Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of both new and classic movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy like-minded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
You can’t beat Martin Scorsese at his own game. The filmmaker has an oeuvre rich with everything from horror to romance. But it’s undeniable that he’s known best for his crime dramas. He’s excelled in this genre, making his mark on cinema with unforgettable gangster chronicles and world-class antiheroes. One of his most formidable in this department is the 1995 epic Casino.
Inspired by the true story of mafia associate Frank Rosenthal, the film stars Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a handicapper turned casino manager. It chronicles the rise and fall of Ace, his conniving pal Nicky (Joe Pesci, naturally), and his hustler wife Ginger (Sharon Stone) against the backdrop of a once glorious empire in the glowing lights of the Nevada desert.
While often compared to Scorsese’s other ’90s mob hit, Goodfellas, the truth is that Casino has a unique level of extravagance and an unparalleled degree of cruelty at its harshest moments. No matter how any quibbling about rankings shakes out, Casino is a movie that could never be duplicated by another filmmaker.
Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not without its own influences and precedents, or that it’s not built upon a rich foundation of Vegas epics and mob masterworks. There are a lot of films that fit into these categories, but the following ten will be some especially rewarding viewings for Casino fans. And that’s that.
Smart Money (1931)
De Niro and Pesci are as formidable a gangster duo as their pre-code counterparts, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. The two stars were both on contract at Warner Bros. in the ’30s, which makes it quite surprising that this is the only film they made together. Nevertheless, one is better than none, and these cinematic gangster legends share the screen in this story of gamblers reckoning with some personal stakes. The two actors’ filmographies are also treasure troves of pre-code mob cinema, so consider this recommendation as a good place to start.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Although neither about Las Vegas nor the mob, this New York-set film-noir shares some thematic resonances with Casino. The Alexander Mackendrick film follows the exploits of powerful newspaperman J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), who aims to thwart his sister’s relationship with a jazz musician he believes is below her. He ropes publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) into the scheme and sets off a narrative of moral corruption and blackmail. With snappy dialogue and stellar performances, Sweet Smell of Success is an exemplary noir with a thorough examination of just how low a person can go. It’s a brutal film where there are no heroes to be found, only characters lost in a sea of their own selfish desires.
Ocean’s 11 (1960)
Let me be frank: the best reason to watch Ocean’s 11 is to appreciate just how good the remake is. The Ratpack film stars Frank Sinatra as Danny Ocean, a World War II vet who recruits his old Army buddies to rob five casinos simultaneously. The film coasts on the charms of its cast and offers very little elsewhere, but it does have some great on-location depictions of Las Vegas to revel in. The Soderbergh-helmed remake (titled Ocean’s Eleven) follows Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) as they also recruit a crew to rob three casinos on the same night. The 2001 film is a god-tier caper, an endlessly rewatchable classic, and, like Casino, one of the best movies about Vegas.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
No one does Las Vegas like James Bond does Las Vegas. While the 1971 film that marked the return of Sean Connery as 007 isn’t necessarily a high point of the franchise in terms of quality, it is in terms of weirdness. This atypical Bond movie sees Bond tracking down his arch-enemy Blofeld through Las Vegas. Like the city itself, Diamonds is extravagant, gauche, and one of a kind. It also beautifully captures and preserves on film this era of Vegas. Diamonds was filmed just two years before Casino‘s plot begins, which means the film provides an excellent opportunity to further witness the Las Vegas that Ace called home.
California Split (1974)
Arguably the best movie made about gambling, California Split is absolutely essential. The Robert Altman film stars George Segal and Elliott Gould as gamblers chasing the odds from Los Angeles to Reno. Altman deftly captures craving the rush of a win, where the lows are low and the highs are never good enough. Robert De Niro was at one point in talks for the Elliott Gould role, and while he surely would have been great, there’s something about Gould’s ability to play a charmer slightly out of his depth that is endlessly watchable. The film is brilliantly funny, more than a little bittersweet, and a perfect character study of two compulsive gamblers.
Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Among De Niro’s collection of mob epics, Once Upon A Time In America stands pretty much at the top of the heap. A sweeping chronicle of the 20th century, the film stars De Niro as David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish-American gangster contending with aspirations and regrets in New York City. While Ace’s Judaism is less foregrounded in Casino than it is here with Noodles, it’s nevertheless fundamental to understanding his relationship with the mafia and its made men. Aside from the connection of religion, the 1984 Sergio Leone film feels as if it’s in conversation with Scorsese’s oeuvre, sharing a connection with the director’s most reflective and mournful impulses and delivering an incredible and expansive chronicle of Noodles’ life.
Carlito’s Way (1993)
In the search for the best gangster movies outside of Scorsese’s filmography, there’s an understandable impulse to gravitate towards Brian De Palma‘s Scarface, but as good as it is — and don’t get me wrong, it’s great! — if we look ahead a few years in De Palma’s career, we find one of the absolute best. This film stars Al Pacino as the eponymous character, an ex-con determined to go straight but who can’t escape his past. Carlito’s Way is a different animal to Scarface and it is far more sorrowful and emotionally devastating. I often think of it as being to Scarface what Casino is to Goodfellas. All four of these films are near-perfect, but two are more legendary, while the other two possess less gargantuan reputations, affording them more of an opportunity to take you by surprise. Either way, next time you’re seeking out one hell of a quadruple feature, look no further.
Let’s take a hard left and head down the strip for another take on the endlessly hedonistic indulgence that Las Vegas has to offer, the kind that can only come from Paul Verhoeven. While Verhoeven’s film about a plucky dancer — essentially All About Eve on uppers — has little in common with Scorsese’s gangster opus narratively, the two films share a common thread as they expose and revel in the seedy underbelly of Vegas’ extravagance. While Showgirls is (mistakenly) often labeled as one of the worst movies of all time, it offers a wholly unreal cinematic experience unmatched by anything before or since. It’s a slimy and unrestrained work of genius that lacks the composure of a Scorsese picture, but that doesn’t make it any less essential to understanding Las Vegas as captured on the big screen.
Hard Eight (1996)
[Editors note: usually Movie DNA looks at precursors to new and classic films, but Hard Eight couldn’t be excluded just because it was released a year after Casino, so here it is.] Paul Thomas Anderson‘s overlooked debut feature is more subdued than the two films that would follow it (Boogie Nights and Magnolia), but no less impressive. It follows veteran gambler and grifter Sydney (the outstanding Philip Baker Hall) who takes on John C. Reilly‘s John as a young protege. As John learns the ropes, he comes face to face with the darker side of the world around him. The film also features a genuinely outstanding Gwyneth Paltrow performance as a cocktail waitress with similar impulses but markedly less refined street smarts than Sharon Stone’s Ginger. Although more understated than the whirlwind of Casino, Hard Eight is an incredibly rewarding spin on gambling movies and a clever crime drama worth its weight in poker chips.
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