Martin Scorsese’s Casino literally begins with a bang and from the beginning, Scorsese delivers on his promise to deliver pure rapid-fire Scorsesian excitement. This is not to say that Casino is exactly first-rate Martin Scorsese, but in it the director works unstoppably, remaining at the top of the game.
Like many of Scorsese’s best films, Casino is told in flashback, this time telling the story of an epic fall. The narration is strangely amicable, given that is told by mobsters who operated Vegas casinos in the early 70s. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci alternates voice-overs taking us in, talk to us as if they were our pals with a bit of gossip to share, and allow us to get comfortable with them even as they talk of burying bodies in the surrounding desert at night. They set the mood for what looks like a good time, but we know from the opening that this good time came with a price for Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro), the shrewd sports adjuster hired by the mob to run the Tangiers casino. As always, however, Scorsese does find time for undisturbed festivities. His introduction of Las Vegas in all of its glitzy bedazzlements in the early 70s is as swinging as his period-piece recreations in Goodfellas. Breezy humor is balanced with moments of shocking intensity for the same effect.
For gangsters, Las Vegas represents a compromise. They can feign having gone legit while still raking in fortunes. The lights and the glamour are reminders of their old lifestyle, before they started a respectable business. But many of these gangsters were far from clean. Most of this legal stealing takes place behind the scenes, where the cash is counted and then flown to mob bosses in Kansas City.
Casino is a film about appearances and hidden realities. Notice, the darkness hides the desert surrounding Las Vegas where bodies are dumped. In the casinos themselves the corruption is always hidden as not even Rothstein has access to the back counting rooms. To varying degrees, most of Scorsese’s movies carry this theme. As Henry Hill learned in Goodfellas, the real life of a gangster is very different from the rose-colored glamour. Casino can be seen as a companion piece to Goodfellas in that they both are cumulative works for Scorsese. Both are ultimate destinations to themes he had been building up to. Casino isn’t as good a film. It lacks the personal insight of Goodfellas, the narration here being more abstract. But it has enough humor, insight, and excitement to make it one of Scorsese’s most engaging films.
It brings us to the side of Las Vegas we rarely see. The distinction between Las Vegas and New York as playing grounds for Rothstein and his gang is in the way crime is done. In Vegas, it can take the guise of being lawful. No wonder so many hoods like Nicky Santoro saw opportunities there. His arrival brings Rothstein’s fall.
Joe Pesci, for one, is almost as effective as Nicky Santoro, Rothstein’s old pal who now hopes to follow Rothstein and move his racketeering to Las Vegas. It’s a new world for him. The crass pinks, yellows, and blues of the City of Sin contrast against the darkness of the Chicago slums, but his business is the same.
In between these two men comes Ginger McKenna, a sly call girl played by Sharon Stone in her best performance. She is caught cheating by Rothstein and his guards and, given the way cheaters are disposed of at the Tangiers, she is lucky to be beautiful and to have caught Rothstein’s eye.
Rothstein is an interesting snake. In his corruption and brutality he finds a space for fairness and justice. He teeters toward honesty or, at least, respectability. By contrast he is too good a man to marry Ginger McKenna, who uses him to make good with her sleazy lover (James Woods). It’s curious why a hustler as eagle-eyed as Rothstein doesn’t catch on sooner than he does. Perhaps, love can be blinding even for a gangster.
In Scorsese’s pictures, loyalty carries more weight than legality. The goodness of his characters is measured not by their activities but by how faithful they remain to their friends. Even the dirtiest hoodlum can be redeemed if he is loyal. As Henry Hill learned, the worst thing a person could be was a rat.
Santoro brings his own gang to Vegas but he makes them respect Ace Rothstein. Of course, this could be because he has a lot invested in his friendship with Rothstein, but Santoro’s commitment to his family can only be explained as pure loyalty. Look at how he finds time for his children and how hard he comes down on an associate that squanders his family’s money on gambling rather than paying their bills.
Little is shown of the locals until Rothstein and Santoro make enemies of them. At first the mobsters shut them out when they colonized Glitter Gulch, but when they raise the wrath of the local sheriff, they discover that Nevadans can be as tough as any gangster.
The most interesting parts in Casino are the conversations. Rothstein and Santoro share a few priceless bits, but the most intense and perfectly built by Scorsese are between Rothstein and Ginger. Consider his questioning of why she needs $25,000. For a moment we believe that Ginger may be the first person to put one over on Rothstein, but Rothstein is all too aware of where or, rather, who, it is going to. Two of Scorsese’s finest virtues are at work here. The dialogue itself is as brilliant as it always has been, full of quirks and rising emotions. Second, it touches on the reoccurring theme of trust. There is no trust between Rothstein and Ginger and so their relationship is a deadly one.
In Casino everyone is blunt about what they do. Rothstein alone makes a point of running a respectable business but fails through no fault of his own other than befriending admitted gangsters. His biggest problem is Nicky Santoro, who becomes Rothstein’s worst enemy by blackening his reputation by association. Perhaps because we know in advance of Rothstein’s demise, however, it is hard to feel sorry for him.
Then again, Scorsese may be deliberately taking us in that direction. As Santoro points out, Rothstein’s “head became bigger than his casino”. He is supposed to fall. Since its creation, Vegas has always attracted crooks and hustlers, starting with the man who brought light to the city, Bugsy Siegel. And yet, this gamblers’ haven has a way of swallowing the thugs it seduces. Casino is a better movie than Bugsy and Ace Rothstein is more admirable and interesting than Bugsy Siegel, but he also falls victim to the sins of the city that made him a millionaire. Vegas sets the stage for more American Faustian stories than any other city.