Casino 10th Anniversary Edition Review
“The places we have known do not belong only to the world of space on which we map them for our own convenience. They were only a thin slice, held between the contiguous impressions that composed our life at that time; the memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
From “Swann’s Way” by Marcel Proust.
Martin Scorsese’s Casino is narrated by a man who is, to all intents and purposes, dead. Catapulted by a car bomb into a hell of neon emptiness, Ace Rothstein (De Niro), tells us his story; how he gained power and privilege and threw it all away by gambling on love, that terribly random emotion with odds that no-one can calculate. He tells his story through images so vivid they are almost tangible, but they amount to nothing but a string of regrets for moments which are hopelessly lost. Other voices intrude into Ace’s monologue and other perspectives give us a broader impression of fifteen-odd years in the life of Las Vegas, while Scorsese offers us a minutely detailed picture of the casino business. But at heart, Casino is the story of people beaten into submission by irretrievably lost time, and victims of emotions which they find impossible to control.
The following review is a lengthy and somewhat diversionary discussion of the film and contains a number of spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film or simply want to skip my waffle and find out what this new DVD is like then please scroll down to my review of the disc
Sam 'Ace' Rothstein (De Niro) was hired by the Mob during the late 1960s to run the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas. An immensely skilled gambler, Ace brought all his knowledge to bear on the casino business and the result was extraordinary success. But two factors irresistibly destroyed any pleasure Ace found in his triumph. Firstly, the arrival of Nicky Santoro (Pesci), a borderline psychopath who was sent to Vegas to become Ace’s protector. Secondly, and even more disastrously, his love for Ginger (Stone), a good-time girl whom he made the mistake of trusting.
This is all based on a true story, as was Goodfellas, also written by Scorsese with Nicholas Pileggi. Indeed, the two films share a number of elements in common. They both deal with the mob – although the gangsters in Casino are a couple of rungs higher up the ladder – and they both vividly demonstrate the age-old biblical lesson, “What profits it a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”. Many commentators also noted the casting of Robert De NIro and Joe Pesci in central roles and some critical voices dubbed the film an inferior remake of Goodfellas.
I want to try and address this criticism head-on because I think it’s gained too much currency and is essentially wrongheaded. Certainly, the two films share a similar world and they both feature the same pairing of actors. They’re also both virtuoso pieces of filmmaking. But I don’t think that they share much else in common. Goodfellas stretches from the 1950s to the early 1980s while Casino is focused intensively on the 1970s. The earlier film deals with small-time hoods while the later one is about how mobsters build paradise for themselves in the desert. On a metaphysical and emotional level it’s a much more ambitious, almost epic piece of work. Goodfellas strikes me as essentially a work of comedy, in the strict sense of the word. It’s about bad men having a good time and it implicates the audience in their world and makes the viewer understand the attractions of living outside the law. At the end, Henry Hill has survived and is older and wiser but he has regrets about what he has lost and the final image of Joe Pesci shooting into the camera has an excitement born of joyous anarchy. The film has a comic spin and it hypes up the audience to a fever-pitch of excitement. When people are killed, their deaths are absurd and sometimes ridiculous. Violence in Goodfellas is random and destructive but also cathartic and seductive. Casino, on the other hand, is a tragedy about the lies that people tell themselves and which eventually destroy them. The violence is grotesque, more so than in the earlier film, and sadistic. There’s no sense of release about it, it’s self-perpetuating and soul destroying.
There’s a sense of glistening rot amidst the neon accompanied by the lingering stink of corruption. Occasional lines of dialogue raise a smile and the vivid character playing of a reliable cast brings its own pleasures. But the tone is one of desperation and, perhaps more so on a second viewing, agonising sadness. Yet Casino strikes this viewer as a much more mature and compassionate work. The moments of poignancy in Goodfellas have grown here into a transcendent spiritual understanding of the cost of a life spent with violence and the pain that bad men feel when they meet their equally bad ends.
The two leading actors have also changed since Goodfellas. As Jimmy, De Niro was paranoid and twitchy. As Ace, he’s quiet and watchful, sometimes raising no more than an eyebrow as chaos descends around him. Jimmy couldn’t trust anybody but Ace seems to trust virtually everybody. Jimmy was brutal and duplicitous, Ace is surprisingly tender and reflective. Robert De Niro has given many great performances but I think his triumph in Casino is in finding the heart of the character.
Ace breaks your heart at the end with a stare into camera which would be dead-eyed if it wasn’t suffused with a despairing sense of loss. He gets everywhere yet he gets nowhere. Along with his work in Heat the same year, this is the last time that De Niro has shown was a downright remarkable actor he is, gaining effects by a slight change of expression and allowing us inside a complicated, contradictory soul. In a sense, his willingness to trust Ginger with the key to his safety deposit box – Ace’s version of giving everything of himself to her – is, not to put too fine a point on it, daft and we may laugh at his naiveté. But for Ace, love means giving everything – as he explains in his opening words. Love is his fatal flaw, an overwhelming outpouring of emotion that defies rational analysis – his first lines in the film demonstrate this in an almost touchingly childish manner; “When you love someone you’ve gotta trust them, you’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise what’s the point?”
Joe Pesci is even more remarkable and, it has to be said, grossly underappreciated. The impulse for destruction which Tommy delighted in remains present in Nicky Santoro. But Nicky isn’t merely a thug, he’s a loquacious and philosophical psychopath who is quite able, as in the scene with Ace’s lawyer, to rationalise and explain his behaviour in a calm and reflective manner. He’s also a perfectly good father to his young son. Most of all, in the scenes where he and Ginger conduct a disastrous affair, he’s sensitive and understanding of Ginger’s needs and neurosis in a way which is alien to Ace.
There’s no doubt that he is a ‘bad man’, bad to the bone in fact, but Pesci has grown as an actor and is able to reveal the intricate mechanisms inside a well hidden heart. In the final scenes, as Nicky and his brother are beaten to insensibility and buried alive in the desert, the sense of heart-wrenching agony in almost too much for us to bear, and Nicky’s pathetically pleading cries that his brother be spared are an extraordinary touch of humanity. Scorsese suggests that in death, men – good and bad alike - are equal in both their pain and their loss.
Even if we accept that Casino is a thematic sequel to Goodfellas in some respects, what immediately strikes you is how far Scorsese’s style has developed in the intervening five years – and when you consider that it was pretty damned extraordinary to begin with, that’s some achievement. Some elements remain from his earliest films – the duologues between actors who are enjoying the comic spin of the dialogue and situations, the use of Scorsese family members in affectionately humorous roles, the extraordinarily vivid use of violence to both shock and involve the audience. But there’s a new urgency here played out through a level of visual intensity that Scorsese had never before reached. In a sense, the film is open to criticisms of being too big, indeed over-the-top, but this is entirely intentional as it matches the theme of the film perfectly; hubris followed by an irresistible impulse towards self-destruction. In what is still for me his greatest film, Mean Streets, Scorsese gives us a vision of a group of men’s lives. In Casino he gives us a vision of a world and, by extension, the whole world in microcosm. In the first hour of the film, he pulls out a trick that he has never matched before or since; a minutely detailed introduction to the Las Vegas of the early 1970s, achieved through following the money. Scorsese goes from the floor to the count room to the gangsters to the Teamsters pension fund to the hiring of Ace Rothstein. Then, through Ace’s eyes, we see a heated picture of corruption, violence and the addictive lure of neon-encrusted glamour. Scorsese uses all his visual skills, and those of DP Robert Richardson and production designer Dante Ferretti, to take us inside this world, layering sound and music on top to create an overwhelming sensual experience. Particularly worthy of note is the stunning use of whip-pans in the sequence which explains how everyone is being watched by someone.
The music deserves a special mention. Ever since his first film, Scorsese has delighted in using source music – rock in Mean Streets, singer-songwriters in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, big bands in New York New York. In Goodfellas, the mix of musicals styles was intoxicating, ranging from Tony Bennett to Sid Vicious. Casino takes this even further, beginning with the soaring emotion of Bach’s “St Matthew’s Passion” which segues into Louis Prima. The music rages through the thirteen-odd years of narrative and contains little jokes such as what Scorsese has called the ‘deconstruction of style’ in the versions of “Satisfaction” by the Stones and Devo. At the end, there’s a remarkably sinister use of “House of the Rising Sun” to counterpoint a particularly vicious killing and the final poignant moments are backed by Georges Delerue’s beautiful main theme from Godard’s Le Mepris - as Scorsese says, this seems to be the saddest music in the world.
I came to associate this music with the character of Ginger. She’s a difficult woman to like, a drug-addicted hedonist who betrays Ace with both Nicky and her ex-boyfriend. But once again, Scorsese’s immense compassion for flawed people comes into play and Ginger attains a tragic stature when we consider her final fate of drug-addled insensibility. Like Ace, Ginger is flawed by love; in this case for Lester (Woods), her ex-pimp and lover who uses her mercilessly. Sharon Stone’s beautifully layered performance is a considerable achievement for the actress and shows a grace which she has seldom matched. Stone shows us how impossible it is to live up to the kind of blind love with Ace offers Ginger. Essentially, what Ginger wants in understanding that isn’t based in self-interest or blind love and when she can’t find either of these anymore she turns obsessive and aggressive. There’s a great scene late in the film when she rows with Ace in the front garden of the house they shared. Scorsese uses the break-up of their marriage to reflect the gradual disintegration of the world which Ace inhabits and when the casinos finally fall at the end of the film, this is mirrored by the death-throes of the relationship.
Casino is a long film, rambling and a little too in love with its own style to become a perfect masterpiece like Mean Streets. But it’s packed with exhilarating filmmaking and beautiful performances – in addition to those already mentioned, those great comedians Alan King and Don Rickles are impressive in straight roles. Most of all, it’s Scorsese’s greatest excursion into the idea of filmmaking as an act of memory. Ace has nothing left at the end of the film and it becomes clear that the story we have just heard is his reconstruction of a world which is irrevocably broken. I used the quote from Proust at the beginning because I felt it was appropriate to the style of the film, all fractured moments which come together to bring the past to life. I want to close with another quote from the great French writer, this time from the last volume of his masterwork “In Search of Lost Time”. Marcel, getting old, remembers the people he has known in his life and sees them “like giants plunged into the years, [touching] the distant epochs through which they have lived, between which so many days have come to range themeselves - in Time." Like Marcel , Scorsese uses his artistic powers to bring the lives of forgotten men into the present and he understands that even the least of the fractured remnants of humanity was possessed of a soul and loved, however irrationally, by someone. It’s an astonishingly powerful achievement and Casino may be one of Scorsese’s finest cinematic legacies.
Casino was originally released back in the early days of DVD. This new release is an improvement in some respects and adds some interesting extra features, but has one big flaw. The disc is a dual-sided DVD 18 which, for one thing, leaves it more sensitive to fingerprints and dust. For another, there have been reports that some players will not play the film properly after the layer change. I didn’t have a problem with this but it’s worth your while to be aware of the alleged problem. The upcoming Region 2 release is a two-disc set and may well turn out to be more reliable.
The film itself looks very nice indeed, presented in an anamorphically enhanced transfer framed at 2.35:1. There is plenty of detail and the transfer copes very well with the varying lighting style and the use of various degrees of focus. Occasionally, the scenes in the film which were deliberately over-exposed seem to have been cleaned up a bit too much. Colours are magnificent throughout and there are no problems with artifacting or excessive grain. This strikes me as a definite improvement on the original R1 release and the 1999 R2 release. However, I am in agreement with other reviewers who think that the film has never looked quite as good on any home viewing format as it did in cinemas ten years ago.
The main soundtrack on the disc is a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Regrettably, the DTS 5.1 Surround mix which was featured on the 2003 French release from TFI Video. Since the DTS track was the best thing about the French disc, it’s regrettable that we don’t get a DTS mix here. However, the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is involving enough and offers a very satisfying mixture of dialogue, music and sound effects. There’s plenty of surround information throughout and the .1 LFE sometimes comes into play to memorable effect, particularly during the occasional explosions.
The only extra on the first side of the disc is a feature entitled “Moments with Martin Scorsese, Sharon Stone, Nicholas Pileggi and more…” This isn’t advertised as a commentary but it runs for most of the film and is just as interesting as most formal commentaries. Although it’s not scene specific, it goes into most aspects of the film in detail and is very entertaining. It would have been nice to get a full-length Scorsese commentary but this will do to be going on with. I’ve also found some of Scorsese’s recent tracks disappointing – particularly the one on Gangs of New York. There’s actually more meat here than in the sporadic scene-specific tracks on some of the films in the Warner Scorsese Collection set. Some comments replicate those in the documentaries on the second side of the disc which indicates where they came from.
The remainder of the extras are on the flip-side of the DVD-18 disc. The first four featurettes consist of one making-of documentary broken up into four parts. I’m sure there’s a rational reason why studios do this but I find it very irksome. The four featurettes last about an hour in total and they are pretty good, albeit very much in the by now wearily familiar style of Laurent Bouzereau. Heavily featured are interviews with Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi, Sharon Stone, Thelma Schoonmaker and producer Barbara De Fina. We also get briefer comments from Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Dante Ferretti and costume designer Rita Ryack. It’s good to see the some substantial background material on this undervalued film but a lot of the comments are a little too guarded and bland to be as interesting as they should be. Also unsatisfying is a small selection of deleted scenes. Be warned, none of the alleged extreme violence from the pre-MPAA cut of the film is present here so don’t get excited about seeing a more explicit vice sequence.
The best of the extras are two documentaries, “Vegas and the Mob” and “History Alive: True Crime Authors: Casino with Nicholas Pileggi”. The first of these only runs about 13 minutes but is a very useful little insight into the history of Las Vegas and the rise and fall of mob control. The “History Alive” documentary is burdened with some appalling ‘recreated’ footage which suggests they couldn’t get the rights to use clips from the film – the recreations almost match scenes from the film shot for shot but without the style or the acting. However, the interview with Pileggi is brilliant and it’s fascinating to find out the true story behind the film. Scorsese and Pileggi’s screenplay is remarkably close to what really happened, although some events have been re-ordered and characters conflated.
Some bland productions notes are present but, oddly, there is no trailer included. The film has optional subtitles in English, French and Spanish as do the extras on the flip-side of the disc. The “Moments” track is not subtitled.
Casino deserves a full re-evaluation and, thankfully, seems to be getting it. I think it’s a deeper, richer film than Goodfellas and it certainly repays repeat viewings. This new 10th Anniversary DVD looks and sounds pretty good although it would probably have been better had Universal divided it into two discs.