Cinema Revisited: Casino (1995)
Directed by Martin Scorsese. Actors: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollark, L.Q. Jones, Dick Smothers, John Bloom. Released November 22, 1995. Running time: 178 minutes.
Brutally violent, dramatically layered, edited with speed and precision, switched between a stationary and a hand-held camera and used excerpts from popular songs, the lyrics of which have nothing to do with the scene, but which somehow improve them, “Casino” is a masterpiece of filmmaking.
From the Director of GoodFellas
Scorsese followed his 1990 masterpiece “GoodFellas” with this tough, uncompromising story about the glitz of Las Vegas that treats the very real corruption lurking just below the facade. The story takes place in the 1970s and 1980s and is loosely based on a few actual people and events. It is about Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) and Nick Santoro (Joe Pesci), two thugs who arrive in Las Vegas and make an impression. Rothstein is stable, measured, corrupt, but pragmatic in his approach. Santoro is an unglued hothead that gives way to the impulse. Sharon Stone practically steals the two good actors from the film with their career-defining performance as Rothstein’s drug-addicted, alcoholic woman. It’s probably James Wood’s best job. And Scorsese casts a lot of comedians like Dick Smothers, Alan King, Kevin Pollak and Don Rickles in non-weird, serious roles, and everyone comes up to the occasion.
There is no action to the casino. It’s tightly episodic with a lot of action and violence, but there is no linear narrative. The structure is rather random, with Scorsese allowing a lot of creative input from its cast. DeNiro and Pesci improvised almost the entire dialogue in their scenes together. L.Q. Jones, an experienced character actor, was allowed to rewrite his scenes to achieve more authenticity.
It is noteworthy that “casino” is almost 3 hours long and runs so fast that it appears almost an hour shorter. Scorsese’s rustling camera fades, his violence is so cruel that it is just as shocking as any extreme horror film, and his ability to take a few seconds of a pop hit from the 60s or 70s and effectively build a scene are all elements, which add layers to the cinematic structure of the film. In the end you are almost breathless
This does not mean that “casino” is a general movie that would be attractive to every mainstream viewer. The violence is extreme. Men are beaten with shovels and buried alive in the desert. Another put his head in a vice and pressed it until one eye pops out. The technology, which was only available in 1995, enables this scene to look cruelly realistic and troubling even for the most dulled viewer.
This is Martin Scorsese’s niche. His deviations beyond the subject of violent outsiders – including “Kundun”, “The Age of Innocence” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” – are usually less interesting than his bonafide classics like “GoodFellas”, “Mean Streets”. and “taxi drivers”, who also feature Robert DeNiro (whose own films are almost always less interesting when Scorsese is not at the top).
Of course, the power and impact of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” films obviously inspired Scorsese’s work (though Coppolla is a peer and not a mentor). But Scorsese’s approach probably uses this concept of crime drama as the basis for building on it with rougher characters and more extreme violence. And Scorsese’s work is more of an inspiration for David Chase’s HBO series “The Sopranos” with its nonlinear collection of episodes and often graphic brutality.