December 01, 2006


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.


Political Umpire said...


Great post and I'm even more impressed if you just knocked that one out this morning after reading my IFF.

Scorcese is obviously interested in the code of conduct (I hesitate to use the word 'ethics') amongst the Mafioso in GF, like Coppola is in the Godfather. By contrast, in Casino it is not so much capitalism (operation of the market requires the rule of law to enforce private bargains, I would argue) that prevails as a Hobbesian state of nature. Life for most of Casino's participants certainly is nasty, brutish and short. In GF, as long as you play by the rules of the family the family protects you; in Casino you are going to need to dig a lot of holes in the desert and it doesn't really matter as you're going to end up in one anyway.

It also makes the simple, amoral point that gambling is a mathematical losing exercise; all the house has to do to win is to keep you playing. Absent an ongoing statistical anomaly the house will always win in the end - as the Japanese businessman finds to his cost.

I'm not big on theology but one other biblical theme that seems to run through the film is temptation - each character is unable to resist gold digging and other sins, as it were, and each comes unstuck as a result.

Thanks for the link to my site and for some very interesting thoughts. Except I've just had to eat a lunch nowhere near as nice as the pasta with not too many onions and garlic cut with razor blades, and I didn't enjoy it as a result.

Gracchi said...

I agree with lots of your points. Yeah I knocked this out this morning but they are themes I've thought about in Scorcese's work for a long time. I agree with you about the holes in the desert- not sure its Hobbesian- the thing I think of is more the robber barons, there is a kind of crude law there but its to manipulated around. Temptation is definitely there as well.

Thanks for an intriguing comment.

james higham said...

Scorcese leaves us in no doubt that all the money made is money made through deceit.

Yet PU says 'greed' too. I thnk this is at the root of it.

Gracchi said...

Yeah deceit and greed stand very close to everything but I think its the deceit which invades all their lives. Thanks for the post James.

Mister Casino said...

Umpire have said it much better - "Tommy instead of Nicky. or is it Nicky instead of Tommy" - either way The single most important thing that made this movie worth watching is Sharon Stone with an outstanding performance that over shadowed some of her earlier work (Basic Instinct).

I still wouldn't trade Casino with Goodfellas, but it's defenetly a MUST .

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Anonymous said...

This morning, I rented the fim for the fourth time. This has to be one of the best american films ever made. Everything in it is simply great: script, camera work, actors, set decoration. Scorcese knows those people. And how to present them. Bravo!

Gracchi said...

Yes I agree Anonymous- a superb film!

Casino said...

One of my favorite scenes in film which effectively involves music is actually from Casino - the very intense scene when the relationship between DeNiro..