Great Scenes: Casino

Despite a lot of competition, Casino may well be the most viciously violent film in Martin Scorsese’s portfolio. It’s not wall-to-wall brutality; that wouldn’t really be possible, with a running time of two minutes shy of three hours. But when the moments of bloodshed come, they make one hell of an impression.

The scene below comes during the film’s final stretch. Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) has spent the movie terrorizing anyone who tries to horn in on the Vegas empire he’s built with his back-home friend Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro). Nicky also spends the movie pissing off the bosses back home, who start to question whether having such a mercurial psycho as muscle is really worth it. We hear a lot during Casino about the holes in the desert, and eventually Nicky and his brother Dominic end up in one together.

There’s a lot to be said about these few minutes out of the total 178. First is something I’d forgotten: Nicky the chatterbox’s narration continues right up until Frankie (Frank Vincent, finally getting back at Pesci after his former song-and-dance partner beat the shit out of him in Raging Bull and GoodFellas) rearranges Nicky’s spine with an aluminum baseball bat. “They don’t give a fuck about AAAAAH!!!” With that, both the narration and the soundtrack music (“House of the Rising Sun”) cut off, the better for us to hear the animalistic sounds of grunting and cursing and the uniquely revolting impact of hard aluminum against meat and bone. There’s no redeeming poetry in the form of, say, Donovan’s “Atlantis” or the piano coda of “Layla.” It’s just a bunch of goombahs grimly ending some other goombahs in the hot sun and dirt. What always gets me: the shot of Frankie swinging two bats into Dominic as the poor bastard is dragged away.

I would imagine Scorsese had to cut the scene to secure an R rating. There are a few edits that call attention to themselves. One gets the impression that Nicky’s beating was far longer originally. Then again, Scorsese may have felt that seeing Dominic beaten made the point (not to mention that Nicky is forced to watch his brother bludgeoned to near-death), and seeing the same thing happen at length to Nicky would’ve been redundant. Regardless, when Frankie takes his first grand-slam swing at Nicky’s skull, there’s an almost subliminal flash of the scalp gashing open. (It reminds me of the lightning-fast inserts in GoodFellas of Billy Batts’ head getting stomped and the ice-pick sliding out of the back of Morrie’s neck.) Whether it was Scorsese’s decision or (indirectly) the MPAA’s, what we don’t see makes what we do see all the more wrenching.

After all that, we’re told, via Ace’s morose narration, that Nicky and his brother were buried “while they were still breathing.” Man, that’s harsh. But before you weep too much for Nicky (although feel free to feel sorry for his brother, who I’m guessing didn’t have it coming nearly as much), remember that this is the same guy who perforated some mook’s throat with a pen (the guy’s pathetic mewling afterward really puts the ghastly icing on the cake), hit a shitkicker in the head with a phone, abused Don Rickles with another phone, and popped a guy’s eye out of his fuckin’ head in a vise. The crazy prick made his own shit sandwich, and now he’s gotta take a bite.

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