Scorsese: Casino

Casino is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes frequent profanity and several quick but graphic violent episodes involving beatings, a stabbing and a head caught in a vise.  – The New York Times

Ah, yes. Casino. It’s the Scorsese movie that’s kind of like Goodfellas in a cocktail gown, but a lot more than that. When it came out in 1995, it seemed like a lament – for the high-flying decadence of the late 1970s and 1980s, for the dangerous, Mob-soaked glamour of Las Vegas (explicitly mourned in De Niro’s voice over in the final scenes) and for a twisted version of the American Dream itself.

The plot for Casino is based on Nicholas “co-writer of Goodfellas” Pileggi’s non-fiction book about Frank Rosenthal, who managed several casinos, including the famous Stardust, on behalf of the Chicago Mafia in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci – y’know, from Goodfellas, play best pals Sam “Ace” Rothstein (a thinly disguised Rosenthal) and Nicky Santoro. Ace is a dab hand at picking safe bets and handicapping them. Nicky is little and packs a punch.

As a Jew in the Italian-American world of the Mob, Ace is tolerated for the economic value of his considerable talents. He remains, nevertheless, an outsider – even Nicky, his best friend, is not above calling him a “fucking Jew” in genuine anger, during what is possibly the film’s most famous scene:

The Biblical overtones of the meeting in the desert are not accidental. Like so many of his films, Casino is shot through with Scorsese’s take on Italian-American Catholicism. Even the central, triangular relationship between Nicky, Ace and Ace’s wife Ginger that sort of reminded me of the rage and jealousy infused relationship in Jesus Christ Superstar between Judas, Christ and Magdalene. And that didn’t end so well for all concerned, either.

Sharon Stone, never better, plays Ginger, a hustler with an eye for the main chance. When Ace proposes to her she is honest about her misgivings – “I’m very fond of you, but I don’t love you” – and Ace is ready with the real hook that no one in Vegas can resist. “I’ll take care of you. You’ll want for nothing, and that’ll be true even if it doesn’t work out. Wanna take a chance?”

And of course she does – with those odds, how could she lose? But lose she does, because Ace has not got her completely figured out and refuses to fulfil his part of the deal and let her go when it “doesn’t work out”. To him, it’s obvious that all Ginger wants is money and, in fairness, she doesn’t do much to make him think otherwise. 

But Ginger also has a need to be needed, and no one fills that void better than her former pimp, a loser who rejoices in the improbable name of Lester Diamond (a skeezy James Woods). Whatever else Ace feels for her, need isn’t on the list: to him, Ginger is the great gamble of his life and he can’t lose her. Ginger’s bet all she has, which isn’t much, on a rigged game. When she tries, half-heartedly, to run off with Lester, Ace lets her know who has all the cards. “I’m no john. You understand? You always thought I was but I’m not. I’m no sucker. Fucking pimp cocksucker. He’s lucky I didn’t kill him last time. Lucky he’s fucking living. And if you had stayed with him, and you would have run away, you would have been dead, both of you. Dead! Dead!”

And when Nicky, the man Ginger turns to as an unlikely ally, first claps eyes on Ginger it’s clear that, like Ace, he sees her in terms of a trophy. “What the hell have you been doing out here?” he murmurs – as though Ace’s fancy apartment, expensive clothes and wads of cash are all very well, but Ginger’s the asset that no one else can have.

Of course, Ginger’s gilded prison eventually sends her on a downward spiral of pills, booze and depression that finishes in Nicky’s pants. The set-up brilliantly misdirects where the real threat to Ace – first seen over the opening credits, tumbling through flames like a damned soul after a car bombing – comes from. In fact, it’s the old Mobsters “back home” who try to take him out after they become wary of Ace’s increasing flamboyance and penchant for ruffling the wrong feathers. Likewise, it’s not Ace’s voice over that comes from beyond the grave, but Nicky’s.

“No matter how big a guy might be, Nicky would take him on. You beat Nicky with fists, he comes back with a bat. You beat him with a knife, he comes back with a gun. And if you beat him with a gun, you better kill him, because he’ll keep comin’ back and back until one of you is dead,” Ace’s voice over tells us.

But Nicky is not immortal, and killing him doesn’t involve making sure he’s dead before putting him in a grave – he’s badly beaten and buried alive. But there’ll be no resurrecting Nicky, and Ginger gets her freedom too late. Despite eventually being allowed to walk away with a suitcase full of money and an armload of jewels, she blows it all on drugs and winds up dying in flea pit hotel. Ace, ever scrupulous about his investments, checks her out one more time. “After they found her body, I had an independent doctor do another autopsy.” Unsurprisingly, Ace finds that the Mob gave her her final hit.

Of course, Casino’s epic sweep takes in more than the story of a marriage, but the film’s three-hour running time would drag by without it. Scorsese has practised his tales of crime and the Mafia, of men doing bad things, but the destructive power of unrequited love is new territory that he handles with considerable verve. It’s not quite in the league of his greatest films (like Taxi Driver or Raging Bull), but the domestic drama at its heart brings it pretty damn close.

Clare Moody

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