American Babylon
Jeff Reichert on Casino

American casinos were once found only on the glittering Strip in Vegas and the wannabe upstart Pacific Avenue in down-market Atlantic City. Now, thanks largely—and accidentally—to a 1976 Supreme Court decision concerning the regulation of Native American activities on Native American lands, they’re a multibillion-dollar-a-year industry in states across the nation. That case, Bryan vs. Itasca County, was fought over taxes, but like so many such decisions it opened unexpected floodgates. Today, if so inclined, one can play craps in Lawton, Oklahoma; blackjack in historic Chippewa country in North Dakota; slots in Missoula, Montana. Casinos are filled coast-to-coast with grannies bused in to man slot machines for hours at a time—the walking dead hoping their dinging, spinning one-armed Molochs will spit back triple cherries or maybe even a JACKPOT. The gaudy, fluorescent excess; the trampling of local communities in order to plant massive footprints for glittering structures that are often just horrible to look at; the grift and graft and worse involved in getting them built; and the constant thought that for as many who go for some harmless fun (say, a bachelorette party) there are far more acting out desperations and needs on the gaming floors, often to their ruination—it all suggests nothing so much as a charnel house. They’re factories built to short circuit the American Dream, but in their rise, we can locate the stirring success of that same dream. Where once there was nothing, now, in the wake of human intervention, there’s something. An industry built on taking people’s money and guaranteeing them nothing in return—a perpetual earnings machine. There’s a reason why Martin Scorsese called his casino movie Casino, singular.

When you love someone, youve gotta trust them. Theres no other way. Youve got to give them the key to everything thats yours. Otherwise, whats the point? And, for a while . . . I believed thats the kind of love I had.—Ace Rothstein

Casino starts with a blast. It’s 1983, Las Vegas, and a car bomb lights up a nattily dressed man we’ve barely met. In hushed voiceover, we hear his musings on the love of his life (see above) as he walks out of a restaurant to his Cadillac, sits down, closes the door, and explodes. Those paying close attention will notice the rough matching cut from the actual man turning the key in his ignition to the dummy the practical effects guys set ablaze—no digital here, only the good ol’ fashioned kind of trickery. The man’s body spins through space across a sea of glowing lights—we’re now witnessing a title sequence courtesy of Saul and Elaine Bass, scored to Bach. His body tumbles and tumbles, and all of a sudden it’s a little over a decade earlier and the man is running the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas. He’s Sam “Ace” Rothstein, and we’ll believe for the next three hours of screen time that everything he tells us—in a dominating voiceover that nearly, pleasurably suffocates the film, especially within the first third—is spoken from beyond the grave. It’s perhaps the most compelling Scorsese cold open since that of his first feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Casino begins in a more balletic fashion than that film’s kinetic rush, but decades into his career, we can still make out the same handprints.

Casino is the fact-based story of Rothstein’s rise and fall (he’s modeled on gambling impresario Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal) during the decade or so he spent managing the fictional Tangiers. Unlike many of Scorsese’s other violent films, which continue to poke through the cultural consciousness via direct quotation, late-night-television parody, T-shirts, Academy Awards montages, and the like (thinking Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, only to start), Casino’s felt a bit under-loved by the world at large. It has a reputation as the logy, brick-heavy brother to the fleet and raw Goodfellas, the revered film that brought Scorsese storming back after a decade spent wandering and made him, for a time, the favorite director of meatheads across the United States. Search for Goodfellas and Casino online together and you’ll find several heavily panting threads on sites like IGN and Yahoo devoted to settling once and for all the question of which is better. (Most take the easy out and choose Goodfellas.) When Casino was released five years after Goodfellas, there seemed some fatigue, a sense that Scorsese was dipping back into the same well too soon. That’s understandable: both movies spring from Nicholas Pileggi’s gruff reportage; share a similar Italian-American crime milieu; rely heavily on overlapping, perspective-swapping voice over; and feature De Niro and Pesci (with the latter playing Casino’s Nicky Santoro as if Nicky has seen Goodfellas and styled himself after Pesci’s Tommy DeVito). Similar as they may be, though, decoupling them is not terribly hard. Perhaps an analogy by way of Scorsese favorite Luchino Visconti: Goodfellas is like Scorsese’s Rocco and His Brothers, Casino his The Leopard. All four films are epic-length studies of moments of historical transition, but the former pairing immerses viewers in the lives being lived in those moments, while the latter two are more detached, concerned with the crumbling of larger institutional forces. Even though the milieu of Scorsese’s preceding The Age of Innocence maps better to that of The Leopard, both Ace and Don Fabrizio Corbera are dinosaurs without awareness that the worlds they rule are rapidly coming to an end. (If anything, Age’s Newland Archer seems frozen in time by that film’s last scene.)

What’s most remarkable about the films in the Pileggi diptych is actually how different they are. The first is a nervy blast—nostalgia-soaked, endlessly quotable, and oddly fun even as it grinds toward a tragic drug-addled end. Casino, both chillier and more hothouse by turns, nauseatingly violent and deeply, woefully sad, is no one’s idea of a good time. Nearly the first hour is given to De Niro and Pesci’s alternating voiceovers against shots of them just being in space. It’s eleven minutes into the film before an essential piece of diegetic dialogue is heard clearly. Before this, Ace and Nicky do an efficient job of diagramming how the casinos got built, where the money came from, who fronted for whom, who got paid off, and how the “skim” functions: i.e. how money from the Tangiers makes its way back to the mafia family back in Kansas City. There’s so much watching and looking, so much practical hard detail, that everyone we see feels like a bug under glass. And yet it’s all totally exhilarating. Much of this has to do with cinematographer Robert Richardson’s near constant use of the steadicam, allowing us to float across the casino floor, into the back rooms where the counting and grift take place, and beyond. The thrill also has to do with Pileggi’s fascinating accrual of casino-ethnographic details. (How does he know all this stuff?) But more than a little bit of the charge of these early sequences comes from an already building anticipation: there will be a love story, everything we see will go south, but when and how?

During that virtuosic opening hour, when the camera moves in a near constant swirl, the film somehow never manages to fetishize the casino, and certainly not the act of gambling. We never get a loving establishing shot of the Tangiers exterior (a budgetary issue, perhaps—in today’s filmic economy, some kid with a computer would just draw it), and when the film lays out the aggressive geometry of the gaming floor, it always comes across as more threatening than glamorous, and is always linked to characters moving through the space. This isn’t The Color of Money with a filmmaker trying to find every possible angle or trick shot to film a game of dexterity and chance. Scorsese is always focused on people in space completing actions—counting money, passing bags, opening doors. How many shots are there that exist merely to track Rothstein and his floor manager Billy Sherbert (a nicely grim Don Rickles), as they walk for a little bit, stop, look at something we don’t see, and whisper to each other? The aging mafia dons back home in Kansas City sitting around a table in half-light look like some kind of bas-relief. It’s all past tense (the voiceover is full of we weres, we dids, and we thoughts) and almost inert. We are in this milieu not to learn more about gambling (though in a bravura sequence we do learn how to operate a great cheat, and the horrible consequences of being found out), but to watch men of skill and industry at work. Some of them, like Nicky, may be low-life criminals; others, like Ace, consider themselves legit, aside from some trickery around getting a gambling license—but there’s still a business to be run.

But Casino, along with providing crisp, detailed ethnography, is also a love story. The first clue that this is so might be the first of several times we hear Georges Delerue’s “Camille” from Contempt drift onto the soundtrack. When Ace takes up with Sharon Stone’s cool, collected blonde hustler Ginger, it seems initially all fun and games. He feeds her habits (gambling, money, clothes), they fuck; it’s just another kind of transaction. But he pushes for more. She pushes back—“I care about you, but I just don’t have those kinds of feelings for you. I’m sorry. I’m not in love with you.” Ace, ever the rationalist, takes stock of the odds, goes on about foundations, mutual respect, what love is, anyway. His closing offer: “Want to take a chance?” It’s one of two bets we see the master gambler lose, and much of the film’s second hour is devoted to watching Ace lose Ginger again and again: to her former pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods, sweaty), to her loneliness, to alcohol and drugs, to an affair with Ace’s “best friend” Nicky. Ginger went in eyes wide open, but the security Ace offers turns into imprisonment—she’s in love with Lester and can’t be happy with less. A film that had, prior to this, fomented a kind of icy remove busts wide open at the seams into Cassavetes-ian domestic melodrama, with Stone gone full Gena Rowlands, gnashing her teeth and flailing through the frame. She’s never been better, and the performance almost upends the film—was this hurricane of a breakup drama always meant to occupy so much of Casino, or did Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker see what they had and redirect the film, taking the risk that distending it in such a fashion could pay dividends? As Ginger horribly, painfully disintegrates, the actress even puts the great De Niro on his guard—at times, he, and the film, seems positively frightened of what she might do. Ace gave her the keys to the kingdom (there are scenes devoted to him showing her how their finances are arranged and where the money lives), gave her his trust, but the house always wins. He knew better, as we all do when we enter a casino, but he played anyway.

We fucked it all up. It shoulda been so sweet, too. But it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fuckin valuable again.Nicky Santoro

Those words from Nicky at Casino’s outset signal the endpoint of the film’s other narrative, the one that is dropped for so long while Ace sorts through the wreckage of his marriage, though perhaps it’s better to call them necessary parallels. The Age of Innocence and Casino mark the beginning of late Scorsese, a period obsessed with history, with individuals existing in systems of codes on the brink of being replaced by the new, by the whatever-comes-next. The last shot of Casino, is of a wearied Ace, back where he started, looking past us. His eyes look tired. (Though De Niro has remained ubiquitous, has he been as good since this moment?) Ace and Nicky did have it all, and they did fuck it up—they never even had a right to it in the first place. And it was the last time that street guys like them were ever given such power. Today’s thugs have MBAs and even less of what one might label a conscience. Scorsese has made so many films about the previous generation of criminals not to valorize their bad behavior, but because that behavior had a face, a tradition, and underlying honor and rules, however skewed. Compare that to the faceless internationalist corporatism that flipped the world economy into a ponzi scheme, screwing over anyone and everyone without compunction. We feel the encroachment at the end of Casino with a shot of the MGM Grand Hotel lion (lions appear also in Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street), just as the hints of the financial calamities in Jordan Belfort's wake gives the thoroughly angry Wolf of Wall Street a bit of a rueful cast—at least once upon a time criminals had some boundaries.

Sometimes those boundaries in Casino can be, admittedly, hard to discern. This is especially true in the film’s blood-soaked denouement. Nicky’s early-film move from back home to “help” Ace run the Tangiers with a little added muscle could only end in one way, really. His behavior in Las Vegas grows more violent, more drunkenly flamboyant, drawing ever more federal attention to the Mafioso connections undergirding business on the Strip, and it’s only a matter of time before he’s silenced. This happens, gruesomely, at the hands of a Louisville slugger—the same bat just used to pulverized his brother’s head right before his eyes, the first whack at Nicky’s gut so hard that it actually interrupts his voiceover mid-stream—the film’s aesthetic remove is derailed by its own violence. This may seem a small thing after we’ve watched a cheat’s hand smashed with a ballpoint hammer or a man’s head squeezed so hard in a vice that his eyeball pops, but Nicky’s visceral, lengthy beatdown is hard to shake. Not long after, we see a drugged-up Ginger wander the hallway of a decrepit motel. Voiceover announces her lonely death. Other Tangiers associates are shot dead in a purge meant to protect the Dons. Ace—whose fight with local cowboy politicos over his gambling license had erupted into a media-saturated fiasco—emerges intact, and only because the bomb planted in his car was placed underneath a piece of reinforced steel that was a quirk of his car’s design. He escapes, and is allowed to live on because he can resume quietly making money for the men back home. Lesson learned.

Eons ago in Reverse Shot, Erik Syngle wrote (regarding a far gentler film, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise), “We can choose the films we like, but the films we love tend to choose us, slip quietly into our lives until we look up one day and are shocked to realize there was ever a time before we knew them.” Casino has me considering an addendum to this formulation: those movies that initially spurned our meager advances, leaving us cold, feeling a little put out—but which, when we meet again years later, and we’re on a more equal footing, triggers love at second sight. Casino looks so much more trenchant to me two decades on. If it almost feels like a different movie, it may be because it was more prescient than we could have known. Ace notes later, after we see the Tangiers demolished, “The big corporations took it all over. Today it looks like Disneyland.” The irony that, for Ace, cuddly Disney is a fate worse than death, worse than all the tawdriness and grotesque violence we’ve witnessed in the film, should be lost on approximately no one. Yet now, Disney is Times Square—it’s everywhere. It’s too simplistic to argue that Casino’s core metaphor is something like “Life is a casino,” or “America has always been just a casino,” or “The American Dream is just a casino.” What Scorsese is getting at is far bigger and also subtler. Once upon a time, when casinos weren’t everywhere in this country, they were rare, exotic, a little dangerous. Now, they’re just one more piece of encroaching uniformity. Hence, the singular title Casino: a stand-in for the constant flow of power in a certain direction, a monolithic force, and the falsity of individual agency against that movement. We enter the casino always hoping that this night will be our night, but the house always wins.