THE USUAL SUSPECTS

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s something inviting – or maybe intriguing – about seeing a person in a hat with a dark trench coat on.  Just the person’s silhouette will leave you asking for more.  What is it to this guy?  Steven Spielberg does that in the first few minutes with Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  Before Indy, there was Orson Welles as Harry Lyme in The Third Man.  Guys like these have a danger to them, and we can’t look away.  In The Usual Suspects, one of many variations of a legend called Keyser Soze has a dangerous reputation that carries him, and we want to know more about the figure in the hat and coat.  In the first few minutes of the film, we see this mysterioso extinguish a kerosene flame by urinating on it.  Who is this guy?  Maybe we, as the viewers, are Icabod Crane looking at an updated inspired spawn of The Headless Horseman.  Perhaps, we are actually catching a glimpse of that boogeyman who hid in our closets or under the beds.

Bryan Singer’s modern day film noir, masterfully written with inventive riddles by Christopher McQuarrie, works towards its ending as soon as the opening credits wrap up.  Each scene hops from a different setting or time period and as a viewer you feel like you are sitting at a kitchen table turning puzzle pieces around trying to snap them together.  Not all of it makes sense by the time the picture has wrapped up.  That’s okay though, because one of the players in the story perhaps played a sleight of hand and we can do nothing but applaud when we realize we’ve been had.  Magic is fun when you never quite realize where or when the deceit began.

A scenario is set up early on that assembles five different kinds of criminals in a police lineup.  It works as a device to team these guys together to pull off additional heists.  A prologue to the film depicts the aftermath of their last job together.  One holdover, a hobbled cripple named Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) is brought into a police precinct to be interviewed by a determined detective named Kujan (Chazz Palminteri).  Verbal might ramble on endlessly in circles about nothing, but Agent Kujan is going to get to the bottom of what happened the night prior on a shipping dock that turned up several corpses.  How did it all go down, and where is the money and cocaine that was expected to be there?

Verbal was one of the five in that lineup, along with McManus (Stephen Baldwin), Hockney (Kevin Pollack), Fenster (Benicio Del Toro) and Keaton (Gabriel Byrne).  Each carries a different specialty or personality, but Keaton is the guy that Kujan is really after.  He’s a master criminal who’s been known to fake his own death, supposedly turn legitimate while dating a high-priced lawyer, and now may be the lead suspect in an armored truck heist.  On the other hand, maybe it was one of these other four guys. 

Amid all of this back and forth and side stepping stories, there is mention of a name – Keyser Soze.  Whenever he comes up in the vernacular of the script, the mood seems to change.  These criminals, usually comfortable in their own cloth of transgressions, get noticeably frightened and concerned if there is even a remote possibility that this Soze character is the engineer behind what follows them. 

It’s fun!  The Usual Suspects is fun.

McQuarrie’s script will toss out names of people we never meet.  It will quickly imply an anecdote from another time.  It’ll share a bunch of short stories with how these five guys work together, like upending a secret criminal sect of the New York City police force while robbing them of their fortunes. Yet, a tall tale of lore will intrude on their typical heists to derail what we may normally be familiar with in other crime dramas or noir films.   

Spacey is the real star of The Usual Suspects.  He earned the Academy Award for Supporting Actor because Verbal Kint is so well drawn out as a weak, unhelpful, and frustrating man.  Often, you ask yourself what the heck is this geeky looking crippled guy even talking about. 

On other occasions, I’ve noted that sometimes with movies I can not determine if I just watched a superior film or dreadful nonsense until I’ve reached the final five minutes.  The final five minutes of a movie can be the verdict.  Sometimes you’ll claim the journey getting there was great, but the conclusion was a big letdown.  If you have never seen The Usual Suspects, then you likely won’t know if the path towards its end is good until you’ve reached the culmination. 

Roger Ebert couldn’t stand this picture, and I’m not going to say he didn’t know what he was talking about or that he was wrong.  Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie’s assembly of scenes don’t make for a well-defined picture, even after the movie is over.  Ebert was less than fond of that technique.  I think that was their intent, though.  Everything you have seen doesn’t have a suitable answer.  Certain parts don’t link well with others.  However, the director and screenwriter were always working towards an ending while piloting the film in swerves and unexpected knee jerk turns.

Unlike Ebert, however, I’m wholly satisfied with the film.  In fact, the first time I saw the movie, I cheered for the conclusion that got more than just one over on me.  On repeat viewings, knowing how the picture wraps up, I treasure the path towards its finale. 

If you study Verbal Kint, you’ll realize that he doesn’t offer easy answers and explanations for what’s occurred, thereby lending to the frustration of Agent Kujan who only demands cookie cutter, fall-into-place arrangements. What can I say Roger Ebert?  How else should I lay it out for you Agent Kujan? Life is messy with no easy answers sometimes.  Especially, in film noir.  

Ironically, one of Ebert’s favorite cinematic characters is Harry Lyme.  So, I guess Keyer Soze couldn’t live up to that threshold or repute.  If that’s the case, then I forgive you Roger.

BULLITT (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

The car chase with the movie attached to it is Bullitt from 1968, directed by Peter Yates, featuring Steve McQueen in the title role.  Why do I phrase it that way?  Well, as far as I can tell in the three or four times that I’ve seen the movie, the main attraction is the well-known, and pioneering, car chase at the crux of the film.  Otherwise, the plot is very thin, with characters that have next to no complexity or dimension.

Frank Bullitt has been summoned on a Friday afternoon to the home of a prosecutor/politician named Chalmers (Robert Vaughn).  He’s been requested to guard a key witness over the weekend ahead of giving a deposition on Monday morning that will expose “The Organization.”  Frank lays out the shift schedule with his precinct partners, and soon after the witness is gunned down and sent to the hospital with life threatening injuries.  Now it’s up to Frank to find out how the organization located the witness and who is behind the conspiracy. 

Bullitt moves at a slow pace.  There are some foot chases through the hospital.  Chalmers gives the standard frustration with how the protection assignment has fouled up, and plenty of close ups are given to the marquee actor, McQueen.  For some sex appeal, Jacqueline Bisset appears as Bullitt’s girlfriend offering up a speech that shows resentment for his occupation amid a world of death and violence.  A better monologue of this sort would come later in Michael Mann’s Heat with Diane Vinora expressing her disdain for Al Pacino’s determination as an obsessed detective.

Nevertheless, Bullitt is an important film to watch, if for nothing else then to see what it has inspired since its time.  The legendary car chase between Bullitt’s dark green Ford Mustang and the silent villains’ black Dodge Charger is nearly ten minutes long, and still holds as one of the greatest ever filmed.  The fact that the film takes place in San Francisco only lends to the scene.  The best car chases take place among the sloping streets of San Francisco.  Fortunately, the chase is not accompanied by music, but rather by well timed sound editing of burning rubber and screeching tires, revved up engines, side swipe banging and chassis slams on the hilly pavements. Yates also includes good close ups of McQueen and the villains in the Charger.  They were not always driving the cars.  There were stunt doubles, but I’m not seeing the difference while I’m watching.  I might see the cars pass by the same green VW Beetle three times, but the editing is so perfectly assembled here that it is fair to argue this is one of the greatest scenes in film history. 

In later years, directors would pull moments from Bullitt to use in their own films like the Dirty Harry pictures, The Seven-Ups, and Heat.  One moment during a foot chase in an airport seemingly inspired moments for later films like The Fugitive and Skyfall.  The hero is looking amidst a sea of crowds for the antagonist.  Peter Yates films bystanders in this moment going from one walking face to another.  He cuts back to McQueen moving his eyes from left to right and back again, looking and looking.  The bad guy that Bullitt is trying to find is just an ordinary white guy with brown hair; no discernable features like you might notice in an Alfred Hitchcock movie or a James Bond entry.  So how do you find the guy who just looks like everyone else?

Bullitt sets up a twist or two.  Honestly though, I can’t recall where those moments are resolved.  The witness being protected undoes the chain lock on the door just before he’s gunned down.  Why?  What was the exact purpose to do that?  As well, who exactly gave away the secret location of the witness, and again, why?  These questions weigh on my mind after watching the film.  Bullitt is not a confusing or multi-layered movie.  It’s pretty simple with very minimal dialogue and works like a showpiece for scenes.  So, I have yet to uncover where I got lost or what I missed that could answer those questions.

Best I can say is that if you’re a film buff seeking out where certain standards started, it’s best to watch Bullitt.  After you watch Nicholas Cage supposedly drive a yellow Ferrari through the streets of San Francisco in The Rock, you’ll at least say, “Uh uh.  Bullitt did it better the first time.”

Q & A

By Marc S. Sanders

Sidney Lumet is a favorite director of mine.  Maybe it’s because I simply get caught up in good crime dramas and legal thrillers, like Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men, and The Verdict.  Maybe it’s because I appreciate the genuineness of Lumet’s technique.  The man’s career seems to follow a documentarian theme throughout New York City’s boroughs, politics, courtrooms and especially the various precincts of its police force.  Corruption is the angle that Lumet looks for, and Q & A from 1990 is another such example.

The title refers to the routine transcript that a district attorney will ask a witness following an incident.  So, after the first two minutes of the picture have concluded with New York cop Mike Brennan (Nick Nolte) shooting a Hispanic at point blank range, execution style, outside a seedy nightclub, a fresh-faced D.A. named Al Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is recruited in the middle of the night to collect Mike’s statement on the incident and wrap it up quickly, as his supervisor Kevin Quinn (Patrick O’Neal) strongly urges.

Mike is a celebrated cop with tall tales to share of how he strong arms suspects.  Everyone seems to like his relaxed way of tossing around racist vulgarities in his anecdotes.  No demographic is left out with how he speaks.  In fact, the name calling is shared among the whole precinct in a very casual way.  The two detectives assigned to the shooting that Mike was involved in, Sam “Chappie” Chapman and Luis Valentin (Charles S Dutton, Luis Guzman), seem to take it in stride as well.  They guffaw with the rest of the crowd when Mike describes how he roughs up street hoods who don’t cooperate. 

Al was once a cop as well, and his father before him was a “hero cop” to the boys in blue too.  He’s more than willing to let this incident go the quick routine, but then he soon realizes how corrupt Mike is and how much of a stronghold he has on the precinct and the various walks of life within the city from the Italian mob, to the Hispanic drug runners, to the transvestite hookers and the Jewish lawyers.  They all fall under his thumb.  Nolte’s stature and bombastic voice tell you that Mike carries a large thumb no matter how blatant his crookedness may appear. 

“Chappie” may be regarded by Mike as the “whitest n—er” he knows, but he’d never even think of turning his colleague in.  That’ll be the day he quits.  He proudly announces he’s blue first and black second. Luis, the Hispanic partner regarded as a “n—er with straight hair, is scared to move forward.  He’s got kids.  Kevin Quinn needs this to just move on.  The shooting of a lowlife Hispanic is not worth risking his advancement in politics.  Al is challenged and turns to his Jewish mentor, Lee Richardson (Leo Bloomfield) for guidance, who can help him get this pushed up the ranks and nab Mike for his atrocities, while circumventing the racist and antisemitic nature of Deputy District Attorney Quinn. 

It gets more complicated for Al, as his ex-girlfriend, Nancy (Jenny Lumet, Sidney’s daughter) is now attached to an important witness to the crime.  Bobby Texador (Armand Assante) is a Hispanic drug dealer who can not only pin Mike for the crime but also incriminate others within the system.  He’s just not so willing to sing.  Al is in a difficult quagmire that circles back to pension left for his mother per his father’s prior service.  He’s also wracked with how to handle Nancy.  They broke up simply because his reaction upon learning that her father was a black man did not go so well.  Even Al, born of virtue, is corrupt of prejudice.  Perhaps Lumet’s screenplay suggests the message that intrinsically we are all at least a little too stereotypical or partial for our own good.  It comes with our sensibilities and maybe it’s a mindset we best unlearn.  The most obvious challenge for Al is that he is subjected to intimidation from his boss Quinn, and especially Mike.  You don’t want Nick Nolte in your face.  That’s for sure.

I can’t lie.  Having watched the film for the first time, I was only looking at the plot and story development of Q & A.  I wasn’t seeing the bigoted culture sewn in among the masses.  Afterwards, I watched Siskel & Ebert on You Tube and they focused on the racist themes and casual name calling among the characters.  It never occurred to me while I was in the moment of watching the movie.  I don’t know what that says about me.  Maybe I’ve grown as comfortable with racist name calling as these characters have.  I don’t talk this way.  I may laugh at Cards Against Humanity or Family Guy.  For these cops to talk among themselves, casually using prejudiced connotations for African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Homosexuals, Transvestites, Jews and Italians within the melting pot of New York City with such nonchalance is more telling of Q & A, than the corruption that unfolds over the course of the picture.  Understanding what Siskel and Ebert found within the script granted me much more appreciation for Lumet’s film, because the twists of the plot and the overpopulation of characters was becoming too convoluted for me.

The strengths of the movie come from the cast performances, especially Nolte and Assante.  Nolte has played many roles where he’s the brute.  Here though, he’s downright despicable with his slicked back hair, tall stature, his thick “I’m your buddy” mustache, and his Irish Catholic character background that announces his superiority to all others.  Armand Assante is an unusual kind of drug kingpin.  He plays Bobby Texador with much self-awareness knowing he can be killed not only for what he knows about this particular shooting but other inside information he can share as well.  He’s a guy who will rise above any threat though.  This guy might be a criminal, but he hardly needs an attorney to negotiate on his behalf.

The trio of Nolte, Assante and Hutton works because each of the men are so different from one another.  These guys wouldn’t work well on a baseball team together.  They wouldn’t even socialize at parties.  Lumet writes these characters so far apart from each other, that loyalty can’t exist between any of them.

A lot of the characteristics of the film are consistent with many other achievements within Lumet’s repertoire like Night Falls On Manhattan and Serpico.  Those are better films.  When plot details reveal themselves in Q & A, I found myself rewinding to the beginning of a few scenes to fully comprehend what was just said. After a while, I gave up interest in the twists.

There was a choice of musical style that left me unsure as well.   Ruben Blades conducted the score for the film and a pop/rock song follows the prologue over the opening credits.  It later resurfaces as things are coming to a head near the end of the film.  Especially for the seedy and unglamourous approach that I love in Sidney Lumet’s films, I wasn’t enthusiastic on this style to heighten the dramatic crescendos.   It felt a little too Miami Vice, when I believe Lumet was aiming for his audience to get mad at the corruption that overtakes a system grounded in law and order. 

Q & A is a must see for fans of Sidney Lumet.  I’m glad I finally saw it.  It’s been on my bucket list for quite a while and I could not find it anywhere on any platform or medium.  (At the time of this writing, it’s available for free on Hulu.)  It’s definitely raw in its character creatures of a New York City from the 1990s, and it’s honest how the rite of passage to be a cop is to roll with the punches of racially lampooning your ethnicity.  It’s the only way to survive among the masses.  Fortunately, the cast plows through with that ugly nature to deliver something authentic.  When the film dives into its conspiracies for the sake of the plot, however, it’s a little too muddied for me to appreciate.  Watch the film for the characterizations.  Heck, watch it for the plot developments because if you can make out everything that’s happening and why, I’d love for you to explain it to me.

RESERVOIR DOGS

By Marc S. Sanders

The first time I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, I was flabbergasted by the inventiveness of the twists present within the simplicity of its low budget filmmaking.  As a community theatre actor, I could see there were many moments that were executed as if they were stage performances.  Tarantino just happened to record it all live on camera. Amid the bloody gore, there were some surprises to the script that I never saw coming even if they were plain as day.  Much like The Usual Suspects or The Shawshank Redemption where the unexpected is offered, and it is seemingly obvious despite no signs of early detection, I was entertained.  However, thirty years later, my values have evolved since the release of Tarantino’s first film.  You gotta show me more than just circumstances and contrived set pieces.

As director and writer of the movie, Tarantino plays puppet master to a collection of criminals.  Six of them are dressed uniformly in black suits and ties and they only know one another by a moniker nickname of “Mister” followed by a color.  These are no ordinary criminals though.  Unlike other films, they don’t just talk about the stretch they had in prison or a heist they pulled off at one time.  These guys debate the artistic merits of Madonna’s Like A Virgin and if she went down hill following her True Blue album.  One of them, even has an opinion contrary to the others about tipping a waitress at a diner.  He doesn’t believe in it.  United, the others try to tell him how wrong he is, but he has higher standards for excellence in table service.  It’s deliberately ridiculous!  Clint Eastwood never talked about any of this.  Not even Newman or Redford.  Lee Marvin?  Charles Bronson?  Forget it!  (Jack Nicholson may be the exception in Five Easy Pieces, but that character wasn’t a criminal.) Quentin Tarantino, however, believes that even low-level hoods have a viewpoint on anything from pop culture to societal expectations.

These six guys have been assembled by a kingpin named Joe (Lawrence Tierney) and his husky, bruiser son Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) to carry out a diamond robbery.  The film opens with these conversations over breakfast and then jumps to the aftermath where Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is bleeding to death in the back seat while Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is high tailing it away.  When they get to their rendezvous warehouse, eventually Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) and Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) arrive and the strangers among themselves contemplate if they were set up by one of their own since the police were already waiting for the robbery to take place.  Is one of them a cop or a rat?  Occasionally, Tarantino cuts away from this one warehouse setting to flashback to how some of these guys came to be recruited for the heist.

The scenario of Reservoir Dogs is creative.  It demonstrates that there is no honor among thieves.  Much like Tarantino’s films to come afterwards, his characters are thin and two dimensional.  That works in pictures like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Here, I didn’t embrace that aspect.  Reservoir Dogs seems to move in a direction of the Clue board game.  I know nothing about Professor Plum or Colonel Mustard’s history.  I just need to determine if one of them did it with the candlestick in the Billiard Room.  In Tarantino’s film, I just need to put a blindfold on and take a shot in the dark of who the rat among the gang is.  That’s all.  It’s just circumstantial. 

I appreciate how unique these criminals are with their mundane conversations and their cool swagger, but there’s nothing much beyond that.  Tarantino might have known that too.  He only has one question to answer before the end of the movie.  In between, to fatten up the length of the film, he incorporates a savage torture scene on a cop that Mr. Blonde takes hostage.  It’s memorable, but what does the scene really serve?  What do I take away from watching Michael Madsen’s cool, strutted character hacking off a man’s ear and dousing him in gasoline, while Stealer Wheel’s Stuck In The Middle With You plays on the radio?

The seeds of Tarantino’s brand were definitely showing in his first film, an independent project that luckily Harvey Keitel had enough faith in to help finance its shoestring budget.  The black suits became usual for Tarantino’s films along with pop rock of the seventies for a soundtrack.  Action scenes of a Lethal Weapon flavor have never been the director’s choice.  Rather, quick shots of gunfire followed by cutaway edits to the next talking scenes are his narrative.   It all shows here.  It just wasn’t as well rounded as it came to be in his seminal film, Pulp Fiction

The best acting comes from Tim Roth as Mr. Orange.  The character is given a flashback moment for how he’s brought into the gang. It is intriguing enough to be a movie of its own.  I wanted more from this guy’s story, because of Roth’s performance.  As well, for most of the film he’s bleeding his guts out from a gunshot wound in the stomach.  His hysteria is contrary to most other bad guys who get shot in the movies.  Mr. Orange suddenly doesn’t look so tough.  He’s crying like a baby and begs his closest teammate, Mr. White, to drop him off at the hospital.  He even tells Mr. White “God bless you for what you’re doing for me.”  Lee Marvin or Jimmy Cagney would never say that.  For a tough guy low level hood, this is not a cliché gangster who laughs at the face of death.  It’s imagination that thinks outside the box.  Forgive the intended pun, but Mr. Orange may be one of Tarantino’s most colorful characters.  I just wanted more from the guy.

These guys may be intentionally corny in their conversations. They may be super cool with their sunglasses and curse word laced dialogue.  However, that only goes so far before it looks like an ad for the Gap in the 1990s.  Beyond what the film shows with the Mr. Orange character, there had to be more depth.  

What Reservoir Dogs lacks turns me towards a mixed review for the film.  Still, I saw the movie before Pulp Fiction ever came out and I recall way back then that this Quentin Tarantino fellow has got something special brewing.  I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next, and I wasn’t disappointed.

SERPICO

By Marc S. Sanders

In the 1970’s Al Pacino had a slew of Oscar nominated roles.  One of those revered performances was as Frank Serpico, the righteous cop working with a corrupt New York City police department, in Sidney Lumet’s gritty Serpico.  The wardrobes and appearances of New York and its five boroughs seem unfamiliar nearly 50 years later, but the film can still maintain interest for a viewer because it’s astonishing how valid and true all the facts remain.  Cops were happily taking handouts, while the politicians and commissioners took no issue with looking the other way.  Whether it was disregarding a deli owner’s double-parking offenses for a free sandwich, or skimming some payouts from drug and prostitution rings, Serpico’s morals were always facing an insurmountable conflict.

Lumet’s film starts off with an interesting observation.  Word gets out that Frank has been shot and is being rushed in an ambulance, and one police officer asks the other, if a cop did it (not who did it).  If you never knew anything about this guy’s life or what he experienced, you know in just a small economy of words that Frank Serpico has become everyone’s enemy; not just to the hoods, pimps and drug pushers, but to those who are supposed to be his allies and support.

Long before Al Pacino inherited his gruff smoker’s voice that bellows like an angry lion with too much phlegm, he had the ear piercing outbursts with the same intensity to frighten his co-stars.  His character is seemingly the one true blue cop in the entire squad who doesn’t befriend the local hoods.  Serpico never accepts a bribe or hides a report.  It’s a frustrating ordeal and Pacino goes to the limits with big outbursts while pacing back and forth and showing terrible fear and panic in his eyes.  Lumet’s camera is quick enough to capture every tick that Pacino exudes.  It’s not Al Pacino performing within the frame of the camera.  It’s actually Sidney Lumet’s lens adjusting to how wild Pacino goes physically with his volume and body language.  

Frank Serpico was a lone wolf.  As the story progresses, the other cops find it hard to believe that he will not accept being part of the gang that is on the take. They grow concerned.  Can they trust Frank to keep his mouth shut and let things be?  No, they can’t count on Frank to toss a blind eye.  He is persistent on getting this story out to the proper authorities.  Naturally, it’s hard for these corrupt individuals to share a locker room or ride in the same car with him as a passenger.  Frank’s limit though is that he is reluctant to testify.  Get the investigation going and have the authorities uncover it for themselves, and then do something about it.  That’s all.  If he testifies, then his life is truly in danger as this all becomes official in a court of law.

Serpico is a good film because of Pacino and because of the concept of the story.  It’s more compelling because arguably in the United States’ most well-known city, corruption actually abounds.  Dirty cops in New York City?  Why, that’s unheard of! It was sadly all true and justice was not being executed fairly.  

However, Serpico is not Lumet’s best film, nor Pacino’s.  Often it meanders.  There’s not a lot of action.  There’s quite a number of scenes where Pacino’s screaming paranoia takes over.  It grows tired, honestly.  Moreover, it gets repetitive.  Many of Pacino’s outbursts feel like I just saw a scene like that, five minutes earlier.  

What keeps me going through the film is the fact that one authority after another refuses to take this problem head on.  The captains, the commissioner, the prosecutors and even the mayor of New York City never allow any chance of pursuing the wrongdoing that’s occurring.  After all, if you prosecute everyone involved, who is going to be left and how would that make an elected official look in the eyes of his constituents?

There are subplots focusing on the relationship between Frank and a couple of his girlfriends played by Barbara Eda-Young and Cornelia Sharpe.  I found these connections to exist as additional outlets for Pacino’s outbursts.  I didn’t terribly mind this material.  The acting is fine, but what did I gain from moments?  I read that the actual Frank Serpico had four relationships during his time as a New York City cop.  From a story perspective however, condensed into a film, I didn’t gain any new insight.

Serpico is worth watching.  I just wouldn’t put this on the top of my Lumet or Pacino priorities for must see viewing.  Still, it’s a true story that I’m satisfied was told.  In 1974, Hollywood was taking risks to show the ugly side behind a uniform or face of nobility.  This is where I consider film medium to be a necessary conduit of information and awareness for us.  On that level, Serpico serves as an important treatment.

PRIMAL FEAR

By Marc S. Sanders

If you explore the career of Edward Norton, you may find a common theme of duality in many of his roles.  Certainly, The Incredible Hulk (man vs literal green monster).  There’s also the heist film The Score where he is an aspiring thief with a talent to take on a mentally handicapped persona.  American History X offered a wide transition from downright evil to wholesome redemption from the worst of sin.  Even the remake of The Italian Job shows one kind of jerky guy early on, and later there’s another kind of cad on display.  Yet, Norton’s role as a church choir boy named Aaron Stampler in his first film, Primal Fear, is maybe his most apparent, and it remains an astonishing performance.

I had read William Diehl’s novel long before the movie was even made.  My impression of the film is that it is well cast.  Early on in the story, Aaron is apprehended following the grisly murder of Chicago’s Archbishop.  His clothes are covered in the priest’s blood and he’s captured on the news trying to outrun the police.  This looks like an open and shut case, which is why hot shot attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere) wants to take on defending Aaron, pro bono. 

Simply the name of Gere’s role, Martin Vail, could not be more appropriate.  He thrives on vanity and pride, ensuring that when he gives an interview it is none other than a cover story.  Gere is perfectly handsome and his energy is so right for the part.  He wears his suits with natural and self-assured swagger.  When Martin attends a benefit dinner in the first few minutes of the picture, everyone in the room knows who he is, whether they only at least admire the guy, or downright despise the ego he proudly carries.  Only Martin Vail will insist that young Aaron with a boy scout, puppy dog expression could be innocent.  Everyone else has deemed his client as “The Butcher Boy.”

The accused is a simple kid who was brought in off the streets by the Archbishop.  He’s a nobody.  It’s the victim who is prominent, and one of the first strategies that Vail engages in is putting the deceased Archbishop on trial because it could lend to just what he needs for exoneration – reasonable doubt.  That could mean other prominent figures in the city will get caught in the web. 

Like many mysteries and courtroom dramas before and after Primal Fear, red herrings abound.  The side stories dealing with botched real estate investments within minority neighborhoods feel like they sprung from a completely different cloth, like an episode of L.A. Law.  What keeps them above water though are the performances of the supporting cast with John Mahoney and Stuart Bauer, respectively portraying the state district attorney and a Hispanic well-established mobster that Vail represents.  Somehow, Diehl’s murder trial story circles back to these guys and what the Archbishop had to do with them.

A twisted sex scandal within the church also comes into play.  After all, where there’s murder there is motive.  The math is not that simple though.

To lend a little more conflict to the film is the prosecuting attorney Janet Venable.  She is played by Laura Linney, maybe doing a little over acting, who once had a tryst with Martin.  Honestly, it comes off as an unnecessary subplot, perhaps only there to give quick witted resentful dialogue for Janet to serve at Martin, while Gere puts on the teasing smirk to send back over the net.  The opposing counsel try to psych one another out, but we all know that Martin is the smarter attorney of the two. 

Primal Fear hinges on Edward Norton first and Richard Gere second.  Norton’s performance is written, and thereby performed, to come in under the radar for the first half of the film.  Aaron is a quiet, frightened, uncertain kid from the backwoods of Kentucky.  Gere and the supporting cast populate much of the first half of the movie.  Later, Aaron offers up a surprise delivery that turns the film on its heel, and the story takes on a whole new trajectory. 

Gere is superb with the conceit of the character.  Director Gregory Hoblit places Martin Vail front and center during transition shots where he gives statements to the press while entering the courthouse.  It’s a subtly effective way to uphold how proud and cocky the attorney is.  When the surprise from Norton comes around though, even a hot shot, intuitive lawyer like Martin can’t immediately figure out what to do next.  The surprise works even though it comes out of nowhere.

Primal Fear offers a lot of standard stuff from other typical courtroom thrillers.  Some players are introduced that could lend to why the crime occurred.  Some are there to distract you.  Some are there to circle back around in the third act.  There’s a ping pong volley of objections and witness testimony.  There’s the blood splattered crime scene investigation.  We’ve seen it all before.  Nevertheless, I don’t hold any of that against the film.  I still get a thrill out of standard car chases and shootouts the same way I stay alert through another courtroom mystery.  It’s fast paced and until the puzzle is completely assembled, I’m engaged especially if the cast is working on all cylinders. 

The end leaves you thinking though because just when you believe all the pieces have been put back into place there’s one hanging thread that is left unraveled and you may be asking yourself how that got past me.  That’s when you know you are watching an entertaining movie.  If you have to think about it long after it is over, then the movie got one over on you.  Primal Fear accomplishes that feat.

THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

By Marc S. Sanders

My father always loved how the ultra-wealthy lived on screen.  James Bond’s encounters with villains hiding out in the most elaborate estates, or the social class stabbings of the women in All About Eve were the fantasies that he wanted to live among.  Dad also appreciated the way billionaire playboy Thomas Crown lived.  Though I doubt Dad would ever suffer from a mild case of boredom like Tommy Crown did. 

The original, 1968 version of The Thomas Crown Affair begins with an elaborately planned bank robbery. Then begins the chess match between Steve McQueen as the title character and a beautiful insurance investigator who is trying to pin the entrepreneur for the crime, Vicki Anderson played by Faye Dunaway. 

The film, directed by Norman Jewison, is a caper adventure during its first thirty minutes.  Thomas Crown assembles a crew of five men to don hats and sunglasses.  He coordinates what time they should arrive in Boston, either by plane, train or automobile.  They enter a particular elevator in a bank located in the center of downtown Boston, hold some people hostage and simply walk out the door with over two and half million dollars in cash.  Afterwards, Mr. Crown will take over and make sure the monies are deposited in a Swiss bank account. 

This film is quite outdated by now.  There’s a lot of easy-very easy-conveniences that work for the heist to successfully come off.  Yet, that does not interfere with enjoying The Thomas Crown Affair.  With film editing from Hal Ashby, Jewison directs the heist in rapid split screens.  It manipulates you into thinking the mechanics behind the robbery is more elaborate than it really is.  Thomas Crown orchestrates everything from his luxurious office across the street.  His crew simply hold folks at gun point with one of them driving away with the money.  It’s the pacing of the split screens in halves, thirds and sometimes fourths that keep you alert as the crew arrives at the scene of the crime from all different points. 

After the robbery is successfully committed, the insurance investigators for the bank show up.  Paul Burke is the frustrated one in charge with the loose tie and wrinkled shirt.  He allows Vicki to enter Thomas Crown’s life when she miraculously suspects that he must be the kingpin behind the theft.  Thomas knows what Vicki suspects and then the pair fall in love while trying to hide each other’s hand.  At times, one is playing cat.  At other times, one is playing mouse.

As I said, the robbery is the most exciting part of The Thomas Crown Affair.  Afterwards, the film seems to turn into a picture album or an episode of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous.  McQueen doesn’t offer up much dialogue.  We get to see him play polo, take a flight in his hang glider and play golf.  Dunaway has occasional conversations with Burke trying to figure out how to prove that Crown is the master thief, wearing the most beautifully trendy outfits of the time.  You can’t not pay attention to how sensational Faye Dunaway looks in this picture.  When Dunaway and McQueen share the screen it’s simply an album of romance and escapist adventure.  Tommy takes Vicki in his custom-made dune buggy (personally customized by McQueen himself) along the wind-swept beaches.  They allegorically engage in the sexiest chess match to appear on film.  They tease one another with their suspicions of each other.  Yet, the movie never advances beyond any of that.  Norman Jewison simply wanted to go on a luxuriously scenic New England vacation while shooting this picture. 

I can appreciate the internal dilemma of Tommy Crown.  A bored, isolated and very wealthy man who has everything, and cannot get thrilled with what to do next except to become a moonlighting criminal for one opportunity.  One character trait that I liked was that Tommy will place bets on shooting a golf ball out of a sand trap, and lose not once but twice.  He’ll play chess with the alluring woman who’s pursuing him as well.  Yet, she gets his king in check.  The only challenge he wins at is the one that nobody is legally permitted to play.  It’s a dimension for the character, even if it is not explored with too much depth. 

The Thomas Crown Affair is not the greatest film.  I have seen it a few times as a personal means to stay in touch with my father who has passed now.  He loved to watch how the wealthy lived within the confines of their mansions with their brandy sifters and pocket watches.  When Tommy sits at his grand office desk, I hear Dad saying, “Wow, what an office.”  Dad talks to me when I watch Sean Connery as James Bond or Steve McQueen as Thomas Crown.

The movie features Dad’s most favorite song, the Oscar winning The Windmills Of Your Mind which opens the picture to feature the credits.  Honestly, this is my most favorite part of the movie.  It’s a magnificent song that I could listen to on replay.  The lyrics and haunting melody seem to tease the introduction of a man of mystery.  Yet, Thomas Crown doesn’t turn out to be all that enigmatic.  He’s a quiet fellow who only finds amusement when he comes up with the audacity to pull off what many of us would never dream to carry out.  Yet, once that is over, what is there left to do?  Fall in love with Faye Dunaway?  Well, there could be worse things in life.

Footnote: I share this portion from the eulogy I wrote for dad in September, 2019:

Dad’s favorite song was The Windmills Of Your Mind from one of dad’s favorite movies The Thomas Crown Affair, featuring Steve McQueen as the title character with Faye Dunaway about a man bored with his wealth who seeks adventure by orchestrating a complex robbery simply for the fun of it all.  As dad never slept and was always active, I consider this lyric from the song.

Round like a circle in a spiral/Like a wheel within a wheel/Never ending or beginning/On an ever-spinning wheel/Like a snowball down a mountain/Or a carnival balloon/Like a carousel that’s turning/Running rings around the moon.

Dad could never memorize the lyrics exactly but I recall him humming the tune endlessly when I was growing up.  Dad’s life was never ending.  In a spiral, in a circle, always moving and going on and on.  Just 3 months ago we were at the Tony Awards together.  Just this past summer he was reading with Julia.  Just this year he was making plans with Adrienne for Julia’s upcoming Bat Mitzvah.  Just this year he was accompanying Brian to the shooting range for time together. Just this year he was planning another party at his home for his clients, friends and fellow congregants.  Just five weeks ago, he was driving his Aston Martin, named after the Bond girl from the film Goldfinger. I dare not repeat that name here.

While in the hospital this last month, the nurses would ask him with surprise “You still work?” and dad’s reply was “Yeah.  Don’t you?”  He refused to ever retire.  He said he would never do it because then what would he do with himself.  He never stopped.  He never ever stopped, and I imagine he hasn’t stopped since he reunited with Linda and my grandmother Helen this past Thursday evening.  He is truly a windmill of the mind.

SEVEN

By Marc S. Sanders

There’s an interesting dynamic to David Fincher’s Seven that is not touched upon often enough.  Beyond the clever and grisly murders set to a theme of the Seven Deadly Sins, the two police detective protagonists are carved from completely different molds.  The spine of Fincher’s film, written by Andrew Kevin Walker, focuses on how these men approach the craft of the killer’s accomplishments.  One man wants to cut to the chase, find the criminal and cuff him.  The other wants to study the nature of this mystery man, and only then will it lead to the suspect’s true identity.

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) stems from a time gone by for the cinematic detective.  He’s the trench coat wearing investigator who examines and connects dots, never resorting to fists or police intimidation with a gun.  Newly assigned Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) dons the leather jacket with the cute goatee and boy blond haircut.  He’s more apt to making fun of the sick weirdo they are chasing, hardly lending any valuable insight or observations.  Somerset will approach with respect for the killer and his work.  Mills, with nowhere near the experience of his new partner, will disguise his loss of where to begin with this case by resorting to cheap shots at the killer’s expense, calling him Yoda and surmising this guy must be pleasuring himself in peanut butter, perhaps.

Fincher is widely recognized for the dark photography of his films, like the cherry wood hallways of Harvard in The Social Network or the lurid neighborhoods in movies like Zodiac and Gone Girl.  In Seven, the setting is very much a character in and of itself, but other than the fact that it is a California (thanks to a throw away piece of dialogue) metropolitan area, we never know the name of this city.  It is a dreary, ongoing rain-soaked environment that hinders the police officers and keeps everyone contained in the film, especially David’s wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), unsettled.  The city has no name or identity.  Therefore, the police officers who occupy it are not the stereotypical cops designed for this place.  One works as a tired, wise and experienced Colombo figure, minus the sarcasm.  The other is an aggressive hot shot who is over trying to prove himself to peers and superiors.  Now he wants to be in charge.  They both follow the footsteps of the mystery together.  Yet, they are reading different roadmaps.

With seven days left before retirement, Somerset meets newly arrived Mills.  They are quickly dispatched to a filthy apartment for an ugly murder scene of an odd nature.  It is a scene labeled as Gluttony by the killer.  Greed follows shortly thereafter, and Somerset knows none of this random.  Whoever has orchestrated these two executions is methodical and resourceful, with a point to prove.  The artistic measure and inspiration are too creative, far from the sloppiness of a standard stabbing or gunshot to the head.  Somerset already knows five more murders will likely turn up and doesn’t want to get involved.  He’s seen enough.  Mills has the cavalier attitude.  Find the freak, and maybe take him out in a blazing shootout.  It’s reckless. 

Could Seven be an answer to how cop movies performed at one time and how they act now?  Seven may be the closest outline of pairing Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade with Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs.  Sure, the murder scenes are hard to look away from, as deliberately repulsive as they are.  Even after multiple views of the film, I still get curious with how the killer planned all of this out to the absolute most minute detail.  However, ninety percent of the dialogue is exchanged only between Freeman and Pitt. Paltrow has a couple of scenes that help paint the sad picture of life in this city, but ultimately the film belongs exclusively to the two cop characters.  Seven has one action scene, but it primarily covers how the two men respond to the nature of what they come upon.  Mills will crack jokes that maybe his college pals would snicker at.  Somerset asks the young man to just be quiet while he explores the scene.  Mills gets grossed out by a bucket of blood.  Procedurally, Somerset will ask Mills if there was any blood in it.  Mills will resort to Cliff’s Notes on the Seven Deadly Sins.  Somerset will spend his evening in the library, digging through the original source.  Mills will kick down a door without authority.  Somerset will protest against that action without following the standards of procedure.  It’s a dichotomy of impatience versus patience.

The two men actually don’t come to a common platform until the third act of the picture, when the rain has subsided, the sun comes out, and the killer opts to surrender himself.  Still, the mystery of his purpose remains and there’s an unknown element of what to expect next.  So, while the partners may agree that there’s more to come, they still respond to the killer, in person, differently.  Mills can only yell at the deranged suspect and call him names.  Somerset interviews the gruesome and imaginative architect with questions. 

Seven is a sensational crime drama.  It’s eerie, creepy and appreciatively sickening in its crimes.    The outline of some of the killer’s actions might seem conveniently questionable or far-fetched.  Some of the crime scenes were planned over a year’s time. Others were not meant to be revealed until a certain point within these particular seven days.  So, the writing might be a little too overly precise.  However, that should not be dwelled upon.  Rather, one kind of cinematic cop is not the standard in Hollywood films anymore.  Another kind of cop has filled that void in its stead. 

Andrew Kevin Walker’s script follows a very structured outline.  It’s not until the story’s infamous end does the film divert itself, as it is almost unfathomable that it could have actually happened. 

It is fortunate that David Fincher was allowed vast liberties with the production of only his second film, following the abysmal Alien 3 which famously took away any of the personal oversight he depended on as a rookie filmmaker.  With Seven, Walker and Fincher draw out four characters quite well – Somerset, Mills, the city with Tracy as its spokesperson, and the killer’s actions.  Blend these elements together and see if they make for a good product.  Fact is they couldn’t be any more disagreeable, but the chemistry works perfectly. 

Seven is a sensational movie and will likely always remain as one of David Fincher’s best films.

THE NAKED CITY (1948)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 85%

PLOT: In almost documentary-like fashion, New York City cops investigate the brutal murder of a young woman.


It’s that narration.

If The Naked City hadn’t included that cockamamie narration, I might have given it a “9” instead of a “7.”  Here is a police procedural ahead of its time, a pre-television-era herald of popular entertainments from Dragnet to Law and Order to CSI.  The story is absorbing and engaging from beginning to end, even if some of the acting is not especially Oscar-worthy.  There are enough twists and turns in the search for a cold-blooded killer – or killers – to keep your attention all the way through.  And over it all, intruding where it’s not wanted, is a Disney-esque narration from the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, who also produced a superior prison film a year earlier, Brute Force (1947), also directed by Jules Dassin.

Imagine a scene where foot-weary detectives are pounding the streets, making inquiries at jewelry stores, hairdressers, pawnshops, looking for leads.  As we watch the scene progress, we hear the narrator: “Are your feet tired, detective?  Not to worry, only 400 more jewelry shops to go.”

Or another scene where a detective looks wearily through a window at the city laid out below, pondering where to go for the next clue.  Cue the narrator: “There’s your city, Halloran.  Take a good look.  Jean Dexter is dead, and the answer must be somewhere down there…”

I hated the narration in this movie.  It reduced what I was watching to the level of one of those Disney animated shorts where Goofy is playing some kind of sport and the narrator describes the action while Goofy screws it up spectacularly.  Another example, as morning comes to the city: “The city is quiet now, but soon it will be pounding with activity.  This time yesterday, Jean Dexter was just another pretty girl, but now she’s the marmalade on 10,000 pieces of toast.”  Give me a break.  I fully understand how future TV shows made use of this kind of narration, but not to this degree.  It made a crime story sound like an industrial video.

So let us stipulate that I hated the narration.  The rest of this review will discuss the film as if the narration didn’t exist.  It’s best for you, it’s best for me…it’s best for us.

The Naked City opens with the murder of a young woman, Jean Dexter.  The rest of the movie details the police investigation and search for her killer.  In broad strokes, that’s pretty much it.  In its own way, it reminded me a little bit of All the President’s Men (1976) in that we’re focused exclusively on the process of investigation with very little cutting away to other participants.  The lead figures are a very Oyrish Lieutenant Muldoon (Barry Fitzgerald) and the dependable Halloran (Don Taylor).  The chief suspect is Frank Niles (an impossibly young Howard Duff, whom you may recall as Ted Kramer’s attorney in Kramer vs. Kramer [1979]).  Niles raises so many red flags that I started to think he was an obvious red herring.  Under questioning, he lies and lies and lies again, even “forgetting” to tell the police he’s engaged to the dead woman’s best friend.  Can this guy be for real?  We have seen so many criminals in so many TV shows and movies who are so much better at lying to the police…but he’s so bad at it that he must be innocent by default, right?

The investigation continues.  Clues and leads are chased down.  Another murder occurs.  False confessions are heard and dismissed.  The dead girl’s parents come down to the mortuary to identify the body.  (That particular scene was notable for being filmed at an actual New York City mortuary, a first for its time.  In fact, the vast majority of The Naked City was filmed on location in the Big Apple, one of the first major Hollywood productions to do so.  It’s hard to conceive of now, but this caused a minor sensation upon the movie’s release.)

While the mystery of the murder is the real meat of the story, I got the impression that the goal of the film was to bring these mundane police procedures to the masses, to show audiences that, while you work and eat and play and raise your families and go to baseball games, the good guys are on the case whenever something goes wrong.  And this is what they do for just one murder case.  In a city like New York, who knows how many murder cases are being worked on at once?  As the closing narration famously says, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.  This has been one of them.”  (Okay, that’s the one bright spot in the narration, let us never speak of it again.)

I can even draw a direct line between The Naked City and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  In The Naked City, Halloran uncovers a possible connection between the second murder victim and the prime suspect in the first murder.  (It’s complicated.)  He gets permission from Muldoon to chase it down, despite how unpromising it is.  As he’s following his nose, Muldoon chases down a lead of his own, getting closer to the true mastermind behind this case.  In this way, there is a direct parallel in The Silence of the Lambs where Crawford takes a task force to a suspect’s house while Clarice follows a nearly invisible trail to Jame Gumb’s doorstep.

Everything comes to a head with a foot chase that leads to the Williamsburg Bridge, scenes that must have been a little mind-blowing for 1948 audiences as the camera seemingly defies gravity, climbing higher and higher into the scaffolding with the fleeing suspect.  (It should also be noted that the film perhaps romanticizes inner city life to a degree…as the suspect flees across the bridge, he breaks up a group of children skipping rope on the footpath.  Not the kind of thing I’d expect to see today, for sure.)

The Naked City is about as good as crime dramas in the ‘40s could get without resorting to the darkness and shadows of film noir.  This is, after all, a film about the good guys, not the bad.  Watching cops interrogate witnesses and compare notes about stolen jewelry isn’t quite as “sexy” as watching Bogie draw down on some hoodlums, but hey, that’s the kind of thing that really happens in the big bad city.

CASINO

By Marc S. Sanders

When a movie is set in Las Vegas, doesn’t it feel like it should be overly exaggerated, maybe a little loud, and quite bombastic?  That’s how I feel about Martin Scorsese’s three-hour opus, Casino.  The film opens with a car bomb exploding our primary narrator, Sam “Ace” Rothstein into the skies where he then makes his descent into the expansive signs that light up sin city in the desert.

Ace (Robert DeNiro) runs The Tangiers Casino.  He was especially picked by the mid-west Mafia back home (St. Louis, Mo.) to oversee everything that happens at the casino.  He’s looking for cheaters.  He’s making sure blueberry muffins live up to their name.  He’s dodging the FBI and their hidden bugs.  Most importantly, he’s making sure hefty suitcases are walked out of the casino and delivered on a monthly basis to the wise guys he has to answer to, and those deliveries better not come up light.  These guys treasure Ace because he never loses a bet.  Not one.  He can predict the outcome of any sports contest.  He can beat the odds on any table.  Ace is the best at his job because he also works eighteen hours out of every day, and he makes a lot of money for his superiors.

Everything should go smoothly.  However, the mob has also allowed Ace’s childhood friend, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to move out to Vegas.  Nicky is a heavy.  It’s not wise to upset or anger Nicky, because it’ll likely be the last time you ever do.  He’ll kick you when you’re down on the ground, but he’ll also stab you with a pen an endless number of times.  Don’t get your head caught in a vice when you are around Nicky.  This bull might have been sent out as a toughie to protect Ace and his work, but he’s not subtle about his methods.  When law enforcement gets involved, it only causes interference for Nicky and his crew to get back in the casinos or even in to Vegas.  Because Nicky won’t settle for that, it’s only going to make things harder, and especially challenging for Ace.

Ace’s other problem focuses on the one bet he did lose in life, and that was marrying Ginger (Sharon Stone in an Oscar nominated performance).  She’s a high-class hooker that Ace quickly becomes infatuated with, and the worst mistake he could have ever made was that he trusted her.  He trusted Ginger way too much.  Ginger may have quickly had a child and married Ace, but she never gave up on her loyalty to her scuzzy pimp, Lester (James Woods), and just wait until she starts carelessly confiding in Nicky.  Early on, everyone in the room, like even those in the comfort of their own homes, scream out loud why Ace would entrust a safe deposit box containing millions in cash with only Ginger’s name.  Ace can’t even get into the box if he wanted to.  He arranged it so that only Ginger could have access.  Keep the cash out of his name and the Feds can’t make a case.  As well, is Ace hiding his own interests from his own people?  Yet, that’s what he did.  He trusted his hooker wife way too much, way too often.

I’ve seen Casino a few times and I always leave it with the exact same problem.  I don’t think the film lives up to its title enough.  The first half of the film, while a similar blueprint to Goodfellas and later The Wolf Of Wall Street, is incredibly sweeping with Scorsese’s signature steady cams and voiceover work from DeNiro and Pesci.  You can travel from one end of the gambling hall, and then through clandestine back rooms and into secure areas all within sixty seconds.  Scorsese with a script from Nicholas Pileggi gives you a very fast education on how Ace operates a tight ship and keeps his mob superiors invested. 

Later, however, the film loses its way with an abundance of material on the Ginger character and how she is undoing Ace.  Stone gives an incredible performance as a constant drug and alcohol fueled spoiled brat of a trophy wife/former hooker.  She has wild outbursts that continuously threaten Ace and who he works for and with.  Minutes later, the film cuts to where the drugs have worn off and she comes back to her husband with her chinchilla coat draped over her shoulders.  The energy that Stone puts into this role must have exhausted her.  As a viewer, I get wiped out just watching her.  Yet, as engrossed the actress is in the part, what does it really have to do with life in a mob run casino? 

It’s not crazy to say that Las Vegas is city of at least 8 million stories.  It’s not called sin city for nothing.  In three hours’ time, much attention is given to how Ace’s casino funnels out monies to the mob.  Focus is also given to how they deceive the gaming commission and how Ace dodges the need to have a gaming license if he is to work at the casino.  There’s a great scene where he demonstrates what happens to cheaters who rip off the joint.  He also has to contend with the governing good ol’ boys who staked their claim in Nevada long before it became the gaming capital of the world.  If a dumb nephew is fired for not properly handling the slot machines, Ace is going to have to answer to someone with a big shot title.  Pileggi’s script is best in scenarios like this.  So, I can’t understand why he diverts his story into a domestic squabble of screaming and shoving between a husband and wife. 

The Ace/Ginger storyline populates over one third of the movie and then not much is talked about with the casino.  There are broken glasses and screaming and crying and drug fueled rages and opportunities to beat up Lester and now the film has become a personal picture, rather than Las Vegas mob cycle we were invited to observe.

Ironically, what I always hoped to gain from Casino is only a tease at the end, when Ace narrates how Las Vegas segued from mob rule and sold out to corporate America, even comparing it to Disney Land.  A wise shot is provided showing the senior citizens entering the doors of the casinos en masse, dressed in their sweat pants and polyester outfits ready to take a chance on the slots, not the more sophisticated gaming tables where the fat cats would lay down ten grand a hand.  Why couldn’t Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese devote time to this transition?  This seems like the bigger bet that Ace wouldn’t win out on.  Tons of married couples lose out and get married for the wrong reasons.  We’ve seen that kind of material before.  The real undoing of Ace Rothstein was likely the blue-chip organizations who pounced on what the mafia pioneered.  Hardly any of that is shown, only left to be implied.  I’m sorry, but Casino concludes on a missed opportunity.