Monthly Archives: January 2017

  • Casino

    Martin Scorsese (1995)

    The Rotten Tomatoes entries include the following from Philip Thomas (Empire magazine):

    ‘It may not be Scorsese’s greatest work, but this guy feeling a little off-colour is still far, far better than most people on fighting-fit form.’

    Thomas’s line is taken by several other reviewers and sounds reasonable in theory but it’s not how I felt about Casino.  Knowing what Martin Scorsese  was capable of made matters worse – made me more aware of the lavish talent going to waste.  To say this isn’t Scorsese’s greatest work is putting it very mildly but Casino is record-breaking in other ways.  At 178 minutes, it was his longest picture until The Wolf of Wall Street pipped it by a single minute.  Now it’s become the first Scorsese movie this viewer has walked out of.  I started thinking of doing so very soon.  Only guilt feelings kept me in my seat until just past the two-hour mark.

    Casino has points in common with Goodfellas.  It’s based on a non-fiction book by Nicholas Pileggi (Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas) and has a screenplay by him and Scorsese.  Of the three main actors, two – Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci – are the same in both films.    The principals’ violent behaviour is described on the screen; their motives are somewhat explained in voiceover.   The soundtrack comprises pop songs rather than an original musical score.  Casino compares badly with Goodfellas in all these shared features.  Joe Pesci’s psycho mobster Tommy DeVito in the earlier film had greater impact – and was (just) bearable – as a result of his rationed appearances.  Pesci’s psycho mobster Nicky Santoro in Casino is a much bigger role (even within the time I stuck with the film).  It’s as if Scorsese sees it as his duty to give the audience plenty of what they seemed to like before regardless of what that was.  Nicky is soon more boring than scary.   The only other difference in Pesci this time around is his fake facelift that made its debut in the intervening Jonathan Lynn comedy My Cousin Vinny (1992).  The use of Ray Liotta’s voiceover in Goodfellas is also very rationed compared with Robert De Niro’s (and occasionally Pesci’s) here.  The pop soundtrack in Goodfellas (as in Mean Streets) connected with the life of the film’s protagonist.  In Casino, the accompanying songs play almost continuously (or that’s how it feels) – almost indifferently.

    Goodfellas has a built-in narrative shape, describing the rise and self-protective fall of Liotta’s Henry Hill.  Casino might seem a more ambitious piece of storytelling – an attempt to chart the history of how the running of the big Las Vegas casinos changed hands, from the Mafia to major  corporations, in the period between the mid-1970s and the end of the 1980s – but the film is epic only in running time.  Nicky Santoro and the casino boss Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (De Niro) have more or less reached their career peak at the outset of the story.  That they’ve been friends from boyhood may have been true of Sam and Nicky’s real-life counterparts; it’s still a too familiar means of bolstering the drama of their falling out with each other as men.  Robert De Niro is disciplined and commanding but making Sam Rothstein convincing is counterproductive:  it exposes his uninteresting hollowness.  When Sam loses his heart to the scheming hustler Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), the love and trust that he gives her seem a sentimental cliché of Scorsese and Pileggi’s making rather than an authentic expression of the character’s vulnerability.  Sharon Stone is startlingly beautiful and never less than adequate as Ginger (for two hours anyway).  You still wonder if the praise showered on Stone’s performance was partly a reflection of surprise that she could cope with such a supposedly substantial role.

    The revelation that Nicky, whatever he’s been doing the night before, always makes breakfast for his young son comes across as a nearly parodic variation on the but-he’s-very-good-to-his-mother trope in gangster stories.  It’s clear from his interview with Ian Christie in Sight & Sound (January 1996), which BFI used as their programme note for Casino, that Scorsese still feels for these characters but his suggestion that whatever Nicky does illustrates ‘the frailty of being human’ is pushing it.  Away from the New York milieu which means so much personally to Scorsese, his professed sympathy with the mobster soul verges on the perverse.  That impression is reinforced by the visual style of Casino.   Martin Scorsese makes a brilliant spectacle of even minor incidents, let alone the many violent ones, in the story; but the grandiosity is empty and perhaps he knew that he’d hit a creative nadir.   Perhaps the film is so inordinately long because Scorsese kept struggling unavailingly to bring it to anything more than technically dazzling life.

    27 January 2017

  • Sweet Smell of Success

    Alexander Mackendrick  (1957)

    Although he’s not the main character in terms of screen time, the newspaper gossip columnist J J Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is the presiding evil genius of this famous film – a commercial failure on its original release but now widely considered a uniquely witty piece of New York noir.  Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis), a Manhattan press agent, isn’t getting his clients mentioned in Hunsecker’s daily dispatches.  The latter is displeased because Sidney – an acolyte-cum-whipping-boy – has failed to deliver on a promise to bring an end to the romance between Hunsecker’s younger sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a jazz guitarist called Steve Dallas (Martin Milner).  The plot motor of Sweet Smell of Success is Sidney’s desperate attempts to get himself back in Hunsecker’s good books and his clients’ names to public notice.  The attempts start with persuading a rival columnist to print allegations that Steve is a card-carrying Communist and a dope-smoker.  J J Hunsecker is supposedly based on Walter Winchell, described in his Wikipedia entry as ‘famous for attempting to destroy the careers of people both private and public whom he disliked’.  Hunsecker’s abuse of journalistic power – pressuring informants to smear if they want to avoid being smeared themselves – has also been compared with the tactics of McCarthyism, whose influence was just beginning to decline around the time Alexander Mackendrick’s film went into production.

    What’s immediately striking about this scenario is that it pivots on a family relationship that’s personally important to the professionally heartless Hunsecker.  This doesn’t fit easily into the film qua critique of a cultural ethos and it sends the narrative in an incongruously melodramatic direction in the closing stages.  Yet the clash of elements also helps make Sweet Smell of Success even more distinctive than its texture and dialogue have already ensured it will be.  James Wong Howe’s black-and-white chiaroscuro lighting and Elmer Bernstein’s sultry, dissonant score get across the corrupt crackle and hustle of the New York streets and bars in which much of the action takes place.  As an example of this electrified milieu, newspapers, as Manny Farber noted (disparagingly), ‘are read and flung away in a violently stylish way’.  The dialogue – by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (who also wrote the novella on which the screenplay is based) – is as stylised as Damon Runyon’s but more brittle and tangy.  The subject matter of Sweet Smell of Success invites comparison with the earlier Ace in the Hole but Alexander Mackendrick is less coldly censorious than Billy Wilder:  Mackendrick lets you feel the attraction as well as observe the horrors of the venal power games and double-dealing that drive the story.

    Sidney Falco is crucial to the film’s insinuating quality.  He’s not a thoroughly bad lot:  it’s rather, as Hunsecker’s secretary Mary (Edith Atwater) says to Sidney at one point, that he’s ‘immersed in the theology of making a fast buck’.  The picture’s poor box-office takings may have reflected the disappointment of Tony Curtis’s large, young fan base that their pin-up boy was playing a schmuck but Curtis is so vital and likeable that part of you roots for Sidney, even though you can’t want him to succeed.  (That you naturally refer to him as ‘Sidney’ rather than ‘Falco’ is an indicator of this appeal.)  Curtis is especially good at conveying Sidney’s ability to keep brushing off setbacks.  His high-speed playing matches the tempo of the film:  Sidney is almost the heartbeat of Sweet Smell of Success.   Burt Lancaster’s characteristically insistent, unvarying delivery is exploited very successfully here – it somehow throws into relief the wit in Odets’s and Lehman’s lines, as well as reinforcing a sense of J J Hunsecker’s stranglehold.  There is, from early on, something creepy about Hunsecker’s tone when he calls Susan ‘dear’: even if this is caused by the peculiar timbre of Lancaster’s voice, that ‘dear’ makes Hunsecker’s concern for his kid sister sound less paternalistic than would-be incestuous.

    The women of Sweet Smell of Success are, in different ways, used – and each has a distinct register.  They include, as well as Susan and Mary, Sidney’s forlorn secretary (Jeff Donnell), a cigarette girl (Barbara Nichols) and Mrs Laurie Bartha (Lurene Tuttle).  The last named, wife of the rival gossip columnist, spends her evenings in the bar, looking in the paper for aptly named horses to back next day.  Susan Harrison is conscientious verging on effortful; Martin Milner may be the most straight-arrow jazz guitarist in screen history.  Yet Hunsecker’s malign authority becomes so suffocating that the audience is anxious for Susan and Steve to escape from him – and to escape with them.  The increasing prominence of the odd brother-sister relationship blocks our view of Hunsecker as culturally representative and you don’t believe in the climactic melodrama.  Alexander Mackendrick makes you grateful for it, nevertheless – for the way out that it provides.

    26 January 2017


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