Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. I have seen his films more times than anyone else’s. His sense of cinema is something which I not only find accessible but also extremely entertaining. His films are mostly dramas which you can watch n-number of times and yet every time you will enjoy it as if it was the first time you were watching it. Such is the power of his stories and reach of his actors that a viewer is hooked again and again in the web of the same narrative. Even though you know the story and what was about to happen yet you still feel obliged to finish the film like a un-put-down-able book.
One such film is Casino. Released in the year 1995, Casino took a look at the functioning or should I say mal-functioning of the Las Vegas casinos. The film unfold from the perspective of two individuals. Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) was a bookies who had the uncanny knack of winning all the time. He didn’t always win because he was lucky but because he did his homework right. He was an assured winner and that’s what made him the favorite with the Italian bosses who promoted him and made him the boss of a palatial Casino called the Tangiers in Vegas.
Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) was a made guy and Sam’s childhood friend. He was also one of the boss’ favorite. To start with his task was to look after that no one interfered with Sam’s work. But when Sam moved over to Vegas, the bosses sent him over to help Sam and also do his bit. Trouble starts when Nicky’s unlawful activities starts getting in the way of Sam’s running his enterprise with ease. The two cross path soon enough as a troubled marriage and his unforgiving nature brings Sam to the notice of the gaming commission who are about to throw him out of his own casino. Some more interesting events happen around him which effects his modus operandi to such a bit that one of the bosses finally decides to call him out of Vegas. Nicky on the other hand creates troubles of his own which makes him a bitter lemon for the bosses.
The film unfolds in a manner befitting a Scorsese film as it engrosses you in the narrative from the word go. While two different voice overs relate the story of the film from their own perspective, the audience is in the privileged position to enjoy both sides of the story at the same time, taking their own call on which side to take. Both the operators, even though invincible fall prey to two different vices. While Sam falls in love with Ginger (Sharon Stone) a hustler who rocks his boat like it never had, Nicky falls deeper and deeper into an abyss of violence and drugs even when it was unnecessary. What is shocking to see is how easily he gives in to his urge to surrender to violence and abuse when he could have been a little somber and reaped the harvest of what Sam had achieved through his hard work.
The film boasts of stellar performances from the ensemble cast. De Niro and Pesci have been working together since the days of the “Raging Bull” and they have developed a chemistry which I don’t think is easy to coin. They complement each other wonderfully and it is their act which elevates this film at many junctures. They start off as friends and by the end of it turn into bitter enemies. They not only squabble over Vegas but also over Sam’s trophy wife. By the time the film ends, they bring down everything that they had created. The film willfully brings to light matters that are real and in doing so raises above the cliché mafia film genre and turns into a subtle but rousing epic. It is interesting to note that this film is bound to appeal to even those who are not up for the gangster film genre primarily because of the reason that it is much more than a gangster film. Its human drama and that’s what affects one and all.
The film is brilliantly shot. The sparkling interiors of the casinos as also the dimly lit lanes of Vegas which serves as the hunting ground for Nicky are captured with equal vitality. As this was to be Robert Richardson’s first collaboration with Martin Scorsese, the director suggested that they both watch a series of movies from Scorsese’s private collection. The director was hoping to convey to his new DP the general “look” he was eager to capture for his movie. Both men viewed, and discussed, T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948) and Slightly Scarlet (1956), all shot by John Alton. Scorsese felt that Alton’s photographic style in these films epitomized the film noir aura he wanted Richardson to recreate for Casino. Thelma Schoonmaker, a long term associate of Scorsese edited the film in a manner which leaves nothing more to be desired. The background score is terrific as is the case with all Scorsese films.
Casino for me is a touring classic. I might have seen it over 50 times and yet every time I lay my eyes on this film, I feel the unflinching desire to watch it one more time. Such is the power of narrative and Scorsese’ wizardry. This is a must watch for one and all who are interested in the art of cinema.