In the opening shot of Casino, a man in a salmon-colored sports jacket climbs into his Lincoln Continental. He turns the key and the car explodes. Then, as director Martin Scorsese explains it, “You see him in slow motion, flying over the flames—like a soul about to take a dive into hell.”
He’s not going to hell—at least not yet. Instead, we later learn, Ace Rothstein survives this attempt on his life. For the next three hours, Casino shows how Ace reached the point where someone wanted to kill him.
The screenplay, written by Scorsese and author Nicholas Pileggi, is essentially the real-life tale of Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who ran casinos for the Chicago mob through the 1970s. Rosenthal is now remembered as the man who introduced sports betting to Nevada, although that element is barely mentioned in the movie. Rosenthal’s Vegas ride ended when his car was firebombed in 1982. He survived that attack to tell his story to Pileggi.
And what a story it is. Power, corruption, money, infidelity—this epic has it all.
Robert De Niro stars as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a brilliant handicapper from the Midwest whose ability to make money persuades the mob to hire him to run the fictional Tangiers casino in Las Vegas. His job, essentially, is to skim enough from the enterprise so that a suitcase of cash can be flown back to the Kansas City bosses each week. This is an easy gig as long as Ace watches out for professional cheaters and greases the local pols.
There’s a great early scene outlining the corruption that runs from parking valets to dealers to money counters to floor managers, all the way up the casino food chain. “What we show,” says Scorsese, “is a bunch of cheats watching cheats watching cheats.”
Everyone gets his share. To protect their investment in Ace, the Midwest bosses dispatch his childhood friend Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to Vegas. Nicky’s job is to both bodyguard Ace (which he does at one point by using a ballpoint pen as a stiletto) and to keep a wary eye on him.
But Nicky does more than that. He forms a crew and quickly becomes the most notorious gangster in Vegas. As Ace tries to keep his hands clean (at least publicly), Nicky’s carelessness and zealous brutality attract unwanted attention. Soon enough, the FBI is listening to their every conversation.
(Nicky, by the way, is based on Anthony “Tony the Ant” Spilotro, a Chicago-born enforcer. His body is buried somewhere in an Indiana cornfield. More about that coming up.)
Adding to that dangerous mix is the high-end hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone), a stunner incapable of sobriety or loyalty. Ace first spots her swiping $1,000 chips from a john at the craps table—and immediately falls in love. When she balks at marrying him, he wins her with diamonds, furs and a key to the safe deposit box where he has stashed millions. This last move proves to be a mistake.
Casino bullrushes through a series of interwoven stories that ultimately lead to the three main characters being destroyed by greed and hubris. And there are meaty little subplots. Our favorite concerns a Kansas City underboss named Artie Piscano (Vinny Vella), who gripes that he never gets reimbursed after taking trips to Vegas to oversee the skimming operation. Piscano decides to keep expense records that are a bit too detailed. The cops bug his small grocery store, pick up his blabbing about bosses shortchanging him and discover his meticulous ledger when they raid the place. By the way, watch for Scorsese’s mother in a brief but funny role as Piscano’s no-nonsense mom.
The three lead actors are outstanding. Stone garnered her only Oscar nomination for portraying the devious and self-obsessed Ginger. Pesci’s mien as Nicky Santoro is identical to the one he used to portray Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas, but, hey, when it works it works. And De Niro was really in a groove in the 1990s, filming GoodFellas, Cape Fear, This Boy’s Life, A Bronx Tale and this movie all in the span of five years. Somehow, he took a wrong turn at The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and now seems to accept any role that pays the bills.
There’s also a wonderful supporting cast, led by James Woods as a vicious hustler/pimp, and including Frank Vincent, Kevin Pollak and comedian Don Rickles in a rare dramatic role.
Casino is one of eight film collaborations between De Niro and Scorsese, along with the likes of GoodFellas, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Think of the greatest actor-director pairings in history. John Wayne and John Ford? Humphrey Bogart and John Huston? Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder? We’ll take Bobby Milk and Marty Eyebrows over any of them.
There’s one more star in the movie, and it’s the city of Las Vegas. Casino shows the energetic town during the 1970s and ’80s, which many consider its prime. “What interested me about Las Vegas was the idea of excess, no limits,” said Scorsese. “People become successful there like no other city.”
On the surface, it’s all glitz and glamour—jewels and furs, neon and champagne. But underneath all that is the element of organized crime. As Casino brilliantly shows, the Mafia built the casinos with Teamster money, ran them beyond the purview of the law and used them to lure customers in, keep them playing and suck them dry.
Of course, Vegas doesn’t work that way anymore . . . well, except for the sucking the customers dry part. The mob and the Teamster money were pushed out during the 1980s, replaced by Michael Milken and junk bonds and Steve Wynn. As Ace laments near Casino’s end, “The big corporations took over. Today, it works like Disneyland.” It’s debatable whether the current system is any cleaner.
HIT: The sound track is a tour de force of more than 50 songs, featuring music by everyone from Louis Prima to Roxy Music, from B.B. King to Devo. The songs aren’t just random; they tie to moments and characters. Our favorite was the ominous introduction of dollars-and-diamonds obsessed Ginger through Mick Jagger’s “Heart of Stone.”
MISS: If Casino has a flaw, it’s that it’s a little too reminiscent of GoodFellas.
GOOF: Take a close look at the opening scene of the car explosion. That’s clearly a dummy behind the steering wheel.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: At three hours, it’s a hefty time investment. But since many flights to Vegas take longer than that, we’d recommend you pick it up at the airport DVD rental kiosk to set the mood for your trip.
CASTING CALL: Jamie Lee Curtis, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Pfeiffer and former porn star Traci Lords were all considered for the role of Ginger. Lefty Rosenthal wanted actor Richard Widmark to portray him, until he was reminded that Widmark was 80 years old at the time.
PIVOTAL SCENE: As things spin out of control, Nicky, his brother Dominick and Nicky’s No. 2, Frank Marino (Frank Vincent) drive to a cornfield for a clandestine meeting with associates. As Nicky steps from the car, Frank whacks him with a baseball bat. The other men then attack Nicky and his brother, clubbing them with aluminum bats.
Nicky is held down and forced to witness his younger brother getting pummeled. “Watch this,” shouts Frankie, his longtime aide, as he swings at Dominick’s skull.
Dominick is beaten semiconscious, stripped of his clothes and dragged into a freshly-dug grave as Nicky sobs. Nicky is next.
“The word was out that the bosses had enough of Nicky,” Ace flatly says in a voice-over. “How much were they gonna take? So they made an example of him and his brother. They buried them while they were still breathing.”
In an interview with New York magazine, Scorsese said the brutal scene (inspired by the real death of Tony Spilotro and his brother) was essential to show “where it really ends (for mobsters). It’s your closest friend smashing you in the head with a baseball bat. Not even a gun. Not cutting your throat. You’re going to get hit many times and you’re still going to be breathing when they put the dirt on you. If you want to live that lifestyle, that’s where you’re going to go.”
One final note: When Pesci was pushed into that dusty grave, he broke the same rib he had cracked filming Raging Bull in 1979.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “This is a disappointingly rudimentary tale about a love-smitten wimp, a cheating bitch and a deranged killer, who destroy everything for one another. It’s clear Scorsese and Pileggi are trying to disinter the success of GoodFellas, their last collaboration. But they only come up with Raging B.S. Casino ends up like a few too many of its characters: face down in a shallow grave.”—Desson Howe, Washington Post
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: Folk singer-comedian Dick Smothers takes a rare stab at drama, playing the corrupt politician known only as “Senator.” Other Vegas regulars who show up on-screen include Rickles and Alan King, who have significant roles, and Steve Allen, Frankie Avalon and Jerry Vale, who play themselves in cameos.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The Gaming Commission showdown between Ace and the Senator is based on a 1978 encounter between Rosenthal and current U.S. Senator Harry Reid, who headed the Nevada board at the time. Scorsese has insisted that the prostitute-loving, freebie-grubbing aspect of Smothers’ Senator character has nothing to do with Reid.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The attorney for Ace and Nicky is played by Oscar Goodman, who ran a winning campaign for mayor of Las Vegas four years after the movie’s release and has served in that office ever since. Before running for office, Goodman spent three decades defending real-life mob figures, including Rosenthal and Spilotro.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: High enough that some critics thought the film deserved an NC-17 rating. Beyond the clubbing in the cornfield, three cringe-inducing scenes stand out: the multiple stabbing of a barroom wiseass by a ballpoint pen, the smashing of a cheat’s fingers with a hammer, and the crushing of a hood’s head in a carpenter’s vise.
The third scene, which culminates in the poor guy’s eye popping out, is based on a true episode that took place in Chicago in the 1960s. In that case, as in the movie, an unauthorized hit went down, angering mob bosses. To persuade one of the hit’s participants to give up his partners, a mob enforcer embarked on two days of torture, ending with the vise.
BEST LINE: Two actually, and they show the contradiction that is Sin City:
Early on, Ace is honored by the local Chamber of Commerce. “Back home, they would have put me in jail for what I’m doing,” he marvels. “But out here, they give me awards.”
But later, during a tense meeting in the desert, Nicky explains it all:
“I’m what’s real out here,” he lectures Ace. “Not your country clubs and your TV show. I’m what’s real: the dirt, the gutter, and the blood. That’s what it’s all about.”
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: The Cooler, a great yarn about the transformation of Vegas. It centers on an old-school casino and a schmo (William H. Macy) whose job it is to bring bad luck to gamblers.
BODY COUNT: Twenty-five. Nicky is the league leader with eight kills.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”