My love for Killing Them Softly prompted me to revisit Casino, that Scorsese piece unfairly in the shadow of Goodfellas. I actually have a tougher time claiming a ‘best ever film’ above Goodfellas than I do naming a better Scorsese (Taxi Driver). Despite this, the contemporary labelling of the 1995 film as ‘Goodfellas 2’ is inaccurate. Yes, it shares Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci among its principle cast, Pileggi and Scorsese as its writers, and yes, there are thematic crossovers. But from the off a change in context carries a whole range of new implications.
In Casino, crime is so much a part of the system, it is the system, as far as we can see. Gangsters incorporated. Despite his extensive criminal record, Sam Rothstein (De Niro) has been transplanted to Vegas where he runs a casino. The true bosses of Vegas, we are told, are the ones at the receiving end of monthly suitcases of cash stolen from the very casinos. It’s such an ingenious and profitable scheme that there isn’t need for any crime of the regular kind. Which is where Nicky Santoro (Pesci) steps in, unable to resist the opportunity. Anyone who only sees ‘Goodfellas 2’ is missing the whole point, really*.
It’s a shift in perspective, a film which challenges our constructions of ‘legitimacy’ vs ‘criminality’, the Thin Blue Line and ultimately what it really separates. Simultaneously it is a chronicle of the futility of materialism and the dehumanising effect of capitalism**. “You can’t make me stop caring about people” cries Sharon Stone’s Ginger halfway through. In part a genius re-articulation of Taxi Driver‘s Iris, De Niro’s character attempts to ‘rescue’ the working girl, this time with money, bargaining her for marriage. On the face of it, she is one of the film’s major antagonists. A more thorough reading reveals the reality, but only if we are willing to challenge some of our cultural values.
De Niro, meanwhile, is key to the film’s efforts. Gangster films (especially from the classic period) typically portray a rise and fall. Here, the Horatio Alger of crime has already reached his potential and the downfall is a great deal slower. He is punished for playing with fire, but the fire is now love. In humanising the dehumanised, we relate to a protagonist scarcely different in his principles and ideals than people among us. A figure of patriarchy and the status quo, he is a far cry from the many roles that made him famous (gangster, veteran, non-king), characters which sought for change. In addition to its many, many qualities, Casino holds one of the greatest performances from the greatest actor of the cinema.
* No wonder – we are a product of our environment, including its ideology.
** As I watch it back for the upcoming quote, that “You wouldn’t steal a handbag” anti-piracy ad plays. Timing.