In 1990 Martin Scorsese made “Goodfellas” one of the definitive movies about organized crimes in the United-States. Along with “The Godfather” trilogy, it provides an impeccable depiction of the gangster lifestyle. Yet, maybe because I saw it first, I find “Casino,” his tale of the mob’s power hold in 1970’s Las Vegas, more entertaining. Both movies are very stylish, have first rate performances by Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, provide a detailed look at a criminal organization, and actually make you root for these criminals. “Casino” however, does not only depict a gangster lifestyle, but also depicts the unusual marriage between the mafia and the entertainment industry. De Niro’s character does not only have to juggle his personal life with his criminal life: he also has to juggle in front of the cameras when he gets his own TV show.
I first saw this cinematic masterpiece on TV about six years ago. The channel, MPIX, is one of those channels where they show classics or really good contemporary movies. It was a Friday night premiere and back then they had this film geek called Movie Head who would host a pre-show talking about the movie about to be shown. The guy had done his research I give him that. He talked about how Scorsese created visual poetry with his cameras in his detailed depiction Vegas, and mentioned historical details such as how the real name of De Niro’s character is Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. I envy that guy’s job. Weeks later I got my brother and my mom to watch the movie again on the same channel with the same introduction. Mom found the movie too long and my brother preferred “Goodfellas.” To each his own, but I stand by my choice: I prefer “Casino.”
The film begins with a bang and never lets go. Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro), manager of the Tangiers casino in Las Vegas, gets in his car, turns the ignition, and is blown away by a bomb in the engine. His silhouette is shot across the credits, with classical music playing in the background. From then on flashbacks and voice-overs from the major players in the story explain how Sam came into this predicament.
Sam began as a sports handicap for the mob back east. The mafia needed someone to run the casino on their behalf, so they send Sam even though he has no gaming license. A technicality allows him to be the de facto boss of the establishment with his own set of rules, while working under a bogus title such as “head of food and beverage services.” The title changes often for legal reasons. As long as it looks good on paper, Sam is the boss along with is right-hand man Billy Sherbert (comedian Don Rickles). Clever camera-work shows the audience who watches who on the casino floor, from the card-dealer to the pit boss, and from the pit boss to the floor man, all the way to the manager. If a player is caught cheating he is sent to the back room, where the use of a hammer will persuade him never to cheat again. That, or he is hired to keep an eye out for other cheaters.
Sam’s management of the casino is flawless, until two characters arrive on the scene and throw sand in his way. The first is his old friend from back east, Nicolas “Nicky” Santoro (Joe Pesci). Sam is a cool professional, whereas Nicky is brash and violent. Sent by the families to protect Sam and the business, Nicky eventually becomes a liability by setting up his own crew to commit unsanctioned shakedowns of Las Vegas businessmen and committing high-profile robberies. Subtlety is not his strong suit. He places a man’s head inside a vice to force information out of him. An eyeball actually pops.
The second person to slowly bring down the house is Ginger (Sharon Stone), a gorgeous gambler who catches Sam’s eyes. Sam’s dream is to eventually settle down and raise a family like everybody else. Ginger tells him she is not the right girl for him, but Sam convinces her by saying she will never have to worry about anything money-wise. Words of wisdom: when a woman says she’s trouble, she often means it. Ginger does provide Sam with a daughter, but over time her addiction to cocaine makes her a danger to both her family and Sam’s business. She also has trouble letting go of her former boyfriend, con man Lester Diamonds (James Woods). Sam on the other hand, has no trouble with having his goons beat up Lester in a parking lot in broad daylight with Ginger watching from afar.
The recklessness of Nicky, the troubles with Ginger, and a few well-placed FBI wiretaps eventually lead to the crumbling of the mob’s empire in Vegas. This would eventually allow corporations to take over and turn it into what it is today: a giant theme park for adults. It’s a shame for Sam, because at the end of the day, he is not a mobster, a criminal, or even a crook. He is just a guy who is good with numbers and wanted to settle down with a family.
Scorsese, a master storyteller tells, all of this with unequalled technical skills. Some people are against the use of an off-screen voice, but having DeNiro and Pesci’s character tell the audience how things went back then is like stepping into a time machine with tour guides who also happen to be wise guys. They tell us how Vegas used to be run, to the tune of classic rock songs such as “Gimme Shelter” from The Rolling Stones.
Is Casino better than “Goodfellas?” That’s my opinion. Is it the definitive movie about the mob in Las Vegas? That’s a stone cold fact.