Casino

Casino (1995)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi (from his novel)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone

 

Despite the fact that he is often associated with films about the mafia in the public imagination, Martin Scorsese has actually only made a handful of films that deal explicitly with organized crime during his lengthy career. Although there has often been an overarching interest in vice and corruption throughout his filmography, the only true mafia films that Scorsese has made are Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. Out of those four films, three stand out as highly significant in the filmmaker’s career, with Mean Streets being his first major film and the arrival of Scorsese as a generational talent, Goodfellas widely being acknowledged as one of his best films, and The Departed being the film for which Scorsese was finally rewarded with an Academy Award. However, Casino tends to get lost in the shuffle among those other milestones, perhaps due to its close temporal proximity in release to Goodfellas, or perhaps due to the perceived similarity of the two films’ subject matter and style. While I wouldn’t say that I’ve been dismissive of the film over the years, I have fallen into the trap of passing it over for other Scorsese films because of its perceived redundancy. People often tend to discuss the film as a Goodfellas-lite, and, to be sure, it isn’t the masterpiece that that other film is, but Casino is an interesting film and worth examining on its own merits. While it shares kinship with many other films from Scorsese’s corpus, it stands out as a distinctive and divergent take on a familiar story. In a lot of ways, the film is a deconstruction of the gangster genre, and while it isn’t totally successful in breaking out of the established mold of the genre, it contains plenty of interesting wrinkles.

casino 5

Not surprisingly, Casino concerns itself with the mafia’s interests in Las Vegas in the 1970s. It follows Sam “Ace” Rothstein’s (De Niro) rise from being one of the top sports handicappers in the country to one of Las Vegas’s biggest movers and shakers as the manager of the Tangiers hotel and casino. Sam is put into his role by a Chicago crime family who is secretly behind the Tangiers’s operations, and his role is to initiate a complicated skimming operation that will funnel a portion of the casino’s profits directly to the mafia. Profits are soaring at the Tangiers and Sam is doing well until twin road blocks are placed into his life in the form of Ginger (Stone), a high class escort whom Sam falls in love with, and Nicky (Pesci), a mob enforcer whom he knows from back home. Though Sam might not be squeaky clean, compared to Ginger and Nicky, he’s a straight shooter, and their negative influence on his life begins to bring down unneeded attention on the operation. Sam finds himself in trouble with the gaming commission, and as Ginger falls deeper into substance abuse, and Nicky begins to careen further and further off the rails, the stability of the entire operation starts to crumble. The tenuous façade of normalcy that everyone in the film is operating under begins to disappear, and the law and regulating agencies eventually come to call and run the mafia influence out of town. Ultimately, the tragic tale of Sam, Nicky, Ginger and their associates is shown to be a microcosm of the Disneyfication of Las Vegas as a whole, as the film’s final scenes show the implosion of the old casinos like the Tangiers in favor of the thoroughly modern, corporately-owned, and family-friendly playgrounds that dominate the Strip today.

When compared to the sprawling mob epic that is Goodfellas, Casino feels tight and controlled, focusing in on its subject with laser precision. The film displays a similar authenticity and attention to period detail with its spiritual predecessor, but the presentation of these gilded worlds is very different. The first hour of Casino plays out very much like a documentary, giving the audience access to the inner workings of the Tangiers while extensive voice over from Sam and Nicky provides the context for the swirl of images. Typically, I am a very vocal critic of voice over in films, but it has become one of Scorsese’s directorial signatures and Casino is built around an extensive voice over structure. Often when it is overused, voice over is a crutch for the audience to follow narrative through receiving exposition dumps without having to make critical leaps or fully engage with a film, but there are always exceptions to that rule, and in Casino the voice over works to lend the film authenticity by linking it with documentary traditions. Particularly early in the film, the audience takes on the role of a visitor to Las Vegas, overwhelmed by the spectacle of the place, which Scorsese presents with his typical cinematic bravado, utilizing voice over to insure that the audience gains access to a place of privileged knowledge that tourists would obviously never have. The voice over puts Sam and Nicky in a place as the gatekeepers of the knowledge for the audience, although they are also under surveillance. Scorsese establishes a series of looking relationships between the casino employees in the film that is predicated on overarching surveillance, and even Sam is under the scrutiny of the eye in the sky. All of these details are important in creating the dense tapestry of Casino, and by so carefully establishing the proper day-to-day functions of the business as a delicate equilibrium, Scorsese allows the audience to appreciate just how fully the operation goes off the rails later in the film.

casino 4

Casino begins with a car bombing and then uses a flashback structure to tell us how things have unraveled to the point that someone would betray and attempt to kill our protagonist, Sam. As established early in the film, Sam has created a perfectly functional ecosystem at the Tangiers and when outside elements are introduced to the mix, things begin to fall apart quickly. Sam’s personal life starts to unravel when he puts too much trust in Ginger, but the biggest element of chaos in Las Vegas is Nicky. Initially sent by the bosses to assist Sam and provide muscle for the operation, Nicky quickly sees an opportunity to go rogue in Las Vegas and he assembles a crew that operates with near impunity. Even in a filmography that is rife with cold blooded killers, Nicky Santoro stands out for his savage brutality. Pesci plays him as someone who takes great delight in killing and who does it with a gleeful efficiency. Aside from enriching himself and his crew, and gaining more power, there is little end to Nicky’s violent means, but Pesci doesn’t play him as a mindless killer. He’s ruthless, but Nicky is scariest in the moments when Pesci allows the audience to see the wheels beginning to turn in his mind. Though his bursts of violence are often sudden and explosive, they’re usually preceded by a brief moment of consideration and calculation which Pesci portrays subtly in his facial expressions. There’s a moment late in the film in which Nicky decides to fully betray Sam and begin an affair with Ginger that puts this quiet calculation on full display. The most dangerous thing about Nicky is that he is unpredictable, but not out of lack of consideration; he’s already weighed the outcomes and potential consequences of his actions, but he simply doesn’t care.

Pesci’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac Nicky is the most readily memorable aspect of Casino for me, but it isn’t the strongest performance in the film. As I mentioned when I was writing about his performance in A Bronx Tale, De Niro puts in a strong performance that serves as the bedrock of the film and allows Pesci’s manic energy to reach dizzying heights by comparison. He’s a great actor and his role in Casino might have been one of the last truly great roles and performances that he turned in before sliding into the more comfortable niche that he’s occupied in his late career, but he’s still overshadowed by Sharon Stone. I had forgotten just how much range Stone demonstrates in playing Ginger. Her character is sad, broken, an addict, and requires the actress to portray a full range of heightened emotion. Her performance charts the full descent into addiction, and she imbues Ginger with the type of manic energy so typical in cocaine addicts. Though she’s surrounded in the film by violent, manipulative men, Ginger is never a victim of anyone but herself, and even in the full throes of addiction by film’s end, she retains a sort of cunning agency. It’s a performance that is both maddening in its depiction of an individual’s capacity for harm to others, and heartbreaking in its revelation of an addict’s capacity for self-destruction. If Sam is the closest thing in the film to a hero, then Ginger is ostensibly a villain, and her actions throughout the film certainly cast her as such, but she is still pitiable. Although Scorsese wouldn’t allow a character like Ginger to fall into the trap of being a stereotype or trope, Stone’s performance is the linchpin to fully humanizing her and giving her character arc a strong sense of pathos. In a different year she very well could have won an Oscar for this performance rather than simply being nominated.

casino 3

Casino regularly gets short changed when it comes to assessing its place in Scorsese’s body of work or in the subset of crime films about the mafia in which it exists, but it is overdue for a critical reevaluation. The film isn’t a masterpiece, but it should be ranked favorably among the second tier of Scorsese’s deep filmography. While it’s most frequently remembered for its excessive, gratuitous violence, the film offers an insightful character study of its protagonists and also a stylish, informative look behind the curtain of the casino industry in its heyday. It explores one of the overarching themes that Scorsese has returned to often in his films, the introduction of an element of chaos into a pristine, closed system. That chaos takes different forms in different films. Here it is Nicky and Ginger’s destructive capabilities, in The Aviator, Howard Hughes’s mental illness plays a similar role, and in The Departed, chaos is personified by the moles in both the mafia and the police department. Scorsese has often chosen to investigate organizational structures and the forces that bring them crashing down like a house of cards, and Casino is a great example of that narrative. It’s a film that deserves to be examined within the context of its director’s greatest works, but one that also represents some interesting stylistic diversions and that can, and does, stand up on its own as a work of art.

A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Dir. Robert De Niro

Written by: Chazz Palminteri (based on his play)

Starring: Chazz Palminteri, Robert De Niro, Lillo Brancato, Jr.

 

It surprises me somewhat that A Bronx Tale doesn’t have a bigger following among movie fans. I think that it’s probably well known among people who came of age in the early- and mid-90s, and among big fans of the gangster movie genre, but it’s not a film that I hear very many people talk about. Often as films come up on significant anniversaries, they receive a sort of critical reexamination or reevaluation, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article or think piece written on this film. Maybe it isn’t as remembered because it arrived at a time when there were an unusual number of Hollywood mob movies being released, or because it was sandwiched in between De Niro’s more well-known work in Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino, but I think A Bronx Tale deserves a bit more credit than it seems to get. While it wouldn’t make a list of my favorite gangster movies and I definitely have some problems with the film as a whole, A Bronx Tale is worth a watch because it provides a different take on the typical gangster movie. It isn’t as good a film as the commonly accepted genre classics, but it often rings truer than some of the more touted gangster movies and the obvious care that the cast and crew, particularly Palminteri, have in bringing the story to the screen makes for an entertaining watch.

Based on his one-man show, A Bronx Tale is Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s. The coming of age tale uses Calogero (played early in the film by Francis Capra, and later by Brancato, Jr.) as a surrogate for Palminteri. Calogero is a bus driver’s son, and his father, Lorenzo (De Niro) tries to instill a sense of morality in him and teach him the value of an honest day’s work. However, the boy is drawn to another father figure in the neighborhood, Sonny (Palminteri), the local mafia boss. From Sonny, Calogero learns the art of the hustle, and he begins to learn the complicated code of ethics that exists on the streets, and he earns the nickname Cee. As he grows up, Cee is caught between two worlds, the straight world, peopled by working stiffs (or suckers, as Sonny calls them) like his father, or the more glamorous life of crime and luxury that Sonny represents. To further complicate matters, Cee is coming of age at a time when the Bronx is beginning to change, with racial integration beginning in earnest, so he must also learn to navigate a world that will soon be vastly different than the one that either of his father figures came up in.

bronx tale 1

The most compelling thing about the film, unsurprisingly, is Palminteri’s portrayal of Sonny. When he’s first introduced, the audience isn’t given much insight into his character. We first see Sonny as the young Calogero is introducing the neighborhood figures, and he points out Sonny holding court on the street corner, but he appears to be an average mobster. We learn early on that Sonny is capable of delivering lethal violence at the drop of a hat when Calogero witnesses him shoot a man over a dispute over a parking spot. After Calogero clams up and doesn’t identify Sonny as the shooter to the police, he begins to take the boy under his wing and other aspects of his personality begin to emerge. Initially, Cee is a sort of mascot and good luck charm for Sonny, serving drinks to Sonny and the other gangsters, and playing dice. In these scenes, Palminteri plays Sonny with a sense of humor and geniality, but he also gives the character more than a little undercurrent of manipulation, as it seems very apparent that he is grooming Cee for a life of crime despite the objections from Lorenzo. Sonny’s worldview is informed by an Old World code of ethics and respect and a quasi-capitalist dog-eat-dog view of economics where the strong survive by any means necessary and if the weak can’t do for themselves then they’re suckers. Despite this approach to life, however, he is capable of genuine emotion and in the later parts of the film Palminteri reveals Sonny to be a fully nuanced character, as he begins truly mentoring an older Cee. While their relationship is inherently complicated, Sonny’s motivations seem to become clearer towards the end of the film. He sees promise in Cee and tries to steer him in directions that will lead him to have a better, happier life than either Lorenzo or Sonny have had. Usually relegated to supporting or character roles, Palminteri shines as the lead in a role he created for himself. I can’t picture anyone else playing Sonny, and this is definitely Palminteri’s signature role.

bronx tale 5

De Niro puts in a good, if unspectacular, performance as Lorenzo, a role which was out of character for him in a period when he was still best known for playing mafia figures and psychopaths. Lorenzo is definitely a supporting role in the film, but De Niro brings a presence to his scenes, creating a worthy foil to the dynamic Sonny. Sparks fly in an early scene that pairs he and Palminteri as Lorenzo furiously returns the money that his son brought home from working at the bar for Sonny. Lorenzo tells Sonny to stay away from his son, and Sonny threatens to hit him, as the two men fight over who should have the bigger influence over the boy. Lorenzo isn’t a violent man but he can’t back down as he tries to protect his family from the influence of the mafia. De Niro plays him as poor but proud, principled and hardworking. As they leave the bar, and the money, Lorenzo explains to Calogero that the only money worth having is money earned justly through work. “It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try to get up every morning, day after day, and work for a living. Let’s see him try that!” he shouts at his crying son, explaining his worldview succinctly. This is probably De Niro’s best scene in the film, rising to the occasion when paired with Palminteri, but the rest of his performance is fairly workmanlike. He’s actually very good in the film, but he doesn’t stand out, nor is he intended to. His steady performance does provide a bedrock for the film, though, and it’s also likely that his focus was diverted due to his responsibilities behind the camera as the director of his first feature.

Like most directorial debuts, A Bronx Tale is a bit hit or miss, but De Niro wasn’t a neophyte to filmmaking, having been one of the most famous and successful actors of the last 20 years. Overall the film is strong, and while it does certainly owe a debt of influence to other mafia films, it has a unique tone and approach to the genre. Visually, the film is reminiscent of early Scorsese, although the camerawork isn’t as virtuosic, but the way De Niro chooses to shoot the neighborhood and the people in it feels familiar. The Bronx, particularly the street corner that houses Sonny’s bar and Cee’s home, becomes a central character in the film. De Niro does some of his best visual storytelling tracking along with cars and up and down the avenues, capturing the essence of the neighborhood. The film also features a great soundtrack, using classics of the 1950s and 60s to establish a sense of place and period. It’s a shame that De Niro often forsakes these obvious strengths in visually and cinematically interesting storytelling for an overreliance on redundant, needlessly expository voiceover. I don’t know if this is another influence of De Niro’s mentor Scorsese or maybe just a lack of confidence in his visual storytelling ability, but the film would be better off without much of its voiceover. Overall, though, De Niro makes strong directorial choices and I’d be interested to have seen him return to this role more frequently, although he’s only directed one other film, 2006’s The Good Shepherd.

bronx tale 3

One thing that stood out to me while watching the film again for this post was its somewhat ambivalent treatment of race relations. The film’s second half introduces the topic of neighborhood integration as Cee meets and instantly falls in love with a black classmate, Jane (Taral Hicks), at the same time that his friends from the neighborhood are taking umbrage with the presence of young black men beginning to move into their neighborhood. The film’s depiction of racism is frank and, I’m sure, real for the time period, as name-calling and shouting eventually escalates to physical violence as Cee’s friends attack a group of black teens riding by on bikes. While Cee tries, halfheartedly, for fear of losing face with his friends, to intervene, his friends savagely beat the other teens and then leave them for dead when the police start to show up. Shortly thereafter, Cee is supposed to pick Jane up for a date, but when he meets her, he finds out that her brother was the one who was beaten up by his friends and has told her that Cee was involved. He pleads his case with her but she won’t believe him and leaves, but not before Cee shouts at her brother, calling him the N word. Though the film ultimately supports the interracial relationship of Jane and Cee, and Cee’s racist friends are burned alive in their car, getting comeuppance for their increasingly violent and sadistic actions, that moment where Cee shouts a racial slur is jarring and out of character for him up to that point in the film. It’s meant to be understood that it’s uttered out of frustration, and doesn’t represent Cee’s true character or beliefs, but it’s a real moment and it barely gets acknowledged with Jane’s forgiveness coming too quickly and seeming unwarranted. Overall I think that the film has a positive outlook and message on race relations, and I applaud the frank, realistic depiction of racial tensions, but the resolutions might be just a little too convenient for my taste. That scene keeps sticking out to me as unresolved, but it doesn’t detract from the quality of the film in general.

On the whole, A Bronx Tale is a mixed bag. There’s enough originality to the film to help it stand out from the glut of similar crime movies released around the same time, but the film also wears its primary influences on its sleeve. Palminteri is excellent, and although I’ve always had a problem with Brancato, Jr.’s portrayal of the older Cee, the rest of the cast is very good. There are the building blocks of a better film here, but much of the time, its theatrical roots show through too much and cause the film to feel distinctly uncinematic. When the film tries to get more serious and address social issues, it largely drops the ball, but at least A Bronx Tale doesn’t fall into the same trap of romanticizing Italian racism that I’ve felt from other gangster films, including some classics that I really do love. A Bronx Tale isn’t a forgotten classic or a must see film. It falls squarely in a category of films that I call “hangover cinema,” familiar movies that are good enough to keep one’s attention on television while nursing a hangover on the couch, but not necessarily good enough to pick out off the shelf and watch frequently. It has its flaws, but for fans of the genre, it will be satisfying enough entertainment.