Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Top 108 Things I Love About Casino (that no one talks about)

I love everything about Martin Scorsese’s crime saga, Casino. So much, in fact, that this is the longest “No One Talks About” post I’ve done yet. And that’s for a few reasons: one, the movie is nearly 3 hours long, two, I really do love everything about it, and finally, I don’t think people talk about Casino enough. Casino is one of the most compulsively rewatchable films I’ve ever seen, because it’s one of the fastest paced long movies ever released. This film, in all its profane, violent, gaudy sensibilities, has me. Here are several reasons why. (Please note that I give away every major plot detail about Casino in this post.)

The suit, the strut, the smoking, the expression—this is a great character introduction. We already know so much about this guy without really knowing anything.

I’m still astonished these people weren’t nominated for Oscars for their work on this film.

The way the light slowly fades in on Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro) as he turns around to face us.

The mob bosses abruptly stopping their conversation and looking directly into the camera, clearly suggesting that we are bothering them.

This night shot of Vegas through the clouds.

At 6 minutes into Casino, the entire film has been a series of single takes. Twelve scenes with no in-scene cutting at all.

Ace nodding at the money man as he walks by. Ace always knows the score.

The throwaway dialogue in this film is brilliant.

The way the narration and live dialogue complete each other. Example: 
Ace (in narration): “But Andy also took orders. And when he was told to give a pension fund to Philip Green—”
Andy Stone (live dialogue): “—for $62,700,000 for the new Tangiers.”

The relatable and hilariously specific narration throughout the film.
Nicky (in narration): “And where they got Green from? Who the fuck knows. All I know is that Green was an Arizona real estate hustler who barely had enough gas money to come and pick up his own fuckin’ check.”

Kevin Pollak (as Philip Green) is so damn good in this movie. The way he nods and says, “I understand… I understand,” in this scene is priceless.

This shot always reminded of North by Northwest (pictured bottom).

This is my favorite scene of Alan King’s in the movie. “All you gotta do is keep changing your job title. Like, uh, from Casino Executive, to Food and Beverage Chairman.”
I mean, what the hell is “Food and Beverage Chairman” anyway?

No, of course I haven’t tried to blow on every piece of dice I’ve come into contact with since seeing this film 22 years ago. No, of course not…

This dealer’s hair.

Nicky (Joe Pesci) saying, “Even back home, years ago,” in narration, which is quickly accompanied by a title card that says the exact same thing.

The quick whip pan to reveal a brilliantly lit Paul Herman. Remember him from Goodfellas? “You wanna see helicopters?!”

Love seeing Nicky being a little silly in this flashback. The way he playfully reaches for Remo’s (Pasquale Cajano) stack of cash is great.

I love watching Pesci in this scene. He knows where it’s going before it’s even begun. Nicky Santoro, always gearing up for trouble.

The slow motion shots of De Niro and Pesci after the pen attack. Few directors use slow motion better than Scorsese, because he typically only uses it when you least expect it.

The slow dolly shot to reveal Ace’s concentrated face, and the music… it’s just absolute perfection.

The dealers straightening their posture as Ace walks by.

The matching crossfade of Ichikawa (Nobu Matsuhisa) getting on the plane, and then exiting the plane.

And Don Rickles in this scene… so great. “Better here tha—than up there, know what I mean?”

Two of Ace’s men walking into frame, followed lastly by Ace himself. This film is an absolute masterclass of camera placement, actor staging, editing, and use of music.

The match cut of Ginger (Sharon Stone) screaming in the security footage, to her screaming on the floor.

I don’t know who came up with this dialogue but they deserve an award of some kind.

This shot is so many things: it’s one of my favorite meet-cute looks, one of my favorite freeze frames, and certainly one of my favorite music needle drops in all of film. Chills, every time. Perfection.

And you have to love Ginger’s slow, defiant walk backwards and eventual strut away, as if she’s saying, “You want it? Come and get it.”

The cut of Ginger walking in the hotel room, to her walking back to Ace in the casino. The montage before this cut is such a precise encapsulation of Ginger’s life. 

James Woods. Just… everything about James Woods as Lester Diamond. The hair, the clothes, the snake-like demeanor. I love him.

A highlight of the film.

This look of, “Oh, well, you know, that’s Nicky,” that Nicky’s wife, Jennifer (Melissa Prophet), gives to Frank (Frank Vincent) in this scene.

The three shots Scorsese uses to introduce Ginger to Nicky. 

Scorsese, and his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, are masters of the hidden cross fade. If you watch closely, this first shot actually fades into another, nearly identical shot. I love that shit.

This fantastic stealth oner (time: 1 minute 10 seconds) of Nicky collecting money from a gambling debt.

This whole confrontation. Nicky approaching guys from another crew (look at Nicky’s right fist, cocked back, ready), the tension, the nod of appreciation Ace gives Nicky. It’s a subtle display of Nicky’s power, and Ace’s gratitude of said power.

The directional lighting of this shot to help focus our attention.

The way Rickles plays this scene. “And by the way, send over a… nice bottle of… champagne on ice.”

How quickly this guy says “Thank you” to Ace. (Fun fact, this actor is Joseph P. Reidy, who has been the first assistant director on a number of great films, including Casino.)

The way Ace nervously cleans ash off his Hugh Hefner smoking jacket after Ginger rejects his proposal.

In fact, this proposal scene is so damn heartbreaking. Ace wants what he wants, which is more. Ginger wants what she wants, which is independence. She tells him she doesn’t love him. But he keeps pushing. She eventually asks about money, and he tells her repeatedly that no matter what happens, she’ll be set for life. This is a marriage built on a mutual understanding of marital prostitution. He’s in it for the ego, she’s in it for the money. They both spell it out, clear as day. No wonder they fall down.

“He even made Jenny and me watch Amy for a few days when they went on their honeymoon. But I didn’t mind, we loved the kid.”

Lester hustling Ginger on her damn wedding night. This man does not give two shits about anyone but himself.

What a telling shot. Their present-day to the right: happy, loving; their whole lives ahead of them. Their downfall to the left: obscure, cracked; mutually assured destruction.

Ace and Ginger forcing their safety despot box into its slot.

When Ace has the Cowboy removed from the casino, it’s the first time we really see Ace mad. A brief glimpse at what’s to come.

Nicky beating on a guy three times his size, as if it’s nothing.

Nicky juggling the phone in his hand before he starts talking to Ace again.

A few of the stage lights turning off after Ace pulls the plug on the dance show. Subtle, but effective.

These vignettes. No one does vignettes anymore.

I know people talk about this scene a lot, but I love Ace’s change in tone during his narration. He goes from polite to pissed in half a second.

The use of the word “dang” is just priceless. But the use of the word “dang” in a Scorsese film is hilarious.

There is an economy to screenwriting that I am fascinated by. It’s a very specific sort of economy, that of using just a few relatable words to underline a point. I know it sounds simple, but writing the way people actually speak is incredibly difficult. You have to remove all the “movie-ness” from it, all the artifice and pretension. My point is, the way Pesci says, “I wanna go in a restaurant, which happens to be in the casino, to get one of those sandwiches I like,” makes his character, who is a maniacal psychopath, immediately relatable. He’s insane, but he also likes “those sandwiches” in a casino restaurant. We all have a place where we get “those sandwiches,” and if we were banned from going to that place, we’d probably be pissed too. Again, this may seem overly simple, but in fact, this is screenwriting at its finest. 

The lighting of this frame. Robert Richardson is a God of cinematography. 

This excellent, extreme close-up.

Brian La Baron, who seems to have a hold on Vegas Parking Valet roles. (Top: Casino, Bottom: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas)

I have always LOVED the shot of the camera entering this dark hole, to the match cut from inside the room. It’s such a cool lesson in camera exposure. 

Another example of economy of dialogue. Who can’t relate to falling asleep on the couch watching TV?

Nicky’s brother, Dominick (Philip Suriano), throwing this line away to the cops, after he spits on their food.

Alfred Nittoli’s acting here. He is so genuinely terrified of Nicky.

More relatable writing. Is it essential to know that the waitress was working on her night off? No. But it is.

Kevin Pollak has a great story about the blueberry scene. Ace and Philip Green were supposed to be arguing about the firing of Don (John Bloom), but during shooting, De Niro noticed that his prop muffin had considerably less blueberries than Pollak’s prop muffin, so De Niro started riffing on it. Pollak genuinely had no idea De Niro was going to start talking about blueberries. Therefore, Pollak’s confusion — “What are you talking about?” — is in fact Kevin Pollak’s own confusion, not his character’s.

This quiet, annoyed, perfect line delivery.

The juxtaposition of Ginger and Lester’s faces. Ginger knows there’s coming, Lester doesn’t yet. Oh boy.

One of my favorite lines from any movie ever. (Also, perfect De Niro face in this screenshot.)

I first saw Casino in early 1996, which was more or less pre-internet (there was dial-up, and very few websites dedicated to movies). I mention that because my friend Chris and I spent hours trying to determine why Ace wasn’t wearing his pants in this scene. We could not figure it out. Chris was steadfast in his theory that Ace was jerking off under his desk (we were 10 years old — heh), I thought it was something much more practical. When the special edition DVD was released years later, we finally got our answer: real life casino gangster, Frank Rosenthal (who Ace is based on), would sit pantless in his office, as to preserve the crease in his immaculate pants. That’s it. It’s all about vanity.

De Niro subtly suggesting that Ace’s ulcer is acting up in this scene.

This count room freeze frame.

Green’s reaction upon hearing that his enemy, Anna Scott, has been murdered. Pollak really sells the fact that Green had no idea about this.

Back when Casino was on two VHS tapes (because of its length), tape one ended after the top shot, and tape two began with the bottom shot. It’s funny, I still always think the movie is going to stop between these scenes.

These subtitles changed the way I viewed movies. Nicky and Ace are having a coded conversation about meeting up, and the subtitles decode what they are really trying to say. I had never seen that in a movie before. It’s Scorsese proving that the limits of film are boundless.

Let’s give it up for character actor, Richard Riehle, here as banker Charlie Clark. Riehle has an astounding 378 television and movie credits to his name.

I love Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi for this line.

This could be my favorite moment of Pesci’s in the entire film. Nicky is walking out of court, presumably after being asked about one of the two dozen murders he’s been implicated in. Nicky is obviously frustrated and rushed, but he looks off-camera and tells a reporter, “Watch yourself, you’ll get runned over there.” And it’s genuine. He’s not bullying the reporter, he’s genuinely telling him to be careful not to walk in the street. What psychopath does that? What psychopath robs a home but turns family photos around? What psychopath drops everything he’s doing to make his son pancakes at 6:30 every morning? Nicky Santoro, that’s who. What an absolutely fascinating film character.

The lovely woman to the left is Martin Scorsese’s mother, Catherine. Martin told the actor in the scene, Vinny Vella, to curse occasionally, as his character is so angry. What Martin didn’t do was warn his mother, who was a staunch Catholic in real life, that the actor was going to curse. So every time Vella curses, Catherine’s shocked reactions are genuine. What a priceless moment. 

It’s always great to watch De Niro go off, but when he’s going off while wearing massive ‘80s-era shades, it’s even better. (And I love Ginger’s unamused reaction during this scene as well.)

Ace applauding the fact that Frankie Avalon has eight children.

Love how the camera switches to Dutch angles as soon as Ace and Nicky begin talking on the phone.

This scene also contains some sneaky character development for Ginger. It’s early in the morning, everyone is still in their bath robes, but Ginger is drinking booze (and rubbing her nose a little too aggressively). Hell, maybe she hasn’t even been to bed yet. It’s a great bit of subtle foreshadowing for her character.

Ace’s latent fear that he could be killed by his best friend at any minute. If you watch carefully here, Ace spots something to his right, then awkwardly steps away from it. Maybe it’s his grave, already dug.

This classic western movie set-up: ultra wide shot, medium shot, extreme close-up. Genius.

This poor blackjack dealer closing his eyes in shame (or fear) when he deals Nicky another high card.

Lester arguing with Ace’s daughter. This idiot can’t even win an argument with a 10 year old.

I adore this moment between Ace and Nicky. Ace is so distressed that Ginger has fled with his kid. He’s humbled and humiliated; he genuinely doesn’t know what to do. And here’s his old pal, Nicky, being a calm voice of reason about the whole situation. Who knew?

Ginger acting all nice to Ace when she arrives back in Vegas with their daughter, Amy.

The moment Ginger gets back, the film starts to brew a tension between Ace and Ginger that ultimately leads to one of the most terrifying movie arguments I’ve ever seen. Scorsese is so wise in planting the roots of the argument early. It builds and builds and builds, until it finally breaks.

And here’s the eventual blowout, which I’ve written about on this blog before. It’s an unnerving argument. So real and painful. Two brilliant actors fearlessly performing at the top of their game.

I used to be a newspaper beat reporter. I’ve interviewed dozens of cops and gone on several ride-alongs. I always asked every cop I interviewed the same question: “What are the calls you dread the most?” And every single one of them, without fail or hesitation, said domestic disturbance calls were the worst. For one, you have no idea what you’re walking into. You’re entering someone’s personal space as they are deep in the throes of a passionate argument. But moreover, every cop hated the fact that 9 times out of 10, when those domestic disturbance cases went to court, the lover who was being abused was right back to standing by their abuser’s side. This scene reminds me of that. Ginger is a horribly damaged woman who is in need of serious help. But instead of firmly setting a boundary, Ace lets her back in. This is one of the most realistic scenes in the film, and certainly one of the saddest.

Nicky and Ginger simultaneously commenting aloud that Ace has changed.

Good time to talk about Sharon Stone. Stone was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her work as Ginger. She had some strong competition in Susan Sarandon (who won for Dead Man Walking), and Elisabeth Shue (for Leaving Las Vegas). I still can’t decide between Stone and Shue, but I suppose I would’ve been least upset had Stone won. She deserved it so much.

Movies don’t this. Movie’s don’t freeze-frame on a supporting character, as they deliver their first and only lines of narration, more than two-thirds into the film. Movies don’t do that, but Martin Scorsese Pictures do.

This remains the most inventive insert shot of coke ever filmed.

Love this nod to the Maysles’ documentary, Gimme Shelter. The quick and harsh zoom-in of the “weapon,” the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” playing on the soundtrack. It’s such a nice touch.

Nicky and Frank paranoid at the old timer walking by. Hilarious.

I love how Ace says, “Hello,” as he’s picking up the phone, well before the receiver is to his mouth.

Great use of physical power in this scene. Nicky refuses to get out of Ace’s way (which clearly intimidates Ace), but Nicky does let Ace slowly maneuver by. The storm is brewing.

Nicky pretending to be nice to Ginger as she leaves the restaurant in a rage.

Don Rickles toting a massive shotgun around.

Love that Ace is on a first name basis with the city police.

Ginger’s enraged “Fuck you!” to Ace. Such conviction in Stone’s work.

Ace, always the gentleman, shaking Randy’s hand after Randy says his wife is pregnant again.

It’s not just that Ginger is offering the cop money and he is politely refusing, it’s that after he hesitantly takes it, she says, “You’ve been so nice to me.” What a sad and lost woman she is. 

Rags to riches. Top to bottom. The queen falls, in some shitty LA hallway, no less.

Love that we see Ace walking to his car not once, not twice, but three separate times before it explodes.

Nicky’s narration being cut short as soon as Frank hits him with the baseball bat.

Another scene I’ve written about before. The mighty falls, and the corporations take over.

One of my favorite closing lines of any movie. Because, really, what else is there to say?



  1. Ah.... I really need to re-watch that film. I remember Ben Wheatley stating that this film along with Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street is part of thematic trilogy of decadent lifestyles. He's probably right.

    Immediately as I was scrolling down slowly in the frame, I was thinking "Did Robert Richardson shot this?" and I realized how right I was as I'm so familiar with his work in photography. Mentioning a lot about the cutting I think is important as I think there should be some documentary about Scorsese's collaboration with Thelma Schoonmaker. It's clear they have a style that is their own and always know when to cut and when not to cut. Even if they want to go for something stylistic. I would love to be a fly in the wall just to see how they create a scene in the editing room.

    If I was to rank the best director/editor collaborations. They would probably be at the top of the list. Mentions should go to: Christopher Nolan/Lee Smith, Pedro Almodovar/Jose Salcedo, Sofia Coppola/Sarah Flack, Quentin Tarantino/Sally Menke (R.I.P.), Terrence Malick/Billy Weber, Wong Kar-Wai/William Chang Suk-Ping, Alfonso Cuaron/Alex Rodriguez, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu/Stephen Mirrione, and Steven Spielberg/Michael Kahn.

    1. Love this comment. Bob Richardson has such a distinct style, doesn't he? He owns that harsh white light. He's so stylized, but it always feels organic to the material. Like that shot in JFK of Costner, where you can't see his eyes because the light is bouncing off his glasses. Who does that?! That's the type of shit that wins cinematography Oscars. He takes risks, but they always feel right.

      I would adore a doc about the Marty/Thelma collab. They stuff they do together is incomparable. You're right, they always know when to cut (and when not to), and they always make their projects unique, but natural.

      Also love that list of yours. Some amazing picks there.

  2. The Back Home Years Ago title card is my favorite thing ever. And this post is terrific. Greatness as usual, my man!

    1. Thanks Kevin! How priceless is that title card? I remember seeing that as a kid and thinking, "Hmm, that's odd, I've never seen that. Was that intentional?" And then my mind racing with questions about why Scorsese would do that. Love it.

  3. This si so brilliant! I'd love to do a post like that about Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street but as you can tell from my posts on Logan I cannot stop. It drives me insane if I don't list every single damn thing I love about a film. And I could go and on and on and on about those.

    I love this post so much. That bit where Nicky is all paranoid about the random guy passing by is indeed hilarious and the way he tells the reporter to watch out in such a normal way is so damn funny and surprising.

    "You took your boots off? You put your feet on the table? You shit-kicking, stinky, horse-manure-smellin' motherf***er you. You f*** me up over there, I'll stick you in a hole in the f***in' desert." - amazing.

    Also I love how when Ginger is lying to Nicky he keeps interrogating her and she says she had a salad, looking down, pretending to be busy and then when he asks her what the companion had she said "she had a salad too", all defiant. Stone's work in this is mesmerizing. Scorsese usually has great female characters in his films but Ginger was just incredible.

    1. Thank you! I was hoping you'd enjoy this post, given the mutual love we share for this movie. Pesci is so fucking good in this flick. I think he improves on what he did in Goodfellas. Nicky is a fuller, more fleshed out character, and I love it.

      That scene between Ginger and Ace that you mentioned is great. Stone is indeed mesmerizing, in that moment, and the whole damn film.

  4. Excellent write up of an excellent movie. One of my all time favorites. Everything about it is just perfect. I especially love the costume design. Robert De Niro's suits in the movie never stops to amaze me. And i think Joe Pesci has never been better. His last scene was brutal. And i also have to say i can't wait for his return in The Irishman. That is probably my most anticipated movie at the moment. Martin Scorsese return to make a gangster film with a cast like that? It can't go wrong.

    1. Thanks man! I think Pesci's work as Nicky is right up there as his best, next to Raging Bull. Though having gone through Casino with this much detail, I might just have to give it to Nicky. Tough, tough call. I'm so happy to hear that you love this movie. And I Cannot. Fucking. Wait. for The Irishman. Please let it deliver. Please.

  5. Here's something you also didn't talk about. The physical aging on Ginger, how she goes from looking like a beauty queen to a strung out addict, I don't know if it was makeup or Stone not eating or something, but the way her look changes half way thru was always so striking to me!

    1. Ohh I love that too. I try to focus on aspects of the film that haven't really been discussed before (which Ginger's transformation has), but obviously I went a little overboard here. What can I say, I love the hell out of this damn movie!

  6. Great breakdown! Sharon Stone really lit up the screen, showing she could act and was not just a hot body. The sequence with her in the white dress in the casino stands out the most to me, love the use of music.

    1. Thanks Chris! I love everything about Stone in this movie. It's a shame, she was never really offered a part like this again. Such a bummer, because with Ginger, she proved she had the acting chops to really go there.

  7. I remember, as a kid, seeing those two VHS tapes sitting on my father's shelf and being so intimated by them. Who has time for a movie that can be two tapes long?! That's up there with Gone with the Wind. Except that Casino is a great film worthy of the time investment.
    Another excellent article!

    1. Thanks so much! And that is a great story, because I had the exact same experience with it. I'll never forgot that double VHS. Ahhh, what memories.

  8. why you stopped at the hateful eight in your tarntino marthon, in my opinion its one of his best.
    also i happy to see casino get some spotlight as this one is my favorite film fron scorsese trilogy "the rise and fall of..." which include goodfellas casino and the wolf from wall street. great pick.

    1. Thanks! All my QT posts in this series were leading up to The Hateful Eight. But you're right, I should do that one. Complete the QT filmography.

  9. I rewatched this twice yesterday off the back of this post- great stuff! Another note of economical screenwriting comes in how patiently Scorsese and Pileggi have Nicky and Frank take little digs at eachother. Really makes that venom in Nicky's death scene believable, rather than just something that saves Frank's own life, and god damn Frank Vincent's final look remains my favorite acting of his career. A very fine film.

    Would you mind if I did any of these Alex? I've loved the format for years, but didn't really want to mimic it without asking.

    1. Frank Vincent is a beast in this movie and you're so right about his final look. When I was younger, I was so confused why Frank seemed to be getting so much joy out of Nicky's death, but when you rewatch it, you're like, "Oh, this dude has been fucked with for decades. AND this was an order - he has to do this to survive." You're right, it's so subtle.

      And hey man, have at it. I really appreciate you asking. Write away!

  10. What a fantastic film this is. As always, you shed lots of light on parts of it I haven't even thought about, let alone talked about. I particularly love your points about the writing, particularly as it pertains to how dialogue is used, here. Great job.