“Listen to me Anthony. I got your head in a fuckin’ vice. I’ll squash your head like a fuckin’ grapefruit if you don’t give me a name”.
As mob movies go, Scorsese’s GoodFellas must rank among one of the best, on anybody’s list. Violent and brutal, it’s a direct contrast to the sepia-tinted world of The Godfather, and is often ranked as potentially the best Scorsese movie of all time, along side Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. GoodFellas, the critics say, is Scorsese’s DEFINITIVE mafia film. Which is why it is all really rather unfair on Casino.
If I had to pick, I would say that Casino was my favorite Vegas movie by far. Made in 1995, it is essentially GoodFellas 2: it has the same director, the same cast (De Niro, Pesci and Frank Vincent) and is even adapted from a book by the same author, but far from being the inevitable disappointing ‘sequel’ to the first film, it is, in fact, ‘GoodFellas Improved’.
Everything that made GoodFellas great is in evidence here (Pesci even plays essentially the same character), but it is the addition to these elements which make Casino so great. At times it feels like Scorsese rewatched GoodFellas, found out where he went wrong, and then corrected these faults with Casino. His typically tricksy, classy direction meets new levels here as he exploits every single trick available in the editing suite: as cameras flash the screen freezes for a split second, characters dialogue overlaps with itself and the three leads interrupt each others voiceovers as though the characters themselves are providing a DVD commentary track for the film. Conversations between characters are even conducted on alternating camera set ups while the characters themselves remain frozen in freeze-frame positions. And, in one of my favourite touches, a conversation between De Niro and Pesci, in code, is subtitled with it’s real meaning. This is a seriously classy film.
Speaking of class, the Vegas setting goes a long way here; glamorous and filled with dreams, which makes the incredibly brutal violence all that harder to digest. GoodFellas may have been gritty, but it was still cinematic in its violence. Casino, on the other hand, is so casual about its violence that it seems almost unremarkable; yet still real enough so as to leave a real feeling of discomfort, and enough memorable moments to haunt you for a long time yet. Such a feat, especially in today’s era of ‘cool’ violence shows what a true master of cinema Scorsese has become.
Let’s put all the directorial tricks aside for a moment though, and concentrate on the story itself. Spanning over 3 hours and eleven years, it is another rise and fall story- as two New York friends, Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein and Nicky ‘the ant’ Santoro, are sent out to Vegas to, respectively, run a mob casino and take care of any trouble this gives them. Initially making easy millions, things begin to fall apart as Sam marries the drug addicted Ginger (Oscar nominated Sharon Stone) and Nicky’s psychotic tendencies begin to get the better of him, leaving the film to chart the end of the mobs hold over the city and its casinos. Played like a documentary, the film is full of fascinating insights into the running of a casino, and great moments of visually storytelling, such as the opening (which I rank as one of the best ever); as Sam, in 1983, walks out to his car, informing us, in voice over, how, when you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them, there’s no other way, gets in the car, starts the engine, and is promptly engulfed in a ball of fire. Before we can even get our bearings fire fills the screen and almost operatic music leads us into the opening credits, as, in the background, we see Sam slowly fall through the fire away from screen and into oblivion. It is an awesome opening.
The acting, too, is fantastic, and, for De Niro and Stone, possibly the last great film they have done. The always under-rated Frank Vincent deserves special mention too, for his calmly cool performance as Frankie Marino (on whose memoirs the book was based), as does Pesci, for another power-house performance. A fantastic all round film, Casino challenges any mob movie for the top spot (though it does lose out to Godfather II), and offers a new, stunning, take on Las Vegas. Highly recommended for anyone who likes movies or has half a brain.
Useless fact: the word ‘Fuck’ is used 422 times in the movie.
This is an original Hashmark article by Mark Turnock, written in early 2006