The Umpire- a good friend of this blog- has just posted a very good post upon the underappreciated film Casino. Scorcese in popular terms is known for Goodfellas, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver- but Casino is a fascinating film partly because of its obvious Catholic overtones. The first scene where De Niro is blown sky high and falls through levels of what seem like hell is an image that stays with you throughout the film. More than anything though, Casino seems to me to be Scorcese's investigation of the world of work. In Goodfellas, the film is obviously concentrated on the atmosphere of the Mafia- but also via Henry Hill's character you get the idea that noone needs to work at all for what they do. Those who work are losers. Casino distills that idea and plays with it more- because the world of the Las Vegas gambling circuit is a world where that has become truth to an even greater degree. Whereas in Goodfellas, you might turn down the status offered because Hill and the rest make their money through killing and theft- how would you turn down the money in Casino where it might seem that the law is an ass, that morality is foolish and that making money as Stone is doing above by conning people is fine. Its capitalism in action.
Just look at this photograph of DeNiro- the power that runs through his posture. The air of observation and the flashing lights behind him highlight the temptations of the moment- of work that obtains money quick. Indeed the still gets another image quite right from the film- Scorcese leaves us in no doubt that all the money made is money made through deceit. The punters think this is a game of chance- but it isn't. Even when they win, their planes can be turned round, and they effectively forced to play till they lose.
When we enter the film, we are given a voiceover by De Niro and Joe Pesci which gives us an image- the decline of an empire- the descent of a kingdom into anarchy- and its that image that Scorcese wants us to see throughout the whole film. The film might seem contradictory- in that the first hour concentrates on how the casino cheats its customers, the next hour concentrates on how De Niro, Pesci and Stone cheat each other sexually, morally and via children and money. But that's the key, what Scorcese shows us is that to sustain the Casino you need suspision- constantly x might be cheating y, z might be cheating w, so you need constant surveillance. But also x is probably trying to cheat y, z is trying to cheat w because this is a world in which you make a cheap buck by cheating. Bring that suspision and that cheating through the seive of consciousness, through the permeable barrier between work life and home life and you begin to see how these marriages and friendships inevitably break apart.
Fused with that, is the fact that behind the shining lights and the glorious backdrop there is unimaginable violence, just look at this still.
This still captures possibly the most sickening violent scene I have ever seen in cinema. Its a scene that comes at the end of the film- but it also is a scene the film builds to. All of the characters are complicit in the fact that once you have cheated someone you have to impose your cheat. You can't rely on the law which you've moved beyond- you have to force the other side to recognise what you are doing. Furthermore you rely on extra legal force to maintain your cheating and stop the other guy. Pesci the hired thug in the film performs that role- but again thuggery in one context seeps over into another- you can't contain it and that creates the tension that drives the plot, that drives the descent.
Casino ultimately therefore is about the inability of characters to contain their working lives and not introduce their ways of thinking into their private lives. Scorcese shows how a criminal life bent on distrust and violence descends quickly into a private life bent on distrust and violence. As De Niro in the opening sequence descends into hell and through hell, we can read both a purgatorial burning off of sin but also a metaphor for the entire film, the stages of hell are slippery and De Niro and Stone and Pesci slip once and carry sliding on a hill of pebbles right to the bottom.