Scorsese Spotlight: Casino (Cinematic Corner)

I’m happy to present the first entry of my guest review series on Martin Scorsese.  Today’s guest reviewer is Margaret from The Cinematic Corner.  Margaret’s detailed reviews, great use of imagery and snappy writing make her blog a must-see if you haven’t discovered it yet.  Click on the link above to follow up with her site or check out our Blogger Interview here.

Without further ado, I give you Margaret’s review of Casino (1995).  All images included are provided by Margaret herself.

There is a certain problem one has to deal with while reviewing movies you absolutely adore. Instead of writing about them, you should just watch them again. But since I said I’ll review Casino for RorschachReviews and on the odd chance there are those out there who haven’t seen that splendid movie and I have the opportunity to encourage them to do so, I shall now review one of my all time favorite films. And I’ll probably see it again afterwards.

For me Casino is the best movie directed by Martin Scorsese. I know a lot of people whine about the fact it’s allegedly incredibly similar to Goodfellas, but… so what? Can’t two movies share similar themes, feature the same actors and be incredible? I enjoy Casino much more than Goodfellas – I’ve seen the latter three times and the former? Probably close to 20. It has been in my top 15 ever since I’ve seen it years ago and I don’t think it will ever leave its place.
Casino is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Nicholas Pileggi, who also co-wrote the screenplay for the film with Scorsese. The two previously collaborated on Goodfellas. Hence, the similarities. The film follows Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), who is sent to Las Vegas by his Mafia bosses to run the Teamsters-funded Tangiers Casino on behalf of several Midwest Mob families. Ace proves to be fantastic at what he does – he soon makes the name for himself and he runs casino like no one else can. Soon, however, two very different people enter his life and they will change it forever.

Ace’s old pal Nicky (Joe Pesci) arrives with big dreams – he wants to be the first real gangster in Vegas, rob, steal, take whatever he can. He is violent and ruthless and he wants to use his connection to Ace in order to get involved in casino business. Soon, Nicky becomes well known around town and he becomes more and more dangerous with each day. As he grows more powerful he clashes with Ace, who appears to want to run clean business (or at least as clean as it is possible, given his connections and the nature of the endeavor) while Nicky is interested in getting more power, with no regard for the law.
Around the same time Ace meets Ginger (Sharon Stone, in one of my all-time favorite performances), who is a well-known hustler in casinos. He instantly falls in love with her, though he knows Ginger is a gold-digger and not the kind of girl that was made to be married and lead exemplary family life. She agrees to marry him and soon their relationship becomes corrupted – Ginger is unwilling of letting go of her old ways and she is insistent on helping out her old pimp Lester Diamond (James Woods) and Ace finds it increasingly difficult to trust her.

Soon Ace finds himself walking on a thin line – with the authorities looking closely at his casino, Nicky objecting to everything he does and Ginger slowly spinning out of control and falling deeper and deeper into hopeless alcohol and drug addiction, everything he built for himself and everything he is becomes threatened.
The research for Casino began when screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi read a report from the Las Vegas Sun in 1980 about a domestic argument between Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a casino figure and his wife, Geri McGee, a former topless dancer. This gave him an idea to focus on a new book about the true story of mob infringement in Las Vegas during the 1970s. He based the character of Ace on Rosenthal and incorporated his complicated and toxic marriage into the story.

Scorsese expressed interest in the project, calling this an “idea of success, no limits”. Although Pileggi was keen to release the book and then concentrate on a film adaptation, Scorsese encouraged him to “reverse the order”.  Real-life characters such as Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, Geri, Anthony Spilotro and his brother were reshaped. Some characters were combined, and parts of the story were set in Las Vegas instead of Chicago. In the effect the entirety of the movie feels more condensed and it gave the creators the opportunity to truly immerse the audience in Vegas ambiance.
According to Scorsese, the initial opening sequence was to feature the main character, Sam Rothstein, fighting with his wife, Ginger, on the lawn of their house. Since the scene was too detailed, they changed the sequence to show the explosion of Sam’s car and his flying into the air before hovering over the flames in slow motion—like a soul about to go straight down to hell. And this is exactly what that journey is – what appears to be paradise quickly changes into the place of evil and overwhelming greed.

Though Casino has some basis in truth it is pure entertainment first and foremost. Though it runs almost for 3 hours, it never let’s go – you are completely glued to the screen. The film pulls you in this fascinating world of money, greed, lust and danger and you are completely caught up in this story, with its three incredible main players. Though not one of them is especially likable or easy to relate to, for a strange reason you care for them. Why is this reason strange? Because it’s a good story. And the stories we see on screen nowadays are rarely as good as this one.
There are two central conflicts pushing the plot forward – one between Ace and Nicky and the other between Ace and Ginger. Nicky and Ace come from the same place but they have different approaches to Vegas. Nicky is violent and he impulsively takes what he wants, while Ace wants to proceed in cautious manner. Though many scenes with them are filled with tension and you fully realize Nicky can have Ace killed at any moment, there is an amazing amount of humour in the movie.

It’s all because of the splendid script and the actors’ outstanding performances – Pesci has this uncanny ability of shouting out lines with the speed of the machine gun while De Niro‘s restraint way of underplaying his character gives even funnier effect – he is standing there while Pesci is just yelling at him and he can’t even throw one word back at him. The desert scene will never fail to make me laugh. Add to that the countless monologues Nicky has and the fact he is constantly throwing hilarious insults – the fact that physically Pesci is so non-threatening yet his character is hilarious and so menacing at the same time is just mind-blowing.
De Niro created one of his finest performances here – his Ace is not an easy main character to like. He has his flaws – he is very methodical and meticulous, he doesn’t let anything pass him by and in  more ways than one he is a control freak. When he tries to apply his work ethics to his marriage he only pushes away his wife further. Yet it’s hard not to sympathize with him as in comparison to Nicky he doesn’t use unspeakable violence and many times in the movie we see him as a good guy.

Those are mainly the scenes where he is shown to deeply care about his little daughter and the ones where he genuinely worries about Ginger. Before their brief love turned into eternal hatred and contempt, Ace wanted to help Ginger when she started to drink too much. Unfortunately, pretty soon there was just too much distance and resentment between them and he didn’t care for her anymore. The only times she could melted his heart by then was when he was reminded of the girl he once loved and the fact that she is the mother of his child.
It’s actually also the case with Pesci‘s Nicky – what I appreciate about that movie is that Nicky is not depicted as some common psychopath, though the awfulness of the acts of violence he uses would easily help to categorize him as such. Casino doesn’t let you do that. Yes, Nicky slaps his wife at one occasion for something that was rather trivial but she smiles as if it was no big deal. This is patriarch family-model in play and both him and Ace want to be married to women who do what they want. While Nicky’s wife does just that and appears to be genuinely happy about it, Ginger sure as hell won’t.

But they are family men and there is nothing wrong with that. We even get to see the scene depicting that Nicky is a wonderful father – he is there every day to make breakfast for his son. He is involved in his life, always there when his son is in a school play or plays baseball game. He loves his family and he loves Ace, who is like a brother to him. You can see how hurt Nicky is when Ace doesn’t pay attention to him after they had falling up.

While De Niro and Pesci are simply brilliant and they would be more than capable of carrying the movie, their performances are not my favorite here. The cast is great, everyone is great but for me it’s Sharon Stonewho stole the spotlight. Jamie Lee CurtisMadonnaNicole KidmanCameron DiazJodie Foster andMichelle Pfeiffer were considered for the role of Ginger. Traci Lords was seriously considered after an excellent audition. Sean Young turned down the role due to pregnancy. Melanie Griffith was almost cast, but Sharon Stone convinced director Martin Scorsese to give her the role.

And thank God for it. If it wasn’t her the only actress who I think would handle that role was Michelle Pfeiffer(her character in Scarface is a slight variation of Ginger, though more posh and less damaged). Stone is splendid in her work here – fun-loving, determined and gorgeous survivor at first and than destroyed woman who will lie, cheat and fuck as much as she has to in order to stay above the water. Though it’s not what the movie is about I found the portrayal of addiction to be horrifying here – Ginger, overwhelmed by her situation and feeling like a hostage, chooses the path of no return.
Stone gave whatever she could here – not just her talent but also her comfort – she spent many long workdays in agony while filming scenes for this film. She has back trouble due to an old injury, and the gold & white beaded gown she wears during a casino scene weighed 45 pounds. That is the dress she is wearing in one of the film’s best scenes, when Ace sees her for the first time and falls for her. She is absolutely stunning in her first scenes and I adored her outfits – that right there was the splendor of old Vegas. Then Ginger, though still beautiful, became completely unscrupulous and in the effect she lost the part of her that Ace fell in love with.

The film has done amazing job at showing that though opposites attract they should stay away from each other under certain circumstances. It’s fine when two people are different but if the differences lie in their personalities, values, upbringing and temper there is a slim chance the relationship between them will work. Especially when there is already someone or something in their lives they love more than the person they choose to commit to. For Ace it was his job and for Ginger it was her freedom.
She can’t commit to him, because she refuses to abandon the parts of her life she grew to love. He can’t trust her. She lies to him more and more and whenever he catches her on a lie, his response is taking away her freedom, piece by piece. In the end there is only hatred left. I don’t know if De Niro and Stone were amicable towards each other on the set but the scenes where they argue and fight are some of the best in the movie. Especially the scene where they are “trying to make things work” but Ace has had it at that point (“You are a good actress you know that? Good fucking actress.“).

I know a lot of people find Ginger to be one of the most despicable on-screen wives. I always felt for her. She had a rough life and when she finally caught a lucky break it turned out to be a trap. She did some terrible things but by then she was so addicted to anything that helped her forget her situation she probably wasn’t even capable of thinking straight. There are many frames in the film beautifully portraying her solitude.
This review is already obscenely long, but I have to mention James Woods. When he heard that Martin Scorsese was interested in working with him, Woods called Scorsese‘s office and left the following message: “Any time, any place, any part, any fee.”  I’m so happy Scorsese cast Woods in the role of Lester, Ginger’s old pimp boyfriend, because that was just a perfect choice. Woods totally held his own here and though he is not on screen for long his role is very memorable.

As with other Scorsese movies the soundtrack is incredible here – we hear signature Gimme Shelter and few other songs from Stones. The music and the editing helps frame the story and makes some of the moments unforgettable, for me it was especially the brilliant use of House of the Rising Sun. The film has a number of famous scenes – the pen killing, the vice scene and he ditch scene near the end. Many say it’s incredibly violent but I found it to be suitable for the story.
My advice is – if you haven’t seen his one, do so. It’s worth it despite its long run time and violent scenes.You won’t be bored for a second and you are going to see one of these perfect films – brilliantly directed, written and put together. The performances of De NiroPesci and Stone are among the best in their careers and the film is filled with brilliant and quotable lines.

Once again I urge you all to check out The Cinematic Corner.  I would also like to remind everyone that there are still seven films remaining on Martin Scorsese’s resume that need to be covered.  If you would like to write a guest review for one of them, let me know in the comments below or send me an email at

About r361n4

I'm a student at the University of Washington Majoring Business. I've always loved movies and my goal is to work on the financial side of the film industry. Until then though, I figure I'll spare my friends from my opinions and shout them from a digital mountaintop for anyone who's interested. After all, if a tree falls in a forest and nobody blogs about it, does it really happen?
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11 Responses to Scorsese Spotlight: Casino (Cinematic Corner)

  1. Very nicely reviewed. I have a lot to live up to!

  2. Over 2,000 words! I am not writing that much 😀

    Well done, great review 😀

  3. Mr Rumsey says:

    Nice review – I really should see this one soon!
    Looking forward to more in this series 😀

  4. How funny. I saw this yesterday. And I just watched Cape Fear today. 🙂

  5. Great review! I agree with Sati; this is my favorite Scorsese movie as well and the three hours just fly by. Very similar to Goodfellas but much better, in my opinion.

    • sati says:

      Awesome, great to feel less of a heretic now with all those people saying they prefer Casino to Goodfellas too 🙂

      • r361n4 says:

        Lol, I’ll have to see Casino but I’m guessing I’ll probably end up agreeing with you as well

      • I wouldn’t call you guys heretics, but as long as we can agree that GoodFellas is the BETTER one…lol.

        On Mon, Apr 1, 2013 at 1:42 PM, Rorschach Reviews wrote:

        > ** > r361n4 commented: “Lol, I’ll have to see Casino but I’m guessing I’ll > probably end up agreeing with you as well” >

    • My god do the three hours fly by. GoodFellas isn’t very well paced, at times, so that one seems longer.

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