Goodfellas on crack: Why Casino is a notch above Goodfellas

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Before I write this post, let me tell you that I love Goodfellas.  I think it’s a phenomenal film and see it as the film that The Godfather: Part III should’ve been. It’s a pity that it did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture that year. But we know that some of the greatest films out there haven’t been given awards recognition which they deserve and Goodfellas is one of them. However, I think there is one more film that deserved to be equally rewarded for it’s merits but I didn’t see that happening. Of course it’s a cult favorite among the numerous Scorsese fans out there and many of them love it. But, I still get the feeling that it’s been given that ‘underrated’ status by many others, including the critics. Now, once again, let me tell remind you what I’ve already said: Goodfellas is a phenomenal mobster film but I think Casino is superior and let me tell you why. Now, I know many people say that we are not supposed to compare two films and should view a particular film on it’s merits but I think that’s bullshit. Clearly we can distinguish one film’s quality from the other. Anyway, here are my arguments.

The narration:

Both films are based on true events surrounding the mob that were chronicled in two books written by the author Nicholas Pileggi – Goodfellas from Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family and Casino from Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas – and so naturally, these two films feature similar characters, especially Joe Pesci’s, and similar account of the mob’s operations that everyone called it Goodfellas-2. Goodfellas was told from the perspective of it’s protagonist, Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta. Casino, however, is narrated in a more interesting way: Scorsese decided it best to tell it from the perspectives of two of it’s main characters – Sam “Ace” Rothstein (played by Robert De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (played by Joe Pesci). The film opens with the voice-over narration of Rothstein and he gets into his car and as soon as he starts the ignition, BOOM! His car along with him goes up in flames. The audience assumes that he is dead.

This is not the first time that a narrative device like this was used. Billy Wilder already did it in Sunset Boulevard but 45 years later, Scorsese uses it again but this time he has re-invented it. Now, Rothestein and Santoro are being brutally honest to us and they don’t hold anything from us. Each man gives his own take on how he sees the world and justifies each and every action taken by them and do not apologize for it. Even Santoro, who admits that he is a scumbag. The motivations of these two characters are clear to us. What I found most interesting is that even though she is one of the primary characters, Ginger (played by Sharon Stone) does not provide a voice-over and we don’t see what drives her or, like Rothestein himself tells us in one scene, what moves her. Clearly, she is the most unpredictable of the three.

In Goodfellas, Pesci’s character doesn’t do a voice-over and in that, it’s him that’s the most unpredictable. Henry Hill’s wife (played by Lorraine Bracco) provides the second voice-over narration and is being very honest about why he married Hill and why she chose to get herself involved in his work and support him. Perhaps Scorsese chose to make Santoro do the narration because he is not an unpredictable character anymore. We already know that he is a carbon copy of his character from Goodfellas. Ginger’s true nature is gradually revealed and in the end, her actions “fucked it all up” (in the words of Santoro, who also played a major part in the “fucking up”). And last but not the least, we get a sense of the history of the mob’s operations in Vegas before the place was taken over by corporations, through the extremely engrossing Discovery Channel-style narration and it is done in a way that is accessible to even a layman.

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The characters:

Goodfellas‘ Henry Hill was an interesting character, sure, but I found Rothstein to be a much more interesting character than Hill. Hill was just a young guy who hero-worshipped the gangsters in his neighborhood and thought that being a gangster made you kind of invincible and also made you feel like the President of the United States. He despised those who made a living by regular means and called them losers. Rothstein on the other hand, is already living like the President of the United States and hanging out with guys who play Golf with the POTUS. He is an incredibly smart man and at one point, Santoro says that “Sam thinks like a brain surgeon”. He is astute, is very particular about how the day-to-day operations in a Casino has to be carried out, dresses sharp and probably has OCD. So I wonder how come a man like that became such a screw-up when it came to one thing: love/women. But, as I’ve mentioned earlier, he is honest about it and tells us: “And me, I decided to complicated my life.” If you’ve noticed carefully, it’s his decision that led to all the dominoes (no pun intended) crashing down, along with so many towering hotels and casinos, and yet the mob didn’t see it fit to give him a harsh (if not harsher) punishment just as they did for Santoro. (Yes, I know the answer why but it’s still an interesting thought) So, I found Rothstein to be a more emotional and more relatable character as opposed to Hill.

As I’ve already mentioned above the similarity that Santoro has with his Tommy Devito from Goodfellas, I don’t think I need to go into that in detail. Whether indulging in new forms of depravity, repeatedly stabbing a guy in the neck with relish or putting another guy’s head in a vice and trying to gouge out his eyeballs, there is something oddly cathartic about Pesci’s mesmerizing performance. Now, this brings me to Sharon Stone’s Ginger. I have to admit that the first time I saw the film, I was 15 and this character, along with the ridiculously huge amount of expletives used in the film (422 uses of “fuck”) put me off a little bit and having seen Goodfellas  first, naturally I felt that that was the superior film. Up until that point, I don’t think any other movie character has managed to disgust me as much as she did. I really felt pity for Rothstein and the whole time I was asking myself: “Why the fuck did you have to marry her? You are supposed to be super smart. Why man? Why?” But years later, I found myself going back to this film again and again and said to myself: “You are SUPPOSED TO BE disgusted with her character.” I concluded that this was Stone’s best performance. (Some people might disagree with me and point out that little Paul Verhoevan film where she did that little “leg crossing” trick.) I wish she had done more roles like these. As a female character, she is more fleshed out than Lorraine Bracco’s in Goodfellas. (Her relationship with her pimp is reminiscent of Jodie Foster and Harvey Keitel’s in Taxi Driver.)

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The filmmaking:

Scorsese takes some of his new filmmaking techniques and camera work that he introduced us to in Goodfellas and cranks it up to ten. Not just the narration but even the camera work and editing feels like they are on crack. The camera movement is fluid and it sometimes swoops and glides in an out of casinos, approaches the characters swiftly and sometimes even rotates. And the bravura editing that is characteristic of every Scorsese film is on full display here but more extravagant. Sometimes portions of the frame are darkened and only few characters highlighted and also, the sets are lighted in a way that make it look like the characters are under multiple spotlights. Much has been said about the steadycam Copa Cabanca sequence in Goodfellas but that is nothing compared to what Scorsese has displayed at the beginning of Casino, allowing us a kind of voyeuristic peek into the shady operations going on behind-the-scenes inside these casinos. And there is no rest for Scorsese’s “jukebox” here, as rock and soul classics from the 50s to 70s accompany every scene without missing a beat. Every scene is directed with a delirious energy that is not seen in any of his previous films. (Of course some of these techniques would show up in his later films such as The Aviator and The Departed.) The film’s scale and scope are bigger than that of Goodfellas. It plays out like a Greek tragedy and is one of Scorsese’s most magnificent epics.

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