Why Casino is Scorsese's Best Film
Posted on: 31/05/2016
To celebrate the opening of our SCORSESE exhibition, film critic and writer Luke Buckmaster states the case for why Casino is Martin Scorsese's best film.
Warning: if you haven't seen Casino, this article contains spoilers.
Ask a cinephile to name the best Martin Scorsese film and they’ll probably give you one of two responses, assigning top marks to the story of a psychotic mohawk-clad cabbie or a boxer with severe anger management issues and a face that looks like an old catcher’s mitt.
Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) are, indeed, two of the greatest works from one of the greatest filmmakers. Both also feature iconic rhetorical questions delivered by a rarely-better Robert DeNiro (“you talking to me?” and “you never got me down, you hear me?” respectively).Do you agree with our Top 3 Moments in Casino? Leave a comment below!
Choosing a best film from Scorsese’s oeuvre is, in a sense, a reductive exercise: so many terrific pictures and so many memorable characters. But I’d argue his skills have never been finer honed or better deployed than in 1995’s Casino, an epic crime drama (again with Bob DeNiro as lead) usually outranked by at least a handful of others when discussion contemplates Scorsese greatest work.
The director co-wrote its screenplay with Nicholas Pileggi, adapting the author’s non-fiction book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas. DeNiro plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a crooked casino boss based on real-life Chicago bookmaker-cum-Vegas-mogul Frank Rosenthal.
Joe Pesci is Rothstein’s violent and hot-headed childhood friend and caporegime, Nicky Santoro, who is sent to Nevada by the mob to keep tabs on Rothstein and protect their lucrative enterprise. Their operation involves using Rothstein’s skills as a manager to balloon profits, then skim them before reporting numbers to tax agencies.
Martin Scorsese with Joe Pesci on the set of Casino
The film is anchored by dual voice-over narration from DeNiro and Pesci, whose characters walk us through the ins and outs of their "work" and time in Vegas, with extremely colourful commentary. This device (also used in Goodfellas, albeit less extensively) gives Casino an enormously gutsy structure; perhaps the gutsiest of any Scorsese film. Laid on extremely thickly, Rothstein and Santoro’s tag-team commentary only really eases up 40 minutes into the running time
The film plays like a two-and-a-half hour audio visual essay, personality-charged and loaded with bickering. It is stuffed with analogies (Vegas “is like a morality car wash”), personal swipes between the two narrators (“I gotta make sure nobody fucks with the golden Jew”), sweeping summaries (“that’s the truth about Vegas: we’re always the winners”) and rueful reflections (“it should have been perfect, but in the end we fucked it all up”).
Casino’s narration is so dense - so thickly applied, and so terrifically written and voiced - it actually draws attention away from other areas. Perhaps this is why the film’s visual makeup, which is up there with the best of the director’s work, may not have received its just kudos since arriving in cinemas two decades ago.
Dual narration by Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro set to long-time Scorsese muses the Rolling Stones in Casino
The opening scene, in which Rothstein inadvertently activates a car bomb, is one of its most striking moments of visual aplomb. The figure of his body flies through the air like a Crash Test Dummy in slow-motion, in front of a background consumed by fire as the words “A Martin Scorsese Picture” appear.
There are many other great touches the narrators’ yakety-yak inadvertently obscures, which can be more easily appreciated on return viewing. Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson (who also shot Shutter Island) create high energy camerawork to match the high-energy voice-overs.
Nicky narrates an early moment in a scene depicting him at a bar. Instead of pausing to rest on Nicky, as we expect the film to do, the camera instead suddenly swoops to the right to focus on two men he is just about to mention: a subtle but, when you realise exactly what is going on, striking synchronisation of visual and narrative components.
In the last scene with Rothstein’s drug-afflicted wife Ginger (Sharon Stone, in a career-best performance) we follow a terrific shot that crawls along a mustard-yellow brick wall in the hallway of a cut-rate hotel. When it gets to a door the image pauses and Ginger emerges, looking dazed and worse for wear. She walks towards the camera, which then retreats the way it came - along the wall, as if gripping it, like her - until it stops in its tracks and we see Ginger collapse dead on the ground.
It is, again, easy not to fully appreciate how impressively this moment is staged on a purely visual level, because is so much happening at the same time. In this instance Rothstein is narrating the gripping conclusion to Ginger’s story, explaining circumstances that led to her death.
Music also plays a key role in Casino. The soundtrack provides a rollicking, bluesy, rocky, retro vibe (sampling artists including Cream, Tony Bennett, Little Richard and B.B. King) and also reiterates key messages in the story.
"I’ll Take You There", for example, plays as Rothstein pledges to provide Ginger financial security. We hear "I Ain’t Got a Home" while Nicky acts crazy and makes dangerous bets. When all hell breaks loose and the mob orders a hit on one of its top men, fearing he might rat on the crew to save his son, "The House of the Rising Sun" hits the speakers. The howling voice of The Animals’ lead singer Eric Burdon sings 'Oh mother, tell your children, not to do what I have done' just before the mobster in question gets a bullet to the head.
Understanding that a lot of audio-visual information is being revealed at any one time, Scorsese uses music as a kind of cinematic shorthand. Without wanting to sound like a broken record it is, again, something that may not be fully appreciated on first watch, partly due to the film’s incredibly bold narration.
"Bold” is certainly the operative word. At one point, out of nowhere and only for a few lines in a single scene, Scorsese throws a third narrator into the mix (Frankie, played by Frank Vincent). A weird and inexplicable touch; crazy but it works.
Then also the question of where exactly Nicky Santoro’s narration is coming from, given his voice-over is eventually interrupted by an unexpected occurrence: his own death. Santoro is stopped mid-sentence when attacked by mobsters in the desert. So, what have we been listening to the whole time? The thoughts in his head on the way to his assassination?
To pose another question: has any other movie in Hollywood history deployed bolder use of narration? It is front-and-centre in Scorsese’s gambling mobster masterpiece. So good the rest of the film, in the best possible way, struggles under the weight of it.
Casino screens between 4 - 11 June as part of Essential Scorsese: Selected by David Strattoncomments powered by Disqus
Martin Scorsese directing Robert De Niro on the set of Casino