Very much like Goodfellas, but with a broader palette and more compelling characters. In Goodfellas, Liotta, DeNiro and Pesci are sharks, swimming to survive and devour, and the peek Martin Scorsese gives us into their immoral, brutal world is such a dizzying kick, we tend to forget that these brutal archetypes are no more than that. In Casino, Scorsese aims higher. DeNiro’s Sam Rothstein is not just an Irish street thug, but instead, a wunderkind Jewish bookie who is handed the keys to the cash cow for the mid-West mob – the Tangiers hotel (funded, of course, by union pension money) in 70s Las Vegas. DeNiro finds his oasis in the desert and works to re-create himself as a solid citizen. His efforts are doomed to fail, however, because no executive title, country club membership, or professional success can sanitize the shit on his shoes. He’s still just a functionary effectuating the skim just like when he was picking Oklahoma, taking the points. But DeNiro’s self-deception is absolute. At one point, he even hosts a casino television show which he devotes to exposing the raw treatment he has received at the hands of the local politicians who have forsaken him, ala’ Lenny.
When DeNiro feigns respectability, his protector, Nicky Santoro (Pesci) is always around to puncture his pretensions. In one of my favorite scenes, Pesci accuses a silk robe wearing, cigarette holdered DeNiro of walking around like “fucking John Barrymore.” It is Pesci’s presence that ensures DeNiro’s success (he muscles out any competitor or threat) as well as his demise (every Pesci excess is linked to DeNiro). And DeNiro is incapable of truly weaning himself off of his criminal past. As he cannot reform or blunt Pesci, he uses him to bring his conniving wife (Sharon Stone) to heel. Stone was a working girl who DeNiro hoped to take with him on his journey to polite society, but she was no more malleable than Pesci. DeNiro is, rather strangely for a Nicholas Pileggi/Scorsese character, a romantic, opening the film with “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours. Otherwise, what’s the point? And for a while, I believed, that’s the kind of love I had.” So you invest in him. His inevitable tragedy is unsurprising yet moving.
Scorsese’s use of music is, as always, impeccable, and the fluid camera-work manages to convey not only the mechanics of Vegas but the exhilaration of the town. Moreover, the film’s ending lament about its corporatization is one of his few codas to a Scorsese film supported by what preceded it.
If there is a weakness, it is in the last third of the film, where the dissolution of the DeNiro-Stone marriage is exhausting and a bit tiresome. That identified, this is a great film and certainly a top ten American crime picture.