It was 20 years ago last week that Universal released Casino, Martin Scorsese’s eighth film collaboration with Robert De Niro and his second with writer Nicholas Pileggi. To this day, one of those movies that I’ll leave on whenever I come across it on cable. At the time, it was a (very) modest success, opening fifth at the box office, but going on to gross $116 million worldwide and earning a Golden Globe win and a Best Actress nomination for Sharon Stone. (She lost to Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, a classic Oscar robbery.) Then, as now, it seemed destined to be overshadowed by its older brother, Goodfellas. Released five years earlier, Goodfellas also starred Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, and also had Scorsese and journalist Nicholas Pileggi adapting a Pileggi book about the mob. Casino was a sequel in everything but name. “It’s like a trilogy,” Pileggi says on the film’s DVD commentary. “Mean Streets was just kids. Goodfellas, it was like the kids from Mean Streets growing up, the middle class. But [Scorsese] was also fascinated by the top world of the mob, and that of course was Casino.”
I’m not here to argue that Casino is better than Goodfellas. It’s not. It’s not as tight as Goodfellas, it’s less fun, and it’s not quite as funny or quotable. There are some logistical reasons for that. Where Goodfellas was adapted from a published book, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, with its narrative structure left largely intact, Pileggi worked on the book and movie versions of Casino simultaneously. “Goodfellas was a finished book. With Casino, it was still like a pile of notes,” says producer Barbara De Fina.
Scorsese and Pileggi were still trying to figure out Casino‘s structure right up until release. The early scenes, of De Niro and Pesci explaining the skim, originally existed without narration, until test screenings convinced Scorsese that it needed voiceover to help explain it. Pileggi was writing new narration and actors were recording and re-recording new voiceovers long after principal photography had wrapped. Watching the film now, the opening is so breezy and rhythmic that you almost don’t notice that a full 30 minutes are devoted to straight-up exposition. Yet the film mostly manages to distract you, with all the colors and lights and the ever-present music. Sort of like a casino.
As Scorsese says, it was all about excess. Excess in the clothes, excess in the sets, excess music, excess voiceover. Joe Pesci’s character actually dies mid-voiceover, crying “Arrghhh!” as the first aluminum baseball bat hits him. As far as I know, that’s still the only death-while-narrating scene in cinema. Excess heaped on excess makes you feel lost and queasy after a while, which is probably what keeps Casino from being as crowd-pleasing a movie as Goodfellas. But that’s also what makes it honest. Casino is disorienting by design. If Goodfellas is about gangsters fighting their way to the top, Casino is its corollary, about gangsters getting everything they wanted and being undone by it, of having their cake and eating themselves sick. Which also makes it the perfect Vegas movie. Getting to the end of Casino feels just like being in Vegas a little too long, hungover in the airport waiting for a Sunday afternoon fight.
In Casino, being a gangster doesn’t look so cool anymore. That’s rare among mob movies, and even among Scorsese movies. Ace Rothstein (based on the real-life character Lefty Rosenthal) has all the money in the world, even goes quasi-legit and is basically given a license to steal, and it still doesn’t look all that fun. “They were given four casinos to run, and these casinos bring in millions of dollars a day. And they still screwed it up, because these guys always screw everything up,” Pileggi says. “It all started with the explosion of Lefty Rosenthal’s car. To us, that was the culmination of what Las Vegas had become and was no longer.”
The “love stories” in Casino and Goodfellas underscore the themes: Goodfellas is about young love, that excitement of initial attraction. All those voiceovers about Karen and Henry Hill finding some weird thing a turn on — the weight of his gun, the angry look on her face. In Casino, Ace Rothstein pitches marriage to Ginger (Sharon Stone’s character, based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee) like it’s life insurance. “Neither of us are getting any younger.”
It’s not the romantic, sexy kind of love, and it all goes downhill from there. The whole movie is basically about toxic relationships coming undone. (Ace’s relationship to Ginger, to Nicky, to the mob as a whole; the mob’s relationship with Vegas.) In the same way, it sort of represents the crumbling of our love affair with the mob. Most mob movies tack on a cautionary conclusion no one remembers at the end of a two-hour wealth-porn montage interspersed with stylized killings; Casino is one of the few mob movies in existence that might actually put you off the whole thing. It’s the mafia movie equivalent of your dad catching you with a cigarette and then making you smoke the entire pack.