Watching Casino, Twenty Years Later

illustration by Shane Turner

In the mid-90s, Martin Scorsese hired my employer, Matte World Digital, to create some visual-effects shots of the 70s-era Las Vegas Strip for his film Casino. It was no easy task. At the time, most of Vegas’ iconic mid-century signage had already been demolished to make way for the architectural monstrosities of today’s Disneyland-like Strip. But the crew at Matte World Digital, high achievers, stepped up to the challenge. Experimenting with architectural software to simulate bounce-light refraction, they produced some stunning and groundbreaking shots for the film. Their most dazzling work—in my opinion—is the establishing shot of the fictional Tangiers Casino, where CG neon light reflects off surfaces and casts shadows in the same manner as real-world light. And, like most every shot of the film, the camera moves—only it’s simulated, and it blew my mind.

Casino continues to blow my mind, twenty years later. It’s an epic; a weighty morality tale about systematic greed, operatic in scope. I learned how fun playing online poker is, I’ve got addicted to it, my mind is always asking me to play, maybe because of greed or out of fun. It would make for a terrific tragic opera with its myriad of music cues as diverse as Bach, B.B. King and Devo. The incredible detail of this world—despite its brutal, realistic gore—rewards multiple viewings. Whenever I happen to find it on TV I can’t turn away, even with commercials, even though it’s three hours long. Has any obsessive Scorsese fan ever made a count of all its shots? Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s brilliant editor/collaborator for forty-plus years, likely remembers — and it must be in the thousands. Thousands of shots to match the thousands of hired extras, playing synthetic-fabric-clad gamblers on the casino floor. For scale, Scorsese filmed on location in the Riviera, but was only allowed to do so in the middle of the night, so as not to hinder the profitable 24-hour gambling throng.

This dogged realism extends to the film’s over-sized cast, filled with fascinating Las Vegas faces. Don Rickles, who worked the clubs back when the Mafia ran the joint, is a nearly silent mob enforcer, and never cracks a joke. Real Vegas police officers, flatly efficient, were cast as police. The deadpan blackjack dealer, who Joe Pesci (most likely improvising) calls ‘The Beaut,’ was a local dealer, and according to Scorsese, needed no direction. He simply played himself.

Released in 1995, Casino is Scorsese’s final look at modern organized crime, part of an unofficial trilogy that started way back in 1973 with Mean Streets. Upon its release, Casino suffered critically in comparison to its immediate predecessor, the 1990 masterpiece, Goodfellas. For all its flashy noir allure, it’s one of Scorsese’s darkest films, too dire for some—dense with visual, aural, and historical information. But if Goodfellas, with its more personal and linear Henry Hill narrative, had been a template, Casino wouldn’t have been much of a challenge for Scorsese. This time around he wanted to focus on the bigger picture first, before regaling us with another tale of mob misrule. In an almost documentary-style narrative, the first third of Casino relates how the mafia infiltrated Las Vegas and, once they were there, how they orchestrated “the skim” from the counting rooms, before money-lust and unchecked violence led to their banishment by the FBI.

All of this is portrayed in that dynamic Scorsese fashion, with masterful swish-pan montages that never stop moving, leaving you feeling jittery and enclosed, as if within an actual casino environment. The constant camera movement and overhead placement (the perfect angle for a film that heavily features surveillance as a theme) keep a narrative about systems from ever getting dull. This was no small accomplishment on Scorsese’s part, considering that the systems portrayed are massive in scope and include the intricate workings of real estate acquisition, gambling operations and card cheats, legal codes and law enforcement.

In Goodfellas, for all the anxiety and nastiness on display in the neighborhood crime syndicate, we comprehend Henry Hill’s youthful need to belong to something bigger and more powerful than his petty self—he wants to be a big shot. Casino, though, is about career criminals who have reached middle age and are now tackling middle-management problems amid large-scale systematic corruption. Scorsese’s take on this something-for-nothing culture has a visceral element of disgust running through it right from the start, with a car bomb that blows the central character through the opening credits.

Robert De Niro’s falling-man title sequence is poetically rendered by Saul and Elaine Bass as a descent into neon hell (and a precursor to Don Draper’s opening free fall in Mad Men). Scorsese takes the time to show us the machinations behind large-scale larceny, and the vicious penalties enacted against those who try to take from the takers. These penalties involve punishments doled out with chainsaws and mallets in back rooms, down institutional hallways hidden from the surface glamour of the casino floor. In one scene that Scorsese purposefully shot just to bait the censors—who then perplexed him by not taking the bait—a table vice graphically squeezes a man’s head like an instrument of medieval torture. And, while I might wish the censors had done their duty this one time, the point is made: we’re watching some truly wretched human conduct, all of it based on actual stories. It’s modern-day horror and Scorsese dares us to turn away.

Casino is an experiment I’m still studying—a gangster-documentary-horror hybrid—a mixed-genre film that holds a mirror up to our basest instincts. There’s a lot of ugly truth to it. Scorsese and author Nicholas Pileggi were adapting Pileggi’s true-crime book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, while he was actually writing it—an unusual and daring way to approach such a large scale production. Casino’s narrative was built from ongoing interviews that Pileggi obtained once De Niro had been cast in the film. The real-life gangsters featured in Pileggi’s book simply couldn’t bypass a chance to see themselves portrayed onscreen by high-caliber actors. De Niro, Pesci, and character actor Frank Vincent’s multiple voiceovers were composed of dialogue taken verbatim from various interviews with these mobsters. It’s an immersive, uncomfortable experience.

Casino’s main melodrama—the love triangle between Ace (De Niro), Nicky (Pesci) and Ginger (an astonishing, increasingly unhinged Sharon Stone)—doesn’t even begin until nearly forty minutes into the film, following the Mafia/Vegas primer. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal), a hyper-intelligent and profitable odds-maker sent by the Chicago Mafia to run a casino bought from the teamster’s pension fund, is hardly Scorsese’s most dynamic antihero. De Niro underplays him like a willful math professor, yet I love his performance—a humanoid in salmon-hued designer suits. Ace is an automaton, good at laying low and always logical to the extreme. The gears in his head are endlessly cranking away, calculating every outcome. He’s joyless, largely unpleasant to be around, miffed when muffins don’t contain an equal amount of blueberries.

Ace’s tragic flaw is his love for Ginger McKenna, a charming and successful hustler (based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee). When he proposes marriage as a sort of business proposition, settling down to have children, she answers with the film’s most extreme understatement, “You’ve got the wrong girl.” But Ace’s bigger flaw is pride: he wants to be a legitimate casino manager, with a trophy wife and a baroque house-palace, like any big player in Vegas. His mob ties make that impossible though, and when he goes up against the local power players—yokels in bolo ties and cowboy hats—they laconically set the wheels in motion for his eventual ouster. De Niro tamps down his famous onscreen charisma so that it simmers—almost but not quite boiling over. He remains innately sensible, surrounded by turmoil, tilting his head slightly to indicate he’s beginning to lose his cool. When he’s murderously angry, he jabs his finger like a gun, but in the end he’s a number cruncher, grinding his wife down with his need for control.

Ace’s boyhood friend Nicky Santoro, played by Pesci at his most shark-eyed, is an anarchic force in the film from the moment he shows up, violently taking what he wants without forethought. If you’re watching Casino for the first time, it’s hard not to compare Nicky to Pesci’s iconic Tommy DeVito role in Goodfellas. It’s a similar take on a hair-trigger character. But after two decades, I’ve come to appreciate that he’s well cast, eerily resembling his real-life counterpart (Anthony “The Ant” Spilotro) in height and appearance. They could almost be brothers. Sure, he’s playing yet another psychopathic enforcer, but Pesci is also naturally humorous and uses his talent as a sort of murderous clown to add an undercurrent of viperous energy to the film that offsets Ace’s analytic calm.

A masterful scene between Nicky and a dealer at the Tangiers illustrates all of Casino’s most prominent themes during a single hand of blackjack. The pit boss calls in a dealer, one of those shapeless, pale guys who looks like he’s been working the floor his entire adult life. Coked up, probably drunk, Nicky hurls insults and cards at the man, whose expressionless calm under duress is as memorable and telling as any histrionic performance. Nicky’s multiple criminal exploits have already gotten him banned from every casino on the Strip. Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home” plays over the scene, emphasizing Nicky’s displacement, undercutting his threats with irony and bouncy humor. “Hit me! Hit me again!” he yells, between darkly hilarious onslaughts of verbal abuse. The dealer’s unflappability in the face of sadistic desperation is the face of legalized gambling itself. The pit boss nods at him to go ahead and dole out the losing hand. Neither man says a word. They know the higher-ups are on their way to swiftly take care of the problem—one of many in the casino on any given day or night. Nicky, for all his murderous bravado, has become another sucker on the gambling floor.

The surprise element, still, is Sharon Stone, who devastates as Ginger. She’s inhumanly beautiful in her glittering finery (Stone’s costumes are worth the price of admission alone) but her charisma hides a deeply damaged persona. Her self-destructive power brings chaos among the order, such as it is. There’s not enough money, alcohol or drugs to fill her inner void, and she won’t let go of her first love, Lester Diamond, a total slime-bucket played by James Wood (oozing in ill-fitting leisure suits). After the marriage sours, Ace, the ultimate control freak, won’t give her the money he promised when they wed—millions in cash, stuffed in a banker’s box so full it barely fits into its allotted vault. She turns to Nicky for help and it becomes a clash of the gambling titans. Watching Ginger’s needy, soul-crumbling decline is wrenching. I didn’t know Stone had it in her. She deserved her Golden Globe and should have won an Academy Award—the only nomination for the film. Can anyone possibly top her deconstructed femme fatale?

At times, Casino can be too much with its horrific violence—graphic, because Scorsese wants you to see the authentic result of lawlessness. Still, it’s consistently rewarding viewing, crazy with visual meaning. Freeze-frame the film at any point and you’ll see storytelling imagery you’ve never noticed before. It could be a life-sized (fallen) angel statue behind Ace, who’s unconsciously copying its body language as he saunters into a grocery stockroom full of mob bosses. Or it could be Ace and Ginger’s nanny in the deep background of their sprawling suburban home, caring for their daughter while Ginger drunkenly talks in code to Nicky on the phone, dodging wire-tap surveillance. Every single costume (and there are hundreds) tells the story of a time and a place. You could watch Casino for its art direction alone. It’s a visual extravaganza completely unrecognized by Academy voters. (Has any American director suffered greater injustices at Oscar time than Martin Scorsese? Never forget: Raging Bull lost Best Picture to Ordinary People, and Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves.) Audiences in 1995 may not have been ready to accept the 70s and early-80s as period-film material, but the obsessive research, detail and care that went into the hair, makeup, costumes and set design is evident in every shot.

The blinding hot light from cinematographer Robert Richardson illuminates this pitch-black story, not just with neon and sequins—although there’s a lifetime’s worth on display in one three-hour film—but with white light on its principals. Glowing backlit halos on Ace, as he manages his crew on the gambling floor. Overhead spots bounce off the middle of tables in secret storeroom meetings, creating exaggerated shadows on old mob bosses with incredible faces. Criminals and cops relentlessly watch each other through surveillance lenses and on monitors. Nicky’s car, reflected in Ace’s aviator glasses, kicks up dust in the desert where the city’s secrets are buried. The atmosphere is blinding and stifling at the same time but, despite the excessive stylization, never glamorized.

In Scorsese’s cinematic trajectory from street-level to nationwide crime, Casino is its own hellish masterpiece. There’s a lot to absorb during its three hours; I’m still figuring it out. Twenty years ago, I thought its characters were monsters in human form. Their relationships, based on money, implode in horrific ways, with manipulation and escalating cruelty. These days I’m more fascinated by the corruption on display, from the top down, and these characters that think they’re going to the top but are instead mere cogs in the system. Scorsese presents this system in the most exciting cinematic way imaginable and then makes us realize, in brutal fashion, that any attempt to try and control this profitable arrangement is absurdly delusional. This is likely what Scorsese wanted me to see back in 1995, but I was young and wasn’t ready for that message. Now I’ve had two decades to absorb the workings of corrupt systems—unstoppable patterns, driven by insatiable materialism. And like a great novel or opera—which Casino often is—I’ll probably learn something new from it over the next ten years.

That’s the sign of a great film

Lisa McElroy grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been writing and drawing since she could hold a pencil. Some of her favorite jobs over the years include: film editor, script supervisor, film-history researcher, art teacher (for kids). She writes and edits Wikipedia articles, with a focus on women in film and music. She’s currently writing screenplays and short stories and plays drums in her band, She Mob. Her blog is ten years old. That’s an old blog.