Casino: Martin Scorsese’s Testament

What has drawn Scorsese to mix a mafia story with a Biblical epic? The director explains
Casino (1996) Scorsese, Pesci, De Niro

by Ian Christie

What do we expect of a Scorsese film? We know what the young Scorsese learned to expect of a Powell and Pressburger or a King Vidor – intensity and rapture. But what do we expect when a new Scorsese is unveiled, as Casino was on the final night of the London Film Festi­val? Passionate commitment to a subject, con­summate technical mastery, a masterpiece amid the mediocrity of routine Hollywood.

It’s a tall order, like asking an athlete to break a record on every outing. Scorsese’s films rarely earn big money, but they’re as expensive to make as those that do. So reviews and reputa­tion are vital. His acknowledged artistry helps the studios feel like occasional patrons of the art they daily prostitute. But the equation is fragile, combining as it does studio pride, critical and industry respect, and audience response to bewilderingly intense films in a bland era.

Intense like a Jacobean tragedy, in the case of Casino. Except this blood-spattered triangle of love and revenge isn’t set in some renaissance court, but in a modern equivalent – the neon and rhinestone baroque of a Vegas casino. The film opens with Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert De Niro), a gifted gambler and bookie, being blown up by a car-bomb. Ace’s voiceover narration, seemingly from beyond the grave, explains how years ago he was given Paradise-on-Earth by a murky cabal of Mafioso kingmakers, in the shape of a new casino, the Tangiers. While Ace is the de facto boss at the Tangiers, overseeing day- to-day operations and ensuring no one is swin­dling the house, the front man is Phillip Green (Kevin Pollak). Green is a seemingly unimpeachable casino president, who has a clean record but also a secret partner, Anna Scott. The money starts to flow, and soon attracts Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), a violent desperado from Ace’s past, who offers him his muscle; he takes charge of the bosses’ skimmed share of the profits, sending them back east, a task overseen by whingeing underworld middle-manager Artie Piscano (Vinny Vella). Violently impulsive though Nicky is (at one point, to extract infor­mation, he puts a man’s head in a vice), he is the land of meticulous killer who ensures a hole in the desert sand is dug before he shows up with a ‘package’ in the trunk.

All goes well until Ace self-destructively chooses Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), a for­mer prostitute and consummate hustler at the gaming tables, as his wife, and as the only per­son whom he will trust. Ace and Ginger have a child, Amy, but Ginger feels herself trapped within the marriage; turning to drink and drugs, she becomes dangerously unstable, and badly neglects Amy. Wanting to leave Ace yet determined to get what she feels her due, Ginger plots to retrieve money and jewels from a safe- deposit box and entices Nicky with sexual favours to help her. As the triangle locks into place, the authorities exploit the situation to bring down both Ace and Nicky. Worried about securing his permanent gaming licence, and to distance himself from Nicky’s worsening reputa­tion, Ace has him banned from the Tangiers. The court refuses to grant him a gaming licence any­way and, to the embarrassment of the mob, Ace starts his own television chat show to maintain his visibility. Nicky, running a lucrative set of rackets of his own, comes under surveillance while the tribute he sends back east diminishes. Finally, the godlike crime bosses demand retri­bution for transgressions against the established order of things.

The stuff of legend and archetype, the story of Ace, Nicky and Ginger could be told any number of ways. Co-screenwriter Nick Pileggi has told it once already in his book Casino: the true account of Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, Anthony ‘Tony the Ant’ Spilotro and Geri McGee (the real-life coun­terparts of Ace, Nicky and Ginger respectively), and how they rode the rollercoaster of mob influence in Las Vegas during the 70s. Or the story could be told as a Western, somewhere between John Sturges’ The Law and Jack Wade and Brando’s brooding One-Eyed Jacks, with Ace as a bad man who strikes lucky in the West and mar­ries a saloon girl, before his past catches up with him, and unwanted acquaintances come calling.

But isn’t it also GoodFellas 2? Yes, in that it deals with the 70s after the 60s of GoodFellas, finding Las Vegas an ideal microcosm of that decade’s false glamour. Yes also, insofar as Scors­ese and Pileggi have mined another rich vein of America’s grim history of organised crime and revel insolently in their findings. But it’s also darker, more complex and more ambitious. It shows with pseudo-documentary precision how Vegas ruthlessly preys on gamblers large and small to feed the insatiable appetite of the crime bosses. It shows a glittering, festering latterday Babylon surrounded by desert, in which appear­ance is everything, and nothing is what it seems.

Most daring of all, in the midst of this deca­dence, shot through with the horrors of men clubbed to death, tortured and blown up, we’re invited to laugh at its rulers’ foibles, admire their wit and enterprise, and finally grieve over their destruction. The Rolling Stones and Bach’s St Matthew Passion are juxtaposed on the sound­track, as if GoodFellas was erupting into the draw­ing rooms of The Age of Innocence. When the real Frank Rosenfeld launched a self-advertising tele­vision show from his casino, the opening edition was hit by technical faults and the station trans­mitted instead, with an irony entirely appropri­ate to Casino, The Fall of the Roman Empire. Like Syberberg ‘tempting’ us with the seductive appeal of the Führer in Hitler, A Film From Ger­many, or Eisenstein lavishing his montage magic on the luxury of the Romanov dynasty in October, Scorsese in Casino challenges us to face up to the lure of evil, the deep fascination of Lucifer and the fallen angels that Milton understood.

Eisenstein? Milton? Come on – surely it’s only rock’n’roll? Yet Scorsese’s films have a habit of ageing into classic status. Again and again, his precarious miracles have been found wanting at first sight, only to reappear as milestones. Only time will tell whether Casino has truly done it again for him.

Ian Christie: What was the hook that persuaded you to tackle another mafia subject after GoodFellas?

Martin Scorsese: The first newspaper article Nick Pileggi showed me was about the police cover­ing a domestic fight on a lawn in Las Vegas one Sunday morning. And in that article it slowly began to unravel, this incredible ten-year adven­ture that all these people were having, culmi­nating in this husband and wife arguing on their lawn, with her smashing his car, the police arriving, and the FBI taking pictures. As you work back to the beginning, you find this incred­ible story with so many tangents, and each is one more nail in their coffin. It could be the underboss of Kansas City, Artie Piscano, con­stantly complaining that he always had to spend his own money on trips to Las Vegas and never got reimbursed. Or it could be the unrelated homicide that made the police put a bug in the produce market that Piscano kept in Kansas City. Even they’ve forgotten about it, but it picks up all his complaining and alerts FBI men round the country to all these names. They’re surprised to hear the names of the Vegas casinos being mentioned in a Kansas City produce market. What’s the connection?
Then, quite separately, a court decrees that Anna Scott should have her share of the money as a partner of the president of the Tangiers. But instead of settling with her, the mob shoot her, which also really happened. This then brings police attention to their frontman, the presi­dent, although he was in no way involved in the decision to kill her, and he begins to realise what’s going on, although there’s nothing much he can do about it. And then you have Ace Roth- stein and Ginger and Nicky Santoro, all very volatile characters. I just thought it would be a terrific story.

How much is based on real characters and events?

Pretty much everything. Piscano is Carl DeLuna, who kept all those records. Mr Nance, who brings the money from the casino to Kansas City, is based on a man named Carl Thomas, who was recently killed in a carcrash. Mr Green, the Tangiers president, Rothstein, Ginger, Nicky Santoro and his brother – these are all based on real people. Sometimes things that happened in Chicago are placed in Vegas. We did have some problems about being specific, which meant say­ing “back home” instead of Chicago, and having to say “adapted from a true story” instead of “this film is based on a true story”, which was the lawyers’ language.

Was Las Vegas unfamiliar territory for you?

I’m pretty familiar with the characters around the tables and in the offices, but the actual place, and the gaming, were new to me. What inter­ested me was the idea of excess, no limits. People become successful like in no other city.

It gives Ace a chance to create something, rather like an old-time prospector going west, who lands in a small town and by sheer hard work makes his fortune. But because he makes the classic mistake of loving without being loved, he falls.

Well, it’s his own fault. He says, “I know all the stories about her, but I don’t care, I’m Ace Roth­stein and I can change her.” But he couldn’t change her. And he couldn’t control the muscle – Nicky – because if you try to control someone like that you’ll be dead. When his car was blown up it was pretty obvious who gave the order for that. But as Nicky says at one point in the film, so long as they’re earning with the prick they’ll never OK anything – the gods, that is – meaning they’ll never authorise killing him. But Nicky likes to be prepared, so he orders two holes to be dug in the desert. That’s the way they talk. This is the actual dialogue from a witness protection programme source that we had.

It’s really Sodom or Gomorrah, surrounded by the desert, isn’t it?

Yes it is. We don’t want to lay it on too heavily, but that was the idea. Gaining Paradise and los­ing it, through pride and through greed – it’s the old-fashioned Old Testament story. Ace is given Paradise on Earth. In fact, he’s there to keep everybody happy and keep everything in order, and to make as much money as possible so they can take more on the skim. But the prob­lem is that he has to give way at times to certain people and certain pressures, which he won’t do because of who he is.

What about the whole country-club strand? Is this because he’s Jewish and wants to be accepted socially?

He says when he accepts that plaque, “Anywhere else I’d be arrested for what I’m doing. Here they’re giving me awards.” This is the only place he can use his expertise in a legitimate way, and so become a part of the American WASP com­munity. That’s why Nicky tells him in the desert, “I’m what’s real out here. Not your country clubs and your TV show. I’m what’s real: the dirt, the gutter, and the blood. That’s what it’s all about.”

It’s a great scene in a classic Western setting.

That’s where they had to go to talk – in the mid­dle of this desert. And Nicky had to change cars six times. I always imagined that the Joe Pesci character must be so angry, and getting angrier as he changes each car, until he gets out of the last one and De Niro can’t say a word when he lashes right into him. But you know in this case I’m on Nicky’s side. The rest is artifice, and if you buy into it it’s hypocrisy. Know where it’s com­ing from and know what the reality is. Don’t think you’re better than me, or than the people you grew up with.

This creates the same moral dissonance that was so powerful in GoodFellas, where you want to see someone succeed, but it’s the wrong business!
Very often the people I portray can’t help but be in that way of life. Yes, they’re bad, they’re doing bad things. And we condemn those aspects of them. But they’re also human beings. And I find that often the people passing moral judgment on them may ultimately be worse. I know that here in England there were film-makers and crit­ics who felt I was morally irresponsible to make a film like GoodFellas. Well, I’ll make more of them if I can. Remember what happens at the end of the movie, where you see Nicky and his brother beaten and buried. That’s all based on fact – I saw the pictures of the real bodies when they dug up the grave. Now it’s shot in a certain way, very straight. And I happen to like those people. Nicky is horrible. He’s a terrible man. But there’s something that happens for me in watching them get beaten with the bats and then put into the hole. Ultimately it’s a tragedy. It’s the frailty of being human. I want to push audiences’ emotional empathy with cer­tain types of characters who are normally con­sidered villains.

You go to considerable lengths to make Nicky an attractive figure. He even comes home every morning and cooks breakfast for his son…

Based on the real man, who did that. It’s an interesting dilemma for both of them. They both buy into a situation and both overstep the line so badly that they destroy everything for every­body. A new city comes rising out of the ashes. Who knows what the realities are there now, where you’ve gone from a Nicky Santoro to a Donald Trump? Who knows where the money’s going? But I’m sure it’s got to be very, very good somehow for those entrepreneurs coming in with the money. You’ll probably see a film in 15 years exposing what they’re doing now. What we show in this film is the end of the old way and how it ended. They got too full of pride, they wanted more. If you’re gambling you want more, like the Japanese gambler Ichikawa, who bets less money than he normally would bet when he’s tricked into coming back. But for him it isn’t winning 10,000, it’s losing 90,000, because normally he bets 100,000.

It’s a neat little parable about gambling.

We always had problems with where it was going to be placed in the structure. But I said it’s very important to keep the move into Bob’s face when he says, “In the end we get it all.” They do, they really do. What an interesting place, because they’re a bunch of cheats, watching cheats, watching cheats. Ace Rothstein and those guys know how to cheat, with handicap­ping and basketball games. They make it so nat­ural that you wouldn’t be able to tell whether the game is fixed. I’m sure he has that ability.

There’s a fantastic symphony of looks in the film, with everyone watching everyone, and you push it and push it until we reach-
– the all-seeing eye. That’s when he sees her for the first time. Before they had the video eye-in- the-sky, they had men with binoculars who had been cheaters up on the catwalks , trying to find other cheaters. I just thought it was really won­derful, with nobody trusting anybody.

There’s another documentary thrust in the film: how money gets skimmed and multiplied and diffused, and then distributed in equally bizarre ways.

That was 20 years ago, before the old mob lost their control. At that time every casino was ‘owned’ by some mob from a different part of the country. The Tangiers is fictional, but there were four – the Stardust, the Fremont, the Fron­tier and the Marina – which the Rothstein char­acter controlled. So we just made them one giant hotel and combined all the elements. Where else could a great handicapper become the most important man in the city, with total control? We tried to show how far his control ran, even over the kitchen and the food. Insist­ing on an equal number of blueberries in each muffin may seem funny, but it’s important because if the muffins and the steaks are good the people who are playing there will go and tell others. It’s not just paranoia and obsessive behaviour – there’s a reason: to make the Tang­iers the best place on the Strip.

And his TV show really existed?

Totally real. When everybody wants him to qui­eten down, he goes on television. He forgets why he’s been put there, and he gets overblown, with the clothes he wears and everything, and the old guys “back home”, those guys said, “What’s he doing, going on television?” The real show wasn’t very good, as I think you can tell…

Shades of Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy.

Exactly. But he thought of it as a place to be heard, which is what it became.

The bosses are seen in some highly stylised ways. When we see them round a table, they’re like a group painted by Frans Hals.

Yeah, they’re definitely old-world.

Then we see them in another mysterious nowhere place, with stark almost silhouette lighting like a scene from Fritz Lang.

That’s the back of the garage, and Bob Richard­son lit it like that. It’s where Remo says, “Go get them,” and they put the guy’s head in a vice – not that they intended to do that. But after two days and nights of questioning they didn’t know what else to do.

This is so excessive that we know it’s got to be real, because you wouldn’t invent it. But it also seems to belong to a Jacobean horror tragedy.

It really does. The incident actually occurred in Chicago in the 60s. There was a Young-Turk argument which ended with guns and two brothers and a waitress were killed. It caused such outrage that they wanted the men who were with him also, and they finally got them and killed them all. But Joe found the human way of playing the scene: “Please don’t make me do this.” But he’s a soldier and he has to take these orders, and he has to get that name, other­wise his head is in the vice.

Although Ginger is as important a character as Ace and Nicky, we really only see her through their eyes and so she remains more of a mystery. Is she hustling him from the start, or does he kill whatever chance they had?

She tells him exactly how things are in that scene where he proposes. Reaching the age of 40, if you find someone maybe you try to make it work in a reasonable way. I think they may have had a chance, if it wasn’t for that city and what they were doing in it. Although I think there’s something in Ace’s character that ultimately destroys everything.

Does it get worse, as he gets more and more wrapped up in his role as casino boss?

I think he’s responsible for the emotional alien­ation. You get it when she goes to the restaurant and she says, “I’m Mrs Rothstein” and the other lady says, “Well, you might as well get some­thing out of it.” It’s how he treats her. He won’t let her go. If he lets her go, he believes he’ll just never see her again. He’ll hear from her through a lawyer, but he’ll never see her again. Their daughter Amy is unfortunately just a pawn to be used. By the last third of the film, Ginger is definitely disturbed, she’s no longer in her right mind. Whether it’s from drugs or drink doesn’t matter, she’s completely gone. It doesn’t excuse anything she does, but it does heighten the horror of what’s going on – like tying the child up.

That really happened too?

Yes, only I think the child was younger (the real couple had two children). It’s not something you’d invent; nor her reaction to Ace in the restaurant when she says, “Oh for God’s sake, the babysitter wasn’t there, and it was only for a little while, I was going to come right back.”

Sharon Stone gives a very committed performance which shows she’s got a range which hasn’t always been called upon.

I agree. De Niro really helped her through those scenes. He’s very generous with her and you can see how he’s always helping. It’s a scary role, a tough one – like when she takes cocaine in front of the child: that was her choice.

She has to spend nearly a third of the movie in a state of falling apart.

Yes, and she did that with her whole body and with the clothes. She worked with the clothes, like that David Bowie-type gold lame outfit she’s wearing for the last third of the picture. It’s a lit­tle baggy in places, because she tried to make herself look as bad, or as wasted, as she could. You could make ten films about each of those characters, all different, and I don’t know if I did justice to any of them. I just wanted to get as much in as possible, plus I wanted to get all of Vegas in there as well. And also the whole cli­mate of the time, the 70s.

You shot the whole film in Las Vegas. Did you shoot in a real casino?

Oh yes. And we shot during working hours. Bar­bara De Fina figured out that the extra time it could cost would probably be the same as to build one. And you won’t have the electricity and the life around you, which is what we got. We would fill the foreground with extras dressed in 70s costumes, and the background would sort of fall off. Sometimes we shot at four in the morning. I really love the scene when Joe comes in with Frank Vincent and they’re playing blackjack, even though he’s banned from the place, and he’s abusing the dealers. That was four o’clock in the morning, and you hear some­one yelling in the background because he’s win­ning at craps. The dealer went through the whole scene with Joe, who was improvising, throwing cards back at him and saying the worst possible things. Halfway through the scene, the dealer leaned over to me, and said, “You know, the real guy was much tougher with me – he really was uncontrollable.”

Why does the film have to be so long?

You have to work through the whole process of these three people who can’t get away from each other. Every way they turn they’re with each other. It’s not even a story about infidelity. It’s bad enough that they both were unfaithful to each other – the marriage was in terrible shape as it was – but worse that she starts with Nicky, because Nicky is the muscle. If anybody can get her the money and jewels it’s Nicky.

The most remarkable thing about the film’s structure is that you start with Ace being blown up.

In the very first script we started with the scene of them fighting on the lawn. Then we realised that it’s too detailed and didn’t create enough dramatic satisfaction at the end of the picture. So Nick and I figured we would start with the car exploding, and he goes up into the air and you see him in slow motion, flying over the flames – like a soul about to take a dive into hell.

It’s like one’s whole life passing before you in an extended moment. But you show the explosion three times.

That’s right. I show it three times, in different ways. Finally, the third time, we see it the real way. That is how he remembered it. The actual fellow this is based on told me he saw the flames coming out of the air conditioning unit first, and he didn’t know what it could be. Then he looked down and saw his arm on fire and he thought of his lads. The door wasn’t properly locked, so he rolled out and was grabbed by two Secret Service men who happened to be casing the joint because of Ronald Reagan’s visit the fol­lowing week. They pulled him aside and it was only when the car went up that he realised it was intentional – at first he’d thought it was an accident. That’s why I did all the details. Once you realise you could have been killed, then you never forget those moments.

Did the internal structure of the film change a lot as you worked on it?

Yes, it did, a lot. And that’s where Thelma Schoonmaker came in very strongly, because she hadn’t read the script, but just watched the footage come in and was able to take charge of elements that were in the middle, like the docu­mentary aspects. Thelma and I used to edit doc­umentaries 25 years ago, so she’s very, very good at that. It is the most harrowing land of editing you can do because you’re never sure of the structure and you’re not following a dramatic thread. There’s story, but no plot. So what you’re following is the beginnings of Ace coming to Vegas, then the beginnings of Nicky in Vegas and the beginning of Nicky and his wife in Vegas and their child. Then Ace is succeeding in Vegas, and what’s Nicky doing? He’s sandbagging guys. Ace’s rise culminates with Nicky being banned. Then that takes us to Nicky rising, which is his montage of robbery – “I’m staying here, you’re not getting rid of me.” He creates his alternative empire. Then you start to bring the two tracks together. But up to the point at which Nicky builds his own empire we had a lot of reshuffling of scenes and rewriting of voiceover. Finally, we put all the exposition at the begin­ning. At first we had split it up throughout the film, but it was too little too late, although on the page it looked all right. So in the end we took the explanation of the skim and moved it up front.

You’ve become really interested in voiceover. What does it do for the spectator?

There’s something interesting about voiceover: it lets you in on the secret thoughts of the char­acters, or secret observations by an omniscient viewer. And for me it has a wonderful comfort­ing tone of someone telling you a stray. And then it has a land of irony much of the time. Suppose you see two people saying goodnight, and the voiceover says, “They had a wonderful time that evening, but that was the last time before so-and-so died.” You’re still seeing the per­son, but the voiceover is telling you they died a week later, and it takes on a resonance, and for me a depth and a sadness, when used at moments like that. The voiceover in this partic­ular film is also open to tirades by Nicky. If you listen to him complaining – about the bosses back home, how he’s the one out here, the one in the trenches – then you begin to understand his point of view. Why should I have to work for somebody? Why don’t I go into business for myself? You can see the land of person he is from these tirades in voiceover.

Did the change in visual style come from working with a new cinematographer, Dob Richardson, or from the subject’s needs?

Well, there are a lot of tracks and zooms; as well as pans and zip-pans. There are also more static angles, cut together very quickly, because of all the information being crammed into the frame. If you did too much moving you wouldn’t be able to see what we’re trying to show. So that became the style – a kind of documentary.

You talked about excess as the keynote of Las Vegas, but the most excessive thing is De Niro’s wardrobe.

That was Rita Ryaclc, who’s done a number of films with me, and John Dunn also worked with her. We had 52 changes for Bob, a lot, but in reality the person he’s based on had many more.

It becomes a visible sign of him going off the rails.

Absolutely. The mustard-yellow suit, the dark navy-blue silk shirt with navy-blue tie, with crimson jacket. We chose the colours very care­fully. Our rituals in the morning, once we nar­rowed down idea of which outfit, were to choose which shirt, then which tie, then which jew­ellery. If you look closely, the watch-faces usu­ally match the clothes – even the watch he wears when he turns the ignition on. We were always rushed – I just needed a close-up of him turning on the ignition. Then we look at it through the camera, and we think, oh yes – the wristwatch. So we set the angle to show the watch as well as possible, for the short amount of time it’s on. And if you look at the film again, or on laserdisc, you can see a lot of detail in the frames that we put there. Nicky didn’t have that many changes, maybe 20 or 25. And Ginger had about 40 I think.

You’ve worked with Dante Ferretti on a number of films. What kind of relationship do you have in terms of planning the overall look of a film?

The casino we used, the Riviera, looked like the 70s, although it was only built in the late 70s. That was the centrepiece. Then we were trying to find houses that were built in the late 50s or early 60s, which are very rare. There was one house which we finally got, and I laid all my shots there, rehearsed, and then about two weeks later we lost it. Then we had to find another house, and finally it all worked out for the best, because that’s the best one we found. It was an era of glitz – a word I heard for the first time in the 70s – and I think you can tell what Dante brings to a film when you just look at the bedroom. Especially in the wide shots, in the scene where she’s taken too many pills and she’s crying, and he’s trying to help her. There’s some­thing about the way the bed is elevated and it looks like an imperial bed, a king’s or a queen’s bed. There’s something about the wallpaper – everything, the dishes on the walls – that says a great deal about character. Dante made it regal, not just in bad taste – even though some of it is bad taste – but the quality is good, and that moire silk headboard is a backdrop for a battle­ground, a silk battleground.

I’m interested you say ‘regal’, because I also found myself thinking the film is about a court, with a king who chooses a consort, and what we see is the rise and fall of a little dynasty.

Exactly. They’re on display all the time. Appear­ance is everything, to the point where he didn’t want people to smile at him or say hello. You can see it in how he stands and looks around.

The music for Casino uses the same general approach as GoodFellas, but the range is broader – like starting with the ‘St Matthew Passion’.

I guess for me it’s the sense of something grand that’s been lost. Whether we agree with the morality of it is another matter – I’m not asking you to agree with the morality – but there was the sense of an empire that had been lost, and it needed music worthy of that. The destruction of that city has to have the grandeur of Lucifer being expelled from heaven for being too proud. Those are all pretty obvious biblical references. But the viewer of the film should be moved by the music. Even though you may not like the people and what they did, they’re still human beings and it’s a tragedy as far as I’m concerned.

In GoodFellas and again in Casino the music becomes another way to direct the viewer, like the voiceover. Each piece of music brings its own associations.

That’s right. There’s Brenda Lee singing ‘Hurt’; the Velvetones doing ‘The Glory of Love’ – there’s a lot, over 55 pieces I think. Then there’s the breakdown of style in ‘Satisfaction’, from the Stones to Devo. I was very lucky to be able to choose from over 40 years of music and in most cases to be able to get it into the film.

Is this all coming from you, this setting the musical agenda of the film?

Very much, yes. We did have one piece planned, but I decided to use it at the end instead of the beginning. Why waste it, because it has an almost religious quality.

In fact ‘The House of the Rising Sun’ encapsulates the moral of the film.

Yes, it’s a warning: “Oh mother, tell your chil­dren not to do what I have done.” We kept that for the end. And then lots of early Stones.

Which you had wanted to use more in GoodFellas?

I did, but I just couldn’t fit in any more. It wasn’t that we didn’t have any room, but certain songs and pieces of music, when you play them against picture, change everything. So it’s very, very delicate. In GoodFellas the sound is more Phil Spector, while in this picture it’s more the Stones, especially ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knock­ing?’, which is a key song in the film.

You follow the same rule as in GoodFellas of keeping the music strictly in period?

Yes, as far as possible. When Ace and Nicky need to talk, after the argument in the desert, they get into a car in the garage to have a private conver­sation. What would happen? They’d sit in the car and keep the radio on. And what’s playing is ‘Go Your Own Way’ by Fleetwood Mac, which is a key song of the mid-late 70s. No matter what the mood of the conversation, that music is playing. So we were able to use music at that point that would take you further into the time. The sounds change from the beginning of the film from Louis Prima to Fleetwood Mac. You see, it’s not so much the Bach that begins the film as the Louis Prima that cuts it off, creating a strong shock effect. I knew Louis Prima had to be in there, but we came to that later, and I remember the Bach was the first thing I had in mind.

The Bach comes back at the end, followed by Hoagy Carmichael.

For the splendour of the destruction of this sin city it has to be Bach. Because the old Vegas is being replaced by something that looks seduc­tive, kiddie-friendly, but it’s there to work on the very core of America, the family. Not just the gamblers and the hustlers and the relatively few gangsters who were around, but now it’s Ma and Pa Kettle. While the kids watch the Pirate ride, we’ll lose your money.

Why did you quote Delerue’s music from Godard’s Contempt?

I liked the sadness of it. And there are other movie themes in the film, like the theme from Picnic, over Mr Nance sashaying into the count room – the implication being that it was so easy you could waltz in and waltz right out with the money. The theme from Picnic was such a beauti­ful piece of music that it was played on juke­boxes and Top 40 all the time, so you would always hear it and you still do in Vegas. The other one was ‘Walk on the Wild Side’, by Elmer Bernstein and Jimmy Smith. That has a nervous energy that’s good, especially in that sequence where we use it, the killing of Anna Scott. Again, it was a very famous piece of music that was taken out of context from the film, and became a part of life in America at the time. Along with these, it seemed interesting to try the Contempt music and see what we could do.

That’s also a movie about a man who has a problem in his relationship with his wife.

He certainly does! After the Bach you can’t do anything. The only thing would be Contempt, to wipe the slate clean. And then after that the only possible thing is one of the greatest songs ever written, ‘Stardust’ – the only piece that could sum up the emotions and thoughts about what you’ve seen.

What will your next film be?

The new film, Kundun, is basically written by Melissa Mathison, and it’s a very straightforward story of the finding of the Dalai Lama as a young child, in Amdo province of Tibet. It takes you through the maturing of the boy until he was a young man of 18, when he had to make a deci­sion which he knew would be dealing with – lit­erally – the life or death of his own country. What interested me was the story of a man, or a boy, who lives in a society which is totally based on the spirit, and finally, crashing into the twen­tieth century, they find themselves face to face with a society which is one of the most anti-spir­itual ever formed, the Marxist government of the Chinese communists. Mao finally leans over at one point during the Dalai Lama’s visit to Bei­jing and says to him: “You do know that religion is poison, don’t you?” At this point he realises that they’re all finished. And the only way to save Tibet was for him to leave, and take it with him. What interests me is how a man of non-vio­lence deals with these people – that’s ultimately the story. I don’t know if we’ll be able to pull it all together.

Where will you shoot it?

In Northern India. And after that, I hope to make Gershwin, a musical. After spending so much time with those people in Vegas I’ve got to try something radically different. I can’t go back, it’s just too much. This was a very consuming film, and the negativity of the people was very difficult. But I’m sure the next one will be difficult for other reasons.

* * *


Pat Kirkhamon Elaine and Saul Bass’ Casino title sequence

Elaine and Saul Bass created the credit title sequences for Scorsese’s most recent three movies, GoodFellas, Cape Fear and The Age of Innocence. When he asked them to work on his new movie, Casino, they were delighted. Scorsese was even more delighted when they accepted. Nick Pileggi, anthropologist, author of the book Casino and co-writer of its screenplay, was with him when the call came through: ‘‘You should have seen him when they agreed. He was ecstatic.”

Scorsese has been a fan of Saul Bass’ work since he was “blown away” in the 50s and early 60s by the opening sequences for such films as The Man With The Golden Arm and Psycho. The admiration has become mutual. “He is wonderful to work with,” say the Basses: “Thoughtful, stimulating, enthusiastic, supportive. Once we are agreed on a visual point of view, he gives us a great deal of freedom – almost total, at times.”

Pileggi comments: “For a director such as Scorsese, who is totally committed to every last inch of his film, there is no greater tribute to someone than to hand over the opening of your film to them. That he hands over part of what is most sacred to him is an extraordinary compliment to the Basses.”

He enthuses further: “You write a book – all 360 pages. Then you boil it down to a 130-page script. Eventually, you see that the Basses have knocked you right out of the ballpark. They have it down to three minutes flat. Their opening is simply brilliant. It is quite an experience to see your own work encapsulated so beautifully, and I know Marty feels the same way. There must have been 100 films about Las Vegas, an endless number of titles which have tried to capture the essence of that city; but not quite like this.”

Casino opens with the Robert De Niro character coming out of a casino. A voiceover states that when you find someone you really love and trust, you’ve got to go all the way with it. He gets into his car, turns on the ignition, and it blows up, with a huge explosion. At this precise moment, the Bass sequence begins. “We attempted,” says Saul, “to create a metaphor for the Las Vegas of betrayal, twisted morality, greed, hubris, and in the end, self-destruction. The descent into Dante’s inferno.”

The sequence draws much of its affective power from manipulating camera speeds, rich superimposures, and lenses which fragment, distort and rotate images, turning reality into abstraction. The structure is tripartite. (Saul Bass asked that we print the images in the above order, which is not the narrative order of the sequence in the film.) Two elements bookend the sequence: in one, the De Niro figure moves through the explosion in an inexorable ascent (in extreme slow- motion) heavenward; the other is an even more excruciating descent, over the neon lights, into hell. Between these two events is a dazzling sequence of lights, colour, patterns, abstract forms – a smear of hope, glitz, the Las Vegas fantasy, and the malevolence beneath the glitter.

The decision not to start the title sequence until after some live action, while not new, both enhances and integrates the sequence. The explosion in Scorsese’s shots is real but the Basses’ continuation of it is symbolic – the difference between the real and the symbolic being, as intended, very apparent. The painfully slow speed of these metaphorical journeys produces attenuated moments in which the viewer is invited to do more than merely observe; we have time to feel for, about, and even with the figure in motion before us.

The lights sequence presented a real challenge to the Basses. The extraordinary imagery of the lights of Las Vegas has become almost ordinary, so frequently have they been used by photographers, artists and designers, and indeed encountered by tourists, since Reyner Banham and others discovered this American ‘vernacular’ design in the US. For the Basses, the challenge was to show afresh imagery done to death, and to make it appropriate; to sidestep the banal. The special lenses de-particularised the images, so fragmenting the object photographed that it becomes ’’unrecognisable”. The result is a wonderfully versatile display of their talents, in the form of an abstract Las Vegas visual mythology.

Sight and Sound, January 1996, pp. 6-13


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