Last week when we discussed Goodfellas, I suggested that Casino, Martin Scorsese’s 1995 follow-up, was probably the better film of the two, though I tempered that charge because I hadn’t seen Casino in a while and I wasn’t sure if my opinion would hold up. Casino has been almost completely eclipsed by the critical and cultural phenomenon that is Goodfellas, to the point where it seems that plenty of people have either forgotten (or simply aren’t even aware) that it exists. Goodfellas is a very, very good film I held; just not as good as Casino. Now, having watched Casino once more, I can report that my conviction on this is stronger than ever. Casino—very much a spiritual successor to Scorsese’s original mob hit—is the deeper picture. It is better directed, and better acted. The gulf between me and the critical consensus (parts of which hold that Goodfellas is Martin Scorsese’s best film, an assertion that I find ludicrous) couldn’t be any wider.
Watching the two films together, it is evident that they are linked in all manner of ways—so much so that the latter of the two may as well have been declared a sequel of some sort. Scorsese takes everything he did in Goodfellas and channels it into Casino. We go from the superficial similarities, like the violence or the tortured characters with their ruined relationships, to the more subtle, like the directorial choices made. In almost all cases, Scorsese improves on those points in Casino or, at the very least, ups the ante.
The characters in Casino are more vivid and sympathetic than in Goodfellas. It’s impossible to care about Henry Hill or any of his friends, but the plight of Robert De Niro’s Sam Rothstein is gut-wrenching and depressing, and the acts of Sharon Stone’s Ginger are utterly despicable. Ginger might be one of the most reprehensible characters in film history; she is, as a result, orders of magnitude more compelling than the entire cast of Goodfellas combined. (Stone turns in one of the all-time great performances, which makes her marginalization to small, low-rent movies all the more striking. She’s as good as anyone here.) Regarding the direction, Scorsese again varies camera and film speed (going from fast tracking shots to freeze frames) but does it more artfully than in Goodfellas. When De Niro is on the casino floor the camera gazes down at him from above, and when his wife is strung out of her mind on coke the camera drifts off her, decaying away at ugly Dutch angles.
Scorsese also doubles down on the use of licensed music as a soundtrack, and similarly escalates the violence to where parts of the film are simply unwatchable. (His willingness to depict violence so profoundly has many alleging he glorifies it, though that’s a discussion for another day—perhaps when we’re wrapping up our examination of his works.) But, as hinted at above, Casino distinguishes itself with its story and its characters. Scorsese essentially copies over the basic themes from Goodfellas (violence, personal destruction, greed, misplaced pride), so while there’s nothing new here, these more vivid characters allow him to tell the story better than he did in 1990. (As an example, we can return again to Stone’s character—Ginger’s successes and failures alone make the movie.
While Goodfellas’ biggest problem was that its cast was unsympathetic, Casino’s success hinges on its protagonist being very sympathetic. We feel for Sam because, in perhaps a first for a Scorsese protagonist, he tries to do everything right. He’s working for mobsters, but he’s not interested in that; he wants to be the king of his casino and little else. His mistake, of course, was falling for Ginger. Despite the fact that he’s incredibly naïve we can forgive him because we see how intoxicating Ginger is and we fall for her ourselves. That his ruination comes by her hand only strengthens his case. The more we hate Ginger, the more we like him. It makes me uneasy that we feel that way about Ginger because, in the abstract, we shouldn’t. She spoils our hero and that is enough to condemn her, but besides that, we should really pity her. Consider how broken she is. She is an addict; she is a victim; she has the capacity to be brilliant but she throws it all away for a grease-ball pimp ex-boyfriend.
One of the subtler decisions Scorsese makes is to reveal to us at the beginning exactly where the story is going. He doesn’t hide his hand: we know that things aren’t going to turn out well for any of these characters, and we’re constantly reminded of it by the voice-over narration. We know as soon as Sam meets Ginger that she’ll be the end of him because that’s what we’re told, and we can figure out that her involvement probably led to his car being rigged to blow—the scene that the film actually opens with. And so it hangs over the entire three-hour production that is Casino—this pressurized decline, the impending demise of all the characters we’ve grown close to. I think it makes everything we see all the more potent. It makes Sam’s unwillingness to cut Ginger loose more frustrating; it makes Ginger sleeping with Nicky more appalling; it makes her abuse of her daughter and her skipping out with James Woods more horrendous. We can predict everything that’s going to happen, but we’re going to watch it all anyway, and that makes it more sickening and distressing than it would otherwise have been. The first minutes of the film are like the early hours of the common cold that we’ve all had: the itchiness at the back of the throat, the bad taste in the mouth, the increasingly congested nose. We know what’s coming up, and we can’t do anything to stop it. And it keeps getting worse, and worse, and worse.
Casino resonates more than Goodfellas does. The latter is a cold examination of the mob life, while the former is a good dream gone wrong—a nightmare. Perhaps its empty conclusion is what troubles us most: in the end, Sam is right back where he started, living life as a bookie. And for what? For nothing—nothing but pain and misery. Goodfellas explains to us that mob life is hard; Casino shows us just how hard that life is. I’m not sure why we find Goodfellas in the ascendant position today. Perhaps it’s because its moments are more iconic: ‘Go get your shine box,’ for instance. But that shouldn’t fool us; the better film shouldn’t be ignored. For as good as Goodfellas is, Casino is that much more superior. It is one of Scorsese’s best films, and it is undoubtedly his best mob film.