1994 - Universal Pictures
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese
Robert De Niro Sam 'Ace' Rothstein
Joe Pesci Nicky Santoro
Sharon Stone Ginger McKenna
James Woods Lester Diamond
Frank Vincent Frankie Marino
Don Rickels Billy Sherbet
Kevin Pollock Phillip Green
Pasquale Cajano Remo Gaggi
John Bloom Don Ward
L.Q. Jones Pat Webb
Alan King Andy Stone
Dick Smothers Senator Harrison Roberts
Oscar Goodman as himself
"turned out to be the last time street guys like us were ever given
anything that fuckin' valuable again "
- Nicky Santoro
In episode five of the first season of the Sopranos, Tony and his daughter Meadow take a road trip to visit potential colleges. During the trip Meadow confronts her father and asks if he’s in the Mafia. Although immediately denying it, he mellows slightly and asks if she and her friends have seen The Godfather. She tells him they prefer Scorsese’s Las Vegas period flick to Coppola’s Corleone family saga “Casino we like, Sharon Stone, the 70's clothes, pills...” Ms Soprano speaks for a generation when she finds Casino more accessible and knows a damn fine gangster flick when she sees one.
On its highly anticipated release Casino was met with some disappointing reviews, with unfavourable comparisons to Scorsese’s other genre entries Mean Streets and Goodfellas. Whether expectations were too high at the time, perhaps it’s aged well or the critics were simply wrong, I think a lot of the reviews were too quick to pull the trigger.
Casino is a sprawling masterpiece capturing Las Vegas in all its 1970’s decadence and moral bankruptcy. While its detractors dismiss it as 'Goodfellas goes West' they’re missing the grand scale on which this epic is built as the all-encompassing greed and hubris overshadows the petty squabbling and small time truck hijackers from the brilliant Goodfellas. The Scorsese/De Niro/Pesci dynamic is shaken up and injected with freshness by Sharon Stone as she takes Scorsese’s gangster flick firmly away from the well-trodden streets of New York; Ginger McKenna is Las Vegas in all its glittering neon façade and murky underbelly.
Robert De Niro was in masterful form in, what is fair to say, his last role of any serious consequence as Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein the professional sports handicapper who gets a shot at running a casino and Joe Pesci provided a more rounded sociopathic mob enforcer to that which won him an Academy Award as Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas, but added to this well stacked hand was Sharon Stone as wildcard Ginger McKenna and all of a sudden all bets are off. Sharon Stone may have seemed a risk to play the pivotal role of Ginger, but she balances the enchantress and neurosis just perfectly in her relationship with Ace.
Rothstein is the ultimate man in control. His Jewish heritage precludes him being anything other than an associate to the mob, but the Chicago Outfit and in particular boss Remo Gaggi, trusts him implicitly with its money; “the prick was the only guaranteed winner I ever knew” Nicky Santoro elegantly states. His attention to detail, turned betting into an art form, making him one of the best professional sports handicappers in the country; he “could change the odds for every bookmaker in the country” when he bet. So when the mob needed a man to look after their interests in the Tangiers Casino they sent in Ace. The casino never saw so much money, thinks to his fastidious style of management, which bordered on Obsessive Compulsive behaviour, extending as far as regulating the number of blueberries in the muffins and counting the pounds of the lazy French show girls.
And then one day he sees Ginger and everything changes. Ginger is the very antithesis of Ace. She’s a hustler, a risk taker who lives from moment to moment grifting money to maintain the spectre of a high-roller lifestyle; and she has a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol. However, when the two come together it’s Ginger’s feckless ways that have more effect on Ace then Ace’s control and caution ever has on Ginger. So why does Rothstein even bother with her, never mind bet everything he has on her? Quite simply he’s hit by the Thunderbolt.
He does however, have every confidence that he can tame her. His meticulous and methodical approach has brought him success in every aspect of his life, but micromanaging his marriage serves only to drive a further wedge between him and Ginger; this cat is not for domestication. He uses every control-freak trick in the book that he knows to ensure she remains loyal – note: loyal- not faithful. To “cover his bet" he made sure they had a baby before getting married; he buys her trust with gold Bvlgari jewellery, a key to his safe deposit box and a live in wardrobe, too obscene even for MTV cribs.
Ginger though is a tragic figure. In the scene in which we first see her, through the eye in the sky we see her in a white dress and blonde hair and Scorsese freezes the shot, for us to behold the wonder that is Ginger McKenna – to experience the same awe that Ace does. She’s in the middle of doing what she does best, using her sirenistic (I think I might have made this word up) charms to grift and steal chips from an easy mark at the craps table. She is so full of confidence, self-reliance and fearlessness, but what we later learn is that it’s all a front. She is deeply scarred by her past and can’t cut the umbilical cord to her ex-pimp Lester Diamond (played by James Woods – who is excellent by the way) even crying down the telephone to him on her wedding night. Sam Rothstein may have been the only half-decent card Ginger was dealt in her life, but she was already too damaged to play it right. Eventually taking off with the money and jewels Ace gave her to buy her trust; she found “some pimps, low-lives, druggies and bikers in LA” and spent the lot before overdosing in the seedy Beverly Sunset Motel. Whether she crapped-out for rolling the dice with Ace or if the odds were stacked against her from earlier in her life it’s hard to say, but the story of Ginger McKenna was never going to end well.
If Ginger represents the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas then the dangerous undercurrent tucked almost out of sight is Nicky Santoro. As childhood pals Nicky was assigned to Ace by Remo Gaggi to “make sure that nobody fucks around with the Golden Jew”. So when Ace is sent to the desert to manage the affairs of the Tangiers, his old pal - the professional thief and psychopath - Santoro is dispatched not long after to look out for him.
It may or may not be right to compare the two, but the similarities between Nicky Santoro and Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas are as lurid as the neon Tangiers sign towering over Las Vegas Boulevard: sociopathic; hot tempered, Napoleon complex and a deep-rooted love of being a gangster. Nicky however is a made-guy; Tommy never was and up to a point Nicky plays by La Cosa Nostra rules. We also get to know Santoro a little more than DeVito. We see his love for his family. No matter what he’s doing he makes sure he’s home in time to make little Nicky’s breakfast. He attends his son’s Little League games where one of the coaches is a Metro PD Intelligence detective - what you gonna do? – they’re both just father’s supporting their sons. Even when there’s beef between him and Ace, Nicky is pretty quick to offer support to him over the fall out with Ginger “Why didn't you come to me? I mean, this is family, it ain't business.”
The other side of Santoro is the sick bastard that will stab a guy to death with a pen for mouthing off, or squeeze a guy’s head in vice, popping the eye out of its socket, to get information from him. He’s ruthless and relentless in getting what he wants and being out from under the thumb of the Chicago Outfit he sets about becoming the biggest baddest gangster in Sin City and he wants everyone to know it.
Martin Scorsese meanwhile takes us to school over the intricacies of the casino business. He devotes a significant proportion of the movie in doing so - but in his own unique style replete with voice over narration, stunning tracking shots and epic Rolling Stones music. Casino makes us follow the money from the gaming tables, to the boxes, to the cages, to the counting room, into a suitcase and off to the back room of a convenience store in the Midwest where the Mob bosses covertly gather thinking they’re so smart. We learn about the cowboy boot wearing County Commissioners who insist on corruption only being done their way and we learn about the scam artists and cheats and the methods employed by the casino to deal with them – electric cattle prods, lump hammers and power drills.
And then there’s the reason why all the goombahs are running around in the middle of the desert in the first place - the skim. To understand the skim is to understand the Outfit’s interest in Las Vegas; simply put, it is the undeclared casino takings – afterall it’s a cash business and until it’s counted no-one knows how much money there really is (particularly Uncle Sam). Therefore the mob takes its cut every month before the money has been accounted for. Nobody knew it was there and nobody will ever miss it. So as long as Ace ensures the bosses keep getting big fat suitcases stuffed full of cash, everyone’s happy.
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The narration has so much retrospection to it that it suggests the characters are retelling the story years later, along the lines of “Look how young and stupid we were back then”. This only becomes weird, when we realise Nicky’s commentary is coming from beyond the grave. I must have watched Casino a half dozen times before that dawned on me.
The movie is signed off by Ace when he laments the fall of Las Vegas. Gone are the days when “dealers knew your name” and “what you drank”, instead he says “it looks like Disneyland” and is a place where you come to “drop the house payments and Junior's college money.” Some people use Disneyland has a metaphor for enchantment and wonder, but Ace uses it with distain in the belief that the mob had Las Vegas right and Steve Wynn et al got it wrong and it will never be the same again.
It’s fair to say that Hollywood is in the middle of a love-in with Las Vegas - as is pop culture in general, but there is not and nor will there likely be a better movie about the glittering city that lies in the basin of the Mojave Desert than Martin Scorsese’s Casino.
The movie opened with a car bomb exploding in Ace’s car as he started it up. He fortuitously survived thanks to a quirk in the manufacturing, but although not a sanctioned hit, Nicky was the likely instigator, shortly before he was hit for a final home run.
Like many Scorsese movies Casino relies (maybe too) heavily on voice over narration throughout. In the hands of some film makers it can be a lazy devise, but with Scorsese it always adds to the movie. The narration personalises the events for Ace and Nicky making us view scenes from a particular perspective; later even Frankie Marino gets to wet his beak in the voice over department. However, unlike Karen Hill in Goodfellas, Ginger doesn’t get her opportunity, which let’s be honest that’s probably a fucked up insight we don’t need to hear.
Nicky initially escapes the reprisals. He gets wind of the indictments and goes into hiding, but you can’t hide forever. He gets taken out to a secluded cornfield somewhere in the Mid-West and is forced to watch his brother being beaten to death with baseball bats before he is beaten to a bloody pulp, but is still breathing when he’s buried alongside his brother – nice.
As Ace, Nicky and Ginger set about bringing the house down from the inside, the FBI help them out from the outside. Artie Pisano, underboss to the Kansas City Crime Family is the mob appointed mule to travel back and forwards collecting the skim filled suitcases for the mob bosses; but Artie’s got beef. He is having to fund the trips back and forth to Vegas from his own pocket and so decides to “start keeping records”. The feds can’t believe their luck; first of all on a bug planted in relation to another crime, they overhear conversations all about the skim – names, addresses, dates, everything. Secondly when they do bust the operation they have Pisano’s detailed records for all his trips – like Nicky says “this guy could fuck up a cup of coffee.” Along with wire taps and 24/7 surveillance of Nicky Santoro the FBI put everything together and everything starts tumbling down. Pisano actually gets off lightly; he has a heart attack and dies as he’s being arrested, but the bodies start piling up as the bosses start eliminating witnesses. Of course this being Martin Scorsese the whacking montage is set to a classic rock track and in this case it’s the Animals House of the Rising Sun.
Ginger in her desperation and narcotic fog sees Nicky Santoro as her salvation. She has seen how easily Ace can find her and apply the pressure to Lester Diamond when she runs off with him. He can’t apply the same kind of pressure to Nicky though. “Nobody'll fuck with ya anymore. I'll take care of ya” Nicky says as Ginger makes her deal with the devil. However Nicky only sees her as a piece of ass, forbidden ass at that, which makes it all the more alluring. Her seductive charms still manage to have Nicky on the verge of whacking Ace for her, but it doesn’t last long. “I know the fuckin' guy thirty-five years; I'm gonna fuckin' whack him for you?” Amid her hysterical ranting and raving for him to kill Ace, Nicky realises two things 1) this broad is nuts and 2) he was sent out to the desert to protect Ace and the skim and here he is screwing Ace over and jeopardising the skim. The Outfit doesn’t particularly care about Ace personally but they take their money very seriously and Nicky knows he’s messed up. Robert De Niro in A Bronx Tale offers his son the following advice, “In the heat of passion the little head tells the big head what to do and that the big head should think twice about it”. Nicky could have done with this advice.
Meanwhile Ace is supposed to be keeping a low profile as he needs a gaming licence to legally run the casino, which he doesn’t have. Instead he’s allowed to operate without a licence so long as he’s applying for one. Every now and then he changes his job title and his licence application goes back to the bottom of the pile. There are guys “workin' there for thirty years, don't have a license.” But Nicky’s exploits encourage the FBI to shine a light on everything he does including his relationship with Sam Rothstein and so the Gaming Commission bring up the question of his gaming licence and it is duly denied.
More than once Ginger feels the need to run away with Lester Diamond, but each time she comes back, and each time Ace’s matrimonial micromanagement intensifies. He gives her a beeper, he checks on where she goes and demands to know who she’s with. Under cross examination Ginger admits to lying about her whereabouts, but Ace knows what she’s been up to. "I just hope it's not somebody who I think it might be" he shrewdly deduces. Ace is a pragmatic man - as much as he loves Ginger he knows it’s not reciprocated and he allows for a certain level of flexibility in their relationship “I knew she fucked around, she did what she did and I did what I had to do.” I’m sure he even saw her relationship with Lester Diamond as more of a challenge than anything else; the drink, the drugs and the public arguments he could handle, but when he realises she’s slept with Nicky then all bets are off. Ginger has pressed the self-destruct button and she and Ace could both end up in holes in the desert.
Within a short period of time of taking over, Ace doubles the casino’s takings and doubles the skim – and the bosses couldn’t be happier and that’s all they cared about. Other than that, they let Ace run the casino how he sees fit. Ace has gambling coursing through his veins and he’s in his element running the casino and enjoying the trappings of wealth that comes with it. Nicky watches his back and he revels in having the run of city, being the Al Capone of the desert. Ginger has her jewels and a swimming pool and moves in the same circles as Las Vegas’s elite. It was paradise; way above anything three people from the street could ever hope to aspire to. That could be why they conspired to fuck it all up… big time.
So where did it all go wrong? “For a girl like Ginger, love costs money” Ace admits, but it cost a whole lot more than that. The mansion and the jewels and trinkets became Ginger’s gilded prison and as the walls closed in, her behaviour became more erratic and increased her reliance on drugs and alcohol sending her damaged psyche into a downward spiral. Sharon Stone is never better then when Ginger is right on the edge of sanity, which becomes her permanent perch for the latter part of the movie. One of the greatest scenes in the epic picture is when an unhinged Ginger pulls up at her own house, crashing her Mercedes-Benz 450 SL into Ace’s Cadillac before repeatedly ramming it to get his attention and then standing on the front lawn ranting “Don't fuckin' ignore me! You motherfucker!... I'm gonna drive this fucking car through the living-room” all the while the neighbours are twitching their curtains and their young daughter Amy watches on.
Most Notable Gangster Moment:
One of the most infamous scenes depicts the ruthlessness of Nicky Santoro. Following two days of torturing Tony Dogs in a fruitless attempt to find out who was responsible for shooting up Remo's bar and killing two of his guys Nicky put his head in a vice and squeezed his skull. Dogs though still refused to be a rat. So Nicky further tightened the vice, popping Dogs's eye out of its socket in the process, at which point he could take no more and spilled the beans.
Body Count: Twenty Three
1. When a guy in a bar got mouthy with Ace over a pen, Nicky took his job as enforcer too far and stabbed the guy repeatedly in the neck with the pen.
2-6. Tony Dogs shot up one of Remo Gaggi’s bars and killed 2 of Remo’s guys as well as a waitress and 2 guys playing pool.
7. Following two days of torture including having his head squeezed in a vice, Tony Dogs was put out of his misery when Frankie slit his throat with a flick knife.
8. Nicky murdered Anna Scott - a business partner of Philip Green who was suing the Tangiers - by shooting her in the back of the head.
9. It's implied that Nicky was responsibile for the death of the body lying in the street with a gun-shot wound to the chest surrounded by blood.
10-11. A casino boss and his wife were found dead in their front yard – again Nicky is assumed to be responsible
12. A dealer from the Sirocco Casino was found murdered behind the wheel of his car… Nicky again.
13. A stool pigeon/rat-fuck was in the trunk of a car with a bullet wound in his head – Nicky
14. Bernie Blue was shot and killed by 2 cops who mistook a hero sandwich wrapped in tin foil in his hand for a gun… they planted a gun next to his dead body to cover their mistake.
15. Artie Pisano had a heart attack and died right in front of the FBI as they were arresting him.
16. Andy Stone was plugged twice in the back of the head by hitman Curly before both he and the other hitman, Beeper, emptied their weapons into his back as he lay in the snow
17. John Nance, in his Costa Rican home was shot several times by Curly and Beeper. Curly then finished Nance off with a bullet in the back of his head.
18-19. Curly and Beeper then executed a Count Room Executive and a Clerk out in the desert by shooting them in the head in front of pre-dug holes in the ground.
20. Curly then hit a Tangiers executive with a lead pipe and suffocated him by putting a plastic bag over his head.
21. Ginger overdosed and staggered down the corridor of a cheap motel before collapsing.
22. Nicky’s brother Dominick Santoro was beaten to death by Frank Marino, Beeper and Hardy using baseball bats.
23. Nicky was then beaten with baseball bats by Marino and his guys and dropped in the same shallow grave as his brother where they were both buried, still breathing… just.
Tony Doggs duel-wielded a Browning Hi-Power and a Smith & Wesson Model 10HB while shooting up Remo Gaggi's bar
Both cops who shot down Bernie Blue were using Colt Pythons
Frank Marino and Dominick Santoro used Uzis to shoot up a cop's house.
Nicky used a Walther PP to kill Anna Scott
The hitmen Curly and Beeper both favoured a Smith & Wesson Model 15 during most of the murder montage
Curly used a High Standard Model 106 Military to kill Andy Stone
Nicky notoriously used a Pen to repeatedly stab a guy in the neck
The Santoro brothers Nicky and Dominic were beaten to death with Baseball bats by Frankie and others
428 - at the time of its release this was a record. Casino still ranks pretty high on the Fuck billboard.
2.4 fucks per min (movie length 178 minutes - 2hrs 58 mins)
“Listen you fucking cunt” - Sam 'Ace' Rothstein
In the opening scene of the movie Ace was starting up his 1981 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz when it blew up
Nicky drove a 1977 Chevrolet Monte Carlo to his meet with Ace in the dessert
Nicky lead an airhostess out to his 1969 Lincoln Continental Mark III Hardtop
A deranged Ginger drove her 1975 Mercedes-Benz 450 SL repeatedly into Ace's car when she attempted to get his attention
Written by Bada Bing
Minghia! Those Peppers! Fuggedaboutit! - as good as it gets