Dedicated to the memory of Lesley Stern (1950-2021)
Martin Scorsese’s Casino is growing on me. After my initial viewing, in a secluded little critics’ preview theatrette, I was duly impressed, but also a little cool about the whole thing. I took it as a mixed blessing, going over much the same ground as Scorsese’s earlier, much-celebrated Goodfellas (1990). And yes, there is an awful lot of similar ground between Casino and Goodfellas.
Both are large, sprawling, episodic chronicles of extravagant criminal lifestyles. Both have a dizzying, flipbook structure, a mosaic of literally hundreds of vivid mini-scenes held together by voice-over narration. There’s Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci in both – and Pesci has a similar role as the hotheaded, kill-crazy mob operator. Both films go into incredible detail about money deals and criminal power games, and the dissolution of a complex network of allegiances. The ending or coda of both films is virtually identical. Both films show a cycle of sudden, ugly, gut-churning acts of violence; and both films mix this upsetting spectacle of violence with scenes of wild, black, tasteless humour.
On top of all that, it’s easy to leap to the conclusion that Casino is yet another Scorsese film with a weak, marginal, even demeaning role for a woman – this time played by the formidable Sharon Stone. It’s also easy to think that the central theme of Casino is something like “betrayal of trust” – that’s, after all what Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro) announces in its first seconds – and then to conclude that another De Niro epic, Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), dramatises this theme better.
But I should have remembered something in my personal history as a critic – that Goodfellas is not a film I loved on first viewing, either. It grew on me, too, over several years and many viewings. So I took myself off to Casino again, this time with a crowd at a big cinema with a large screen and a booming digital sound system. This time, I was more jangled, more excited, and also more thoughtful at the end. So here are a few of my thoughts to date on this very striking film.
These thoughts have in no small part been influenced and inspired by a remarkable book published by the British Film Institute, The Scorsese Connection (1995) by Lesley Stern. It is a deeply challenging, beautifully written book that I wholeheartedly recommend to all Scorsese fans – indeed, to all serious lovers of cinema.
Casino is about a gambling empire in Las Vegas. Ace, a genius gambler with an obsessive work ethic, is chosen by the mob to set up this empire in the Vegas desert in the 1970s. Ace is assigned a sidekick, someone to watch over him – the violent Nicky (Pesci). On the psychological plane, Ace seems to crave a certain respectability, or at least a certain normality/stability in his life, no matter how he gets to that plateau. Unfortunately for Ace, Nicky is the classic gangster – an animal with an irrational desire to have it all, to be Mr Big on top of the world.
The film traces a triangle (reminiscent of an intrigue in Raging Bull, 1980) between Nicky, Ace, and Ace’s wife, Ginger (Stone) – an ex-hooker who takes increasing refuge in booze and drugs as the marital situation worsens. Ace and Ginger are caught in a vicious bind: the more his public world of the casino collapses, the more his obsession with control focuses on his home, his wife, his child. And then – you see it coming – Ginger starts up an unholy alliance with Nicky, and a Vegas apocalypse surely cannot be far away. An apocalypse coming down in the courts, on the streets, at the gaming tables, in family bedrooms and tawdry motel rooms ... and in the desert.
As a fantastic night shot shows us, Vegas in the ‘70s is a small cluster of buildings surrounded by a huge desert. And as Nicky tells us in voice-over, many problems are solved out in that desert, because it’s full of holes – holes to put bodies in. This business about the desert holes evokes a great deal. It makes us think of horror movies, the living dead coming out of their makeshift graves; and of horror-tinged thrillers like the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984). It makes us think even more about American Westerns, screen stories in which the fragile garden of civilisation is planted and struggles to survive in a vast wilderness or desert (Nicky even refers to Vegas, at one point, as the Wild West).
In The Scorsese Connection, Stern talks a great deal, in a very illuminating way, about the various traces or echoes of horror movies and Westerns in Scorsese’s predominantly urban, contemporary dramas. If there are deaths – many deaths – in his films, it’s as if the corpses are big trouble and can’t stay in the ground for very long. Like the body in the boot of the car in Goodfellas, or De Niro as Max Cady, seemingly unkillable in Cape Fear (1991). And Scorsese’s heroes, especially Travis Bickle/De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976), are often like disturbed cowboys, forever wandering on the winds, far from an almost forgotten ancestral home, and never able to make their peace with either a fragile new civilisation, or the vast, savage desert beyond it (this is the legacy of John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers). Ace is the latest Scorsese antihero stranded, as Stern puts it, between “home and away”: the rich and powerful in Vegas warn him, “This ain’t your home” but, back where his home is meant to be, with the mob, he isn’t accepted, either – because he’s Jewish, not Italian, and that’s something he’ll never be able to change.
Stern also captures the unique, provocative tone of Scorsese’s movies – that dizzying alternation between gut-churning horror and vulgar hilarity. The violence in Casino (there’s plenty of it) is more genuinely upsetting and ugly than anything in Quentin Tarantino’s or Steven Soderbergh’s hip-cool films. By the same token, the humour – such as the sight of Stone greedily sniffing cocaine while she tells her little daughter, “Don’t do this” – is wilder and more liberating than in many a black comedy.
The deepest subject of Casino is similar to that of Goodfellas. In both films, Scorsese evokes a lawless paradise: an intoxicating world where all the material desires of his characters are instantly fulfilled. But this mad, amoral dream of heaven on earth cannot last; inexorably, it dissolves, and in the most agonisingly horrible ways for all concerned. It’s no wonder these crazed Utopias of Scorsese’s characters cannot last; as Stern demonstrates, their ideal worlds run on adrenalin, on compulsive, neurotic obsessions, on an elaborate edifice of fantasy projections and unstable emotional drives. And that’s a volatile, combustible mixture, ready to pop at any second.
There’s a particular quality in Scorsese’s work that is all over Casino, a quality that Stern describes very well. She calls it deictic, thereby suggesting that, in Scorsese’s films, you don’t only have certain events and scenes, but also (as it were) a kind of simultaneous commentary that is pointing the thing out and saying: look, here’s a movie scene – here comes the big movie plot revelation, or the big movie ending, or the sublime moment where a character finally overhears or glimpses or recognises some awful truth (anagnorisis, I believe that’s called). This pronounced quality in Scorsese’s work is not meant to distance you as a viewer, or even necessarily make you critical of what you’re seeing – it’s not an alienation effect, as in Brechtian theatre theory. In fact, this hyper-consciousness of everything seen in a Scorsese movie doubles the fun. It’s an outsize, exhibitionistic trait – very closely aligned to the grating, vulgar, American stand-up comedy that Scorsese has always loved, as is evident in The King of Comedy (1983).
From the first moments of his breakthrough feature Mean Streets (1973), Scorsese has always been a show-off of exactly this kind. There you see a thin, wiry De Niro go up to a letterbox and put something in it. Then he starts to hurriedly move off down the street. The letterbox explodes; he has put a bomb in it for no other reason, we assume, than the pure, mad, punk thrill of it. This crazy guy is smiling, elated. Scorsese then freezes the image, and the character name appears typed on the bottom of the screen: “Johnny Boy”. Scorsese is pointing again, jumping up and down a bit like Johnny Boy himself, and saying here: look, you want a movie intro, a character vignette, I give it to you! (It was, inevitably, not long before this particular deictic gesture became a big movie cliché.)
There’s a memorable moment of this kind in Casino, where we go into a flashback, and Nicky is recalling “Back home years ago …”. Then words appear again at the bottom of the screen. They don’t read “Kansas 1970” or whatnot, as per usual. They read: “Back Home Years Ago”. It’s great to hear a huge audience rock with laughter at the perfectly timed appearance of such a kooky, reflexive joke.
The very start of Casino works like this, too. The film begins with Ace striding out to his car. The ostentatious flashiness of his suit is matched by Scorsese’s swooping camera movement. Sam gets in his car; he turns the ignition key, and a fire begins under the hood. Then, in what looks like a technical gaffe, there is a jolting, clumsy cut to the car exploding. Almost three hours later we get the retroactive explanation for this bizarre prologue, which is an elaborate narrative ruse. But that’s Scorsese the kidder, the playful exhibitionist: he revels, like a child, in making his very expensive film look, for a moment, like it’s a bargain basement B movie from the early ‘60s – specifically, Samuel Fuller’s sublime Underworld U.S.A. (1961). And another Fuller touch is the musical accompaniment to this explosive mayhem: J.S. Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” – a selection that bothered one moviegoer so much that he was moved to decry (in hate mail sent to me!) the “defilement” of such great and sacred art. Deictics often goes hand-in-glove with cultural defilement in Scorsese; it’s his provocative, canon-disrupting, Johnny Boy side.
All this playing around in Scorsese’s cinema is a way of letting you know that you’re watching a movie that’s like every other movie you’ve ever seen, but not exactly like any of those other movies. That’s what Stern describes as the allusive nature of Scorsese’s films. He doesn’t quote other films mechanically, as some (such as Paul Schrader) do. It’s more that Scorsese’s creative centre, the deep part of himself that he’s working from, is already a great pool of movie memories and associations. Scorsese became bolder and bolder in this direction over the course of the ‘90s. When he remade Cape Fear, he decided to keep and rework Bernard Herrmann’s indelible musical score from the original version of 1962. In between the two Cape Fears, Herrmann had scored Taxi Driver, so his music had picked up that associative layer as well in the meantime.
Come to think of it, we could say that the allusive quality of Scorsese’s cinema happens at the precise intersection between cinema and popular music. In Casino, Scorsese raids a vast archive of pop and rock songs for his soundtrack, often in startling ways. It’s like “a personal history with Martin Scorsese through American popular music” (to adapt the title of one of his cinema documentaries), from Hoagy Carmichael and The Platters through to “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, and then that last song turned on its head by Devo. Familiar songs have many functions in the film: their beat sets the editing rhythm, their lyrics provide corny or ironic counterpoint on the action, and their bubblegum sentiments of yearning define some impossible but hopelessly seductive Utopia or heaven to which all the characters graspingly aspire.
In Casino, Scorsese does not stop at using this barrage of pop and rock songs. He also plunders other movie soundtracks: in particular, George Delerue’s haunting score for Jean-Luc Godard’s classic Contempt (1963). In this example, you can really see how Scorsese’s allusive, associative imagination works. Contempt is about the breakdown of trust in a marriage; it’s in search of that mysterious but precise moment when two people start to separate from each other emotionally. The centrepiece of Godard’s film is a roughly half-hour sequence where this man and woman (played by Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli) go back and forth in their apartment, bickering, experiencing all kinds of mood swings and sudden shifts in their emotional relation to each other. It could well be the last possible half-hour of their married lives where these characters could possibly turn the tide of their estrangement and work their relationship out. But they lose the moment, and everything from there is a downhill catastrophe.
Scorsese takes the gestalt of Godard’s film – the sad music, the sense of agonising time passing, of lost opportunities, of volatile marital emotions – and from that he invents a long detour at about the two-hour mark of Casino. Suddenly, we leave behind the mob, crime, Vegas and the casino itself; only the ultimate breakdown of Ace and Ginger’s marriage, with all the painful leaving and returning, fighting and mistrust. And watching Casino a second time, I saw it was not at all a misogynist tale of a woman’s betrayal of a man. It’s more a film about a man’s propensity to mistrust a woman, his rigidity, his desperate need to keep everything together, static and in place. But like for everything and everybody here, Ace’s desperate, needy dream is going to unravel horribly.
In passages like these marital breakdown scenes, you get an incredible thrill of cinema from Casino; the palpable sense of a filmmaker who has absorbed many traditions and styles of film, and is pouring them out of himself, almost unconsciously, in new and wild combinations. Before this film, the last time I had that kind of thrill – precious to cinephiles – was with Emir Kusturica’s great Underground (1995). For Stern, the pay-off of all this allusion and remembering of other movies in Scorsese is that his films end up being about the cinema itself – the cinema in a kind of grand, abstract, but very real and affecting way. They are about the lure of looking and gazing, the very thrill of fiction and storytelling, the anxiety of suspense, the radical magic of dreaming and imagining, the seductive force of violence, the terror of embracing the death-drive.
For Stern, Scorsese at his best is not much interested in individual characters or people, not even in real, daily social worlds. When I look at Raging Bull (1980), The Age of Innocence (1993) or New York, New York (1977) – some of my favourite Scorsese movies – I’m not sure I can entirely go along with the abstract, Roland Barthes-flavoured vision of Scorsese’s art that Stern offers us. But Casino, like Goodfellas or Cape Fear, is indeed one of Scorsese’s more abstract, scattered, allusive, purely cinematic films. The characters do tend to be ciphers, or more accurately, bundles of psychic drives – drives like Ace’s possessiveness or Nicky’s greed for power or Ginger’s lust for diamonds. It’s the ways in which these drives intersect, proliferate and cancel each other out that makes the movie; not the drama of traditional, so-called three-dimensional characters in clear, motivated lines of conflict.
And Casino has the abstraction – the abstract expressionism – of a particularly feverish dream. The way the voice-over narration works is endlessly, prodigiously amazing. Like the contemporaneous La Haine (1995), Casino has a great and very intricate soundtrack. There’s not one narrating voice in the film but two, then suddenly three, all claiming sovereignty over the storyline. These voices present scenes and talk with casual authority about events they could never have actually witnessed. From the very start, you figure that at least one of the narrators is dead, speaking from beyond the grave, like William Holden as Joe Gillis floating dead in the pool at the start of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Because of this play of voice and image, scenes start becoming unreal, and the fiction starts to float in an eerie, hallucinatory way.
Here I must mention one of my very favourite things in Casino, and that’s James Woods, who’s more striking in just a few scenes here than he is in the whole of Oliver Stone’s appalling Nixon (1995). Woods as Lester Diamond is the lure from the past in this story, often just a disembodied voice on the end of a telephone; he’s the guy who can instantly pull Ginger out her world of Ace and the casino – her absolutely vulnerable spot. There’s a terrific scene where Ace and Ginger get married, a big, spectacular Vegas wedding; suddenly the raucous sound of the wedding fades out, and over shots of the couple posing stiffly for photographs, you hear just this thin, reedy, creepy voice – you can’t even tell who it is at first, but then you realise it’s Lester down the phone line again, chanting seductively to Ginger: “Can you feel me in the pit of your stomach … in your heart … don’t make me come there … answer me … ” – he’s her drug, her kick, her addiction. Woods’ presence as Lester, his total cinematic effect, is among Scorsese’s finest collaborative creations.
It’s been suggested that, in the ‘90s, Scorsese became a baroque filmmaker. His films are like fugues, with many independent lines running in polyphony. He doesn’t ever simply play formal arabesques with his camera and his rock music over an indifferent story line. He entirely ignores the characters, or their story, or the specific world in which they are grounded – that’s the baseline of realism in his work. He keeps all that alive, in collaboration with his marvellous actors, set designers and costume managers. But characters, storylines and the feel of documentary authenticity are not the only things that consume Scorsese as an artist. Simultaneous with all that are the elements of style and form out on their own trajectories, doing their own dance.
Scorsese is constantly setting himself problems of style, and exploring all the possible solutions to those problems. I’m referring to problems such as: how do you film two people talking in a car? How fast can you drive a complex narrative before it breaks down, stops making sense, and loses the audience altogether? What large-scale rhythms, changes or breaks in rhythm, can you get happening in a three-hour film? Cinema to Scorsese is old-fashioned, three-act drama, but its everything else as well, at the same time: it’s a dense novel, it’s music, it’s architecture, it’s poetry, it’s abstract painting. And last but not least it’s a show – spectacle, showbiz, a circus, a stand-up comic monologue.
Most filmmakers choose one or two of these aesthetic models to work on for a lifetime; Scorsese’s greatness – and his madness – is that he wants to do all of them at once, to juggle all the balls in the air. Casino makes me remember one of most lunatic things that Francis Ford Coppola says in the revealing documentary portrait Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), when he raves: “For me, [the film] has to have some answers, and by answers I don’t mean just a punchline, the answer is on about 47 different levels”. After only two viewings (so far), I haven’t yet savoured all 47 levels of Casino. But, even on a first glance, I could tell this: it’s among the fullest, richest, most pleasurable three hours you can spend at the movies.
© Adrian Martin 16 March 1996