Casino vs. GoodFellas
The early 1990s represented a nadir in director Martin Scorsese’s career, as he proved himself to be a rare combination of an auteur capable of drawing consistently good box office returns. As Scorsese’s films became more and more commercially viable, he was trusted to pursue his pet projects more often, a trend which he is still enjoying today, having helmed everything from classical literary adaptations (The Age of Innocence) to rock documentaries (Shine a Light, Living in the Material World, No Direction Home). Arguably the two main reasons for this increased trust by the studios in Scorsese are his contributions to the gangster genre, the type of film that he remains most indelibly associated with to this day. Both took close to double their multi-million dollar budgets, and have left significant legacies on popular culture. But which is the true jewel in Marty’s mafia crown? I delve into various aspects of the two to determine a winner.
Both stories are formed around two narrative archetypes as old as the art of the storytelling itself. GoodFellas is the story of Henry Hill’s rise and fall, from inauspicious beginnings as a poor Irish-American to an affluent, wealthy gangster, and back down again as he is forced into the witness protection program and a life as a ‘schnuck’. Casino centres around the classical theme of broken relationships and betrayal between Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein and both his wife Ginger and his associate and muscle Nicky Santoro. Whilst both are highly engaging, my personal preference lies with GoodFellas, as it feels more complete thanks to charting Henry’s criminal career in its entirety from his childhood, whilst Casino spends much less time establishing the characters and their respective motivations. Casino is less the story of a man and more the story of a place, with a final monologue bemoaning the homogenization and lost potential of Las Vegas, just as Henry bemoans his worse than death fate, and, ultimately, the story of the man comes up trumps.
The structuring of the narratives in both Casino and GoodFellas are extremely similar, beginning in medias res before returning to the start of the story. Both also utilise extensive voice over narration, and this is where the major gulf in the quality of the structuring appears. GoodFellas keeps Henry’s voice over relatively (compared to Casino) infrequent, always letting the characters or the images tell the story if possible, and linking the voice over to the events of the film when it transpires that what we have been hearing is Henry’s testimony to the police as he enters the witness protection program. Casino, on the other hand, can’t get enough of the voice over, which itself isn’t a bad thing considering the quality of Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s script. The real problem arises when the voice over becomes less a commentary on events and more a separate conversation between the characters, as Nicky and even minor character Frank Marino pitch in alongside Ace. It’s a strange, distracting effect, and makes literally no sense in terms of the events of film, as it seems to be delivered retrospectively, yet Nicky is interrupted mid-flow as he is killed. It’s cheap and kitschy, much like the Vegas that Ace begrudgingly leaves behind.
Both films feature a cast of colourful characters, as well as sharing several actors, including Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Frank Vincent. GoodFellas’ protagonist is Henry Hill, a fascinating figure whom we are encouraged to be both envious of and disgusted by, someone who has the ‘balls’ to stand up and take the things that ‘suckers’ don’t. He is aided and abated by Jimmy, a twist on the classic Hollywood creation of the wise mentor in that whilst he taught Henry everything he knows, he is unwilling to fall in order for his protégé to remain. Tommy, Joe Pesci’s character, is a murderous psychopath, and is virtually identical in all but name to Nicky in Casino. Whilst the freshness of Pesci’s bloodlust is somewhat tempered by its repetition in Casino, the real let down is the character of Ace. Henry, although an outsider from the Mafia in the sense that he is Irish and thus can never truly be a member, is a ruthlessly cool operator, unafraid to take the tough decisions and get his hands dirty. Ace, a composite of Jimmy and Henry, just doesn’t feel as believable, one moment robbing people blind and the next pining over his unrequited love with Ginger, and it’s hard to imagine Henry talking one tenth of the crap that Ace takes from his wife.
Both films are noted for their wildly eclectic scores, compromising almost entirely of pop and rock tracks taken from within the films’ time periods. GoodFellas features everything from Tony Bennett to Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, whilst Casino showcases the likes of Dinah Washington, Roxy Music, and Cream. Several acts appear more than once across the two films; The Rolling Stones have three credits in GoodFellas and feature a whopping eight times in Casino, and Harry Nilsson, Cream, and Bennett all appear in both. But, once again, GoodFellas comes up trumps. Henry and his cohorts’ stories are complimented wonderfully by the music, beginning elegantly, as do the careers of the gangsters, before descending into what Scorsese has characterised as decadence, as the characters take too much and succumb to the inevitable. Casino, whilst featuring perhaps an even greater range of music, is much more haphazard in both its song choices and their placement. Rather than following a cohesive chronological structure, they instead skip from era to era with abandon from one moment to the next. This could be forgiven if the music was consistently good, but it must be said that Marty dropped the ball on some of his choices, with a couple of really worrying picks slipping through his usually highly selective net. Devo is the prime culprit here, with a version of (once again) The Rolling Stones’ ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ that isn’t so much a cover as a disembowelling, and their quintessentially ‘80s ‘Whip It’. Whilst I appreciate the need to establish the time period the film was set in, was it really necessary to make it so stomach churning?
Clearly, for my money, GoodFellas takes the crown easily. Whilst Casino is an excellent film and a vital addition to the genre, it loses too many points from sheer similarity to its predecessor alone. In all fairness, I’d probably seen GoodFellas ten times before I saw Casino, and have spent years studying the former in various contexts, so I’m going to be biased. Where do you fall on the argument?