesn't mean I don't have my hands in front of my eyes at times). But there are some directors I find to be irresponsible, who don't understand (or care) about the "weight" of images on the psyche, and so I avoid their films specifically for the violence.

      Because Bruce feels much the same way, I've come to see resistance to movie violence in a person as a very admirabl, if not enviable, trait. One you shouldn't try to lose or be talked out of. To be able to CARE that strongly when watching a film is what it's all about. But such immersion has to be guarded. There are just some images you don't want in your head.

      As for Sharon Stone, based on the CASINO DVD commentary track, she was as surprised as you that the film didn't lead to more meaty roles. It's somewhat baffling, given how widely praised her work in this was.

      I’m not sure where I developed my fondness for long movies. I blame it on my youth when I'd effortlessly sit through double features like CHITTY CHITTY BANG BANG paired with AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS. Oh, and on the topic of movie length and violence, I’d steer clear of KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON if I were you.

      What’s interesting in all this is that you sat through a film I was afraid to. I had a screener copy of THE ZONE OF INTEREST, and after about 20 minutes in i was afraid to continue. I thought it would be too disturbing!!

      I guess we all have our levels of discomfort.

      Thank you for such a food-for-thought contribution. Martin Scorsese is such a versatile filmmaker, having tackled everything from the musical to the period drama, so it’s possible to be a fan of one kind of Scorsese – like the one who made ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE and HUGO, while finding the TAXI DRIVER Scorsese just as gifted a filmmaker, but for that very reason, not as easy to take.
      Hope you’re enjoying your Superbowl Sunday, and thanks again, Roberta, for reading my post and adding to this comment community. XOXO

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  4. Hi Ken,
    Casino is a Scorsese movie I've only seen once or twice. I should give it another shot (pun not intended); there is one scene (concerning baseball bats) that just might be the most brutal violence I've ever seen in a film. It makes the violence in Goodfellas (my choice for Scorsese's best) seem like playground fights!

    Aside from Goodfellas, my favorite Marty movies are After Hours, Mean Streets, Shutter Island, The King of Comedy, The Irishman, Silence, the first hour of Gangs of New York and the first half of Cape Fear. I fluctuate on Taxi Driver. I admire and respect Raging Bull more than having an enthusiasm to rewatch it. I detest The Wolf of Wall Street. And, =gulp=, I quite like his "Life Lessons" segment of New York Stories which you label dreadful. After Hours is very dear to me and Life Lessons has a similar NY/Bohemian atmosphere. (And Rosanna Arquette!)
    Scorsese is generally a good director, but for the most part comes off as too Hollywood rather than a great director. I'll probably be stripped of my "cineaste" badge, but, despite, his many fine movies, I find his overall career a bit disappointing. (I do like his championing of the Powell and Pressburger films, and if I could ask Scorsese one question it would if he believes Ken Russell was the inheritor of their British neo-romantic style.)

    I forgot Alan King is in Casino. I just rewatched him in Just Tell Me What You Want in which he's amazingly rude throughout!

    Mark

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    1. Hi Mark -
      That's a terrific list of Scorsese films you cite as your favorites. Not only does it highlight Scorsese's versatility (I love seeing THE KING OF COMEDY and AFTER HOURS and in the mix [the nicely evoked Bohemian atmosphere that appeals to you in After Hours certainly explains what attraction NEW YORK STORIES holds for you…in addition to Rosanna Arquette!]), but it's also nice that you bring up the variable appeal of Scorsese's movies.
      How it’s possible to like the beginning of some (CAPE FEAR) or isolated aspects of another (RAGING BULL) without feeling the need to dismiss the entire film out of hand (However, I share your dislike of THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, film that perhaps better earns the “dreadful” I handed out to NEW YORK STORIES).
      Also, I've never seen SILENCE. It never sounded interesting to me, but it appearing on your list makes me think I might reconsider and give it a look.

      The violence in CASINO I still fast forward through is that baseball bat scene and the one with the vice. Yikes! Terrifying to consider it was more graphically violent before a preview audience reaction convinced him to trim it.

      I enjoyed reading what you don’t particularly like about Scorsese as director, it being very illuminating that you are able to elaborate on your criticisms and pinpoint the ways in which he and his work can fall short for you.

      I laughed at your reference to a “cineaste badge” because I know what you mean. I’ve had my share of the Film Twitter crowd who can never figure out how I can write about serious films (THE SERVANT!) and loveable trash (HOT RODS TO HELL!” side by side.
      I don’t much hold to the idea that all film fans must revere the same filmmakers. The broad canvas of artistic voices and personal tastes repudiates what I tend to think is a “boys club” mentality surrounding which directors are most esteemed, and which ones inspire the most cineaste vitriol if criticized.
      That you have parsed the pluses and minuses of Scorsese’s films for yourself, that you respond strongly to cinema --whether positively or negatively-- is something I’m sure Scorsese would applaud even if finding himself low in your esteem ranks.

      I want to write about JUST TELLME WHAT YOU WANT someday. I really should have done it sooner. I liked the film a great deal when it came out, but found a recent revisit to the DVD hard going because King’s character and performance too often brought to mind a certain orange asshole.

      Lastly, that’s a great Ken Russell-related question!
      Thank you, Mark, for reading this post and sharing your Scorsese sentiments. Always interesting and always a pleasure.

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    2. Thank you for your response, Ken!

      Although I'm prefectly fine with lengthy films, both Cape Fear and Gangs of New York suffer from terribly drawn-out second halves that take the energy out of their snappy early scenes.

      Silence is remarkable for its sheer mood (especially the constant sounds of crickets/cicadas that can get very menacing) more than its dramatization of Endo's novel. (Although Issey Ogata is remarkable as a Japanese Grand Councilor who at one point visually "deflates." [You have to see it to understand what I mean], and the character of KichijirĊ is someone I identify with as he struggles with his faith.)

      Off-topic: I was able to see Polanski's latest "The Palace" and I have to report that it's essentially another "What?" (Sydne Rome is even in it!) A tale of partying people that seems to be made up as it goes. One keeps expecting it to build to some sort of significance, but it doesn't. There are some amusing bits, especially from John Cleese and Fanny Ardant.

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    3. My pleasure, Mark –
      I don't know if you've seen KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON, but one of the critical complaints I've heard most repeated about it is the very thing you mentioned in regard "drawn out" second halves. I enjoyed it a great deal, but I definitely see that point more with this film than any of the others.

      And I appreciate the info on SILENCE, I really haven't heard anything about it, and what you've imparted makes me want to see it.

      I was sent a screener copy of Polanski's THE PALACE and surprised even myself in not having devoured it the second it arrived. But I'd heard so much bad about it that I've kept it on hold (and have such bad memories of Polanski when he tries to be funny…I really hated WHAT? And I'm one of those who doesn't think fondly of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS).
      Having you confirm some of my fears makes me feel better and braces me somewhat for finally checking it out soon. Like Scorsese and his movies, Polanski can totally tank, but he so clearly cares about what he's doing that there is invariably a nugget or two that I can extract from the debris.
      Polanski and Sydney Rome reunited? Oh, my!

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  5. I remember trying to convince some Swiss women to watch "Miller's Crossing" who were reticent, on grounds of it maybe being more violent than they preferred. But... weren't we just discussing "Casino"? Which features men in their undies being beaten to death with baseball bats? And another being squished in a vise? Do you consider that a violent movie? They did not!

    My favorite moment was when De Niro watches Pesci go bonkers on some loser at a bar, and just looks nonplussed. Seconded by when he has to explain in simple terms the economics of why he can't continue to employ the kid who's as useless as tits on a bull. Frankly I was really disappointed later when he starts to lose it and yell at people. Same old De Niro character comes out.

    One thing I remember about this movie (which apparently has really stuck with me, nigh 30 years later) is its being wall-to-wall music, in a way I didn't associate with Scorsese. Also (and I'm surprised you didn't mention this) it's chock full of comedians in non-comic roles. What a curious way to use Rickles, King, Smothers, Allen. That was no accident and I wonder what Scorsese was trying to get at with that choice.

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    1. Hi Allen-
      Yes, CASINO is virtually wall-to-wall music. The sheer number of songs used in the film is pretty incredible. The licensing must have taken a massive chunk of the budget.

      You bring up an interesting point about the subjectivity of our responses to violence in movies. Speaking only for myself, I find context and character to be significant influencers of the degree of violence I can handle. The level of it's graphicness, however, is an unreliable sliding scale.

      One classic movie I really loathe because of its violence is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE…and from a wholly "visual" standpoint, it's nowhere near as violent as CASINO. But since the film feels so gleefully misanthropic to me, the violence feels much worse on a psychological and emotional level because it feels irresponsible and oddly sympathetic (the film's identification with Alex makes me feel complicit).

      Now, the violence in CASINO is too graphic for me to watch except through my fingers over my eyes. Still, it has never bothered me in context with the emotional brutality of the story (the sacred and profane angle, it feels more rooted in the real emotional/spiritual pain of death (acts committed by people who have lost their souls). So it feels somehow responsible …i.e., bearable.

      I contradict myself on the screen violence topic all the time (for example, I can't watch SCREAM even once, but I've watched HEREDITARY multiple times). Sometimes, it comes down to something as simple as whether or not a film appears to be presenting violence as "action," -an audience stimulant- or as something I'm supposed to feel something about, not be entertained by.

      But that is one of the things that fascinates me about movies, because…since the same paradoxes exist in how we all respond to everything in real life…it intrigues me that a part of us seeks some kind of consistency of response when we relate to the arts. Those who hand out the movie ratings must always argue about this.

      And thanks for mentioning all those comics in dramatic roles!
      Seeing so many comics being so glowering and effectively dark in dramatic roles is great. And I must say I think I probably took too much pleasure in seeing Don Rickles getting his ass kicked (not a fan).

      I've heard Scorsese express—perhaps in the DVD commentary—that he thinks good comics are essentially actors, but seeing so many in one film is intriguing. Especially those like Alan King and Rickles, who are so closely associated with classic-era Las Vegas. I agree it does feel intentional.
      And MILLER'S CROSSING is a film I remember liking a great deal, but haven't seen since it came out. Thanks for potentially inspiring a revisit. As always, Allen, so appreciate your reading this essay and for your continued thoughtful contributions after all these years.

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  6. Right on, Ken - Casino is phenomenal and ranks right up there with Goodfellas and The Godfather in the mob/crime genre. I never understood the "meh" attitude of some towards this film. It doesn't disappoint.

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    1. Happy to hear you are a champion of CASINO too!
      It's an incredibly masterful bit of filmmaking.

      As has been the case with several Scorsese films that were not particularly well-received when first released, time has been kind to CASINO, with audiences discovering it and appreciating it independent of the GOODFELLAS comparisons that hounded it back when only five years separated both films.
      I think it is indeed a phenomenal work, one of Scorsese's best, in my opinion, and so deserving of being ranked with the greats of the mob/crime film genre.
      Thanks for commenting and reading this post!

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  7. First of all, it's GREAT to see you posting again after a lengthy (for us, anyway!) hiatus. I enjoyed reading this. I'm not much of a Scorcese viewer and have never seen "Casino." This is by far the closest nudge I've ever encountered towards seeing it because I adore Sharon Stone and always felt she was underrated by many of the people who bestow awards on performers. Hearing how great she was in it and how essential she is to the narrative, I feel like I finally want to see the movie. (Lord knows that most of the time I've followed recommendations of yours, I didn't regret it. And, in fact, have lifelong gratitude for "Dinah East" alone!! LOL) As an aside, I will tell you that a dear friend of mine was in Las Vegas - oh... probably 20 years ago or more - and had personal interaction with two famous people on that trip. She couldn't say enough about how wonderful Alan King was (whose image is often to the contrary) nor express how appallingly rude and nasty Andy Williams was (ditto!)!!! Sometimes things are just not as they seem, I guess. Welcome back (to your own blog - ha ha!) I always learn a lot from your posts.

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    1. Hi Jon –
      Thanks for noticing my absence! I’m not sure where you stand regarding violence, so, in some ways, CASINO is not the best film to recommend. But if you like Sharon Stone at all this is THE Sharon Stone performance you can’t miss. She’s superb. Plus, it’s visually stylish as hell, with a broad array of epic 70s fashions and big hairdos to keep you enthralled.
      CASINO trades New York grit for Las Vegas gloss, and adds a very strong female role at the center, making it my preferred of Scorsese’s gangster movies. Proceed with caution, but I would say most definitely proceed.

      Since my partner and I really used to LOVE Las Vegas (in its gloriously kitschy days, before all those Cirque du Soleil things came to replace showgirls with headdresses and the Liberace Museum), so I thank you for that anecdote you passed on. It’s gratifying to hear that Alan King was so nice, but in a way, I’m not all THAT surprised about Andy Williams. Not after I’d read that he was another one of those extreme-right Republican nutjobs who thought Obama was a socialist. To find out he was also rude and nasty just fits the playbook. No wonder Claudine Longet learned to use a gun.
      As ever, I appreciate your visits here and your always enjoyable contributions. Thank you!
      By the way, if you liked “Dinah East,” perhaps you might like ALL ABOUT ALICE (1972) a drag spoof of ALL ABOUT EVE that is hilarious:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwUcxvRnQvw

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