Casino (1995): Scorsese’s Crime Saga Starring Robert De Niro

Thematically, Martin Scorsese’s crime-epic, “Casino,” does not cut any new ground–it’s a deja vu safe bet for him as a director.  However, technically, the movie was  accomplished in every department, and the acting of the entire cast superb.

The film is based on the nonfiction book “Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas,” by Nicholas Pileggi, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Scorsese.

The film marks the eighth collaboration between director Scorsese and De Niro, who plays Sam “Ace” Rothstein (De Niro), a Jewish American gambling expert handicapper, who is asked by the Chicago Outfit to oversee the casino and hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Las Vegas.

Supporting characters include Nicky Santoro (Pesci), a “made man” and friend of Ace, and Ginger McKenna (Stone), a streetwise chip hustler whom Ace marries and has a daughter with.

The primary characters are based on real people: Ace is inspired by the life of Frank Rosenthal, also known as “Lefty,” who ran the Stardust, Fremont, Marina, and Hacienda casinos in Las Vegas for the Chicago Outfit from the early 1970s until 1981.

Nicky and Ginger are based on mob enforcer Anthony Spilotro and former dancer and socialite Geri McGee, respectively.

The film details Ace’s operation of the casino, the difficulties he confronts in his job, the Mafia’s involvement with the casino, and the gradual breakdown of his relationships, as Las Vegas changes over the years.

A cold and remote look at crime as a normally sordid business, “Casino” is a tale of greed and betrayal that explores the glittering, decadent world of pre-theme park Las Vegas in the 1970s.

Scorsese felt that if a suave, WASPish actor like Warren Beatty can play a Jewish gangster (in “Bugsy”), why can’t De Niro, here cast as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a gambler overcome by his personal ambitions and caught in a power struggle that transforms the legendary gambling capital.

Rothstein’s romance with Ginger (Sharon Stone), an alluring if duplicitous hooker, soon begins to threaten his friendship with partner Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), who draws undesirable attention to the Mafia’s presence in town through his erratic and violent behavior.

With Scorsese’s guidance, Sharon Stone, as the slut with the heart of gold Ginger McKenna, gives her best performance. Stone’s scenes with sleazy, drug-addict boyfriend Lester Diamond (an excellent James Woods) are particularly intense. For this turn, Stone earned her only Best Actress Oscar nomination; the winner, however, was Susan Sarandon in “Dead Man Walking.”

The film met with mixed-to-negative response from critics who complained about the familiarity of the saga and of Scorsese rehashing the same grounds that he had explored deeper and better in “Mean Streets” and particularly “GoodFellas,” which also starred De Niro and Pesci.

Other critics complained about the epic-length of “Casino” (182 minutes, to be exact).

The beginning of the film is an overlong voice-over narration that changes points of view but creates a distance between the viewers and the screen even before the story begins.

Technically, the outstanding production, which outstrips the text’s dramatic interest of the material, benefits from the top-notch work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson (“JFK”), Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker (“Raging Bull”) and Oscar-nominated production designer Dante Ferretti (“Age of Innocence”).

Oscar Nominations: 1

Actress: Sharon Stone

Oscar Awards: None

The winner of the Best Actress Oscar was Susan Sarandon for Dead Men Walking.

Narrative Structure: Detailed Synopsis

In 1973, sports handicapper and Mafia associate Sam “Ace” Rothstein is sent by the Chicago Outfit to Las Vegas to run the Teamsters-funded Tangiers Casino, while Philip Green serves as the mob’s hotel CEO front man.

Sam doubles the casino’s profits, which are then skimmed by the mafia before taxes are paid. Mafia boss Remo Gaggi sends Sam’s childhood friend and mob enforcer Nicholas “Nicky” Santoro, Nicky’s younger brother Dominick, and Nicky’s childhood friend Frank Marino to protect Sam and the operation. Nicky’s volatile temper and Chicago criminal background eventually get him placed into the Nevada Black Book, banning him from every casino. Dominick and Marino gather their own mob crew and engage in non-sanctioned shakedowns and elaborate burglaries.

Sam meets and soon falls in love with the beautiful hustler-dancer, and former prostitute Ginger McKenna. They soon have a daughter and marry, but their marriage is quickly thrown into turmoil due to Ginger’s relationship with her former boyfriend, con artist-turned pimp Lester Diamond.

Sam asks Nicky and his crew to beat Lester when they catch him conning Ginger out of $25,000, which pushes Ginger further into alcohol and drugs.

In 1976, Sam fires slot manager Don Ward for incompetence. When Don’s brother-in-law, Clark County Commission chair Pat Webb, fails to convince Sam to rehire Don, Pat arranges for Sam’s gaming license to be denied, jeopardizing his position. Sam blames Nicky’s recklessness for ongoing police and Nevada Gaming Board pressure, and tries to convince him to leave Las Vegas. Sam starts hosting a local TV talk show, which upsets Nicky and the Chicago bosses as he becomes a public figure, drawing  unwanted attention.

When the casino counters begin stealing profits for themselves, the Midwest Mafia bosses put incompetent Kansas City underboss Artie Piscano in charge of overseeing all transactions. Artie takes notes about Las Vegas and the skimming operation in a private notebook, and rants about the cash costs in his grocery store. The FBI, having already wired Artie’s store for a separate crime, are spurred into investigating Sam’s casino.

Sam seeks to divorce Ginger, who then kidnaps their daughter Amy, planning to flee to Europe with Lester. Sam convinces Ginger to come back. Later, when he overhears her talking on the phone about killing him, Sam kicks her out of their home but later lets her back in.

Ginger approaches Nicky to get her valuables from Sam’s safe deposit box, and the two start an affair. When Sam finds out, he disowns Ginger, and ends his friendship with Nicky. Nicky himself terminates his bond with Ginger when she demands he kill Sam.

Drunk and furious, Ginger crashes her car into Sam’s in the driveway and retrieves the key to their deposit box. Although she succeeds in taking some of the contents, the FBI arrests her as a witness.

In 1979, the FBI closes the casino and Green cooperates with the authorities. Piscano dies of a heart attack when federal agents discover his notebook while searching his home.

The FBI approaches Sam for help by showing him photos of Nicky and Ginger together, but he turns them down.  Arrested and put on trial, the bosses start to arrange murders of anyone who might testify against them.

Ginger dies of a drug overdose, and Sam barely escapes death by a car bomb, suspecting Nicky to be the culprit.

Before Sam can take revenge, however, the bosses, tired of Nicky’s ongoing legal issues and angered by his unauthorized attempt on Sam’s life, order Marino and his crew to ambush Nicky and Dominick in exchange for clemency.

Taken to an Indiana cornfield under the guise of a meetup, the two brothers are brutally beaten with baseball bats and buried alive in a shallow grave.

The mob is out of licensing fronts, which allows the big corporations to purchase them, and then demolish and replace them with new and larger, but impersonal and soulless hotel-casino attractions that feel like Disneyland.

The old-fashioned Sam laments this transformation, which he perceives as devolution. He retires to San Diego, and begins anew at the bottom, as a sports handicapper, ending up, to use his own words, “right back where I started”.

Cast
Robert De Niro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein
Sharon Stone as Ginger McKenna
Joe Pesci as Nicky Santoro
James Woods as Lester Diamond
Don Rickles as Billy Sherbert
Alan King as Andy Stone
Kevin Pollak as Philip Green
L. Q. Jones as Pat Webb
Dick Smothers as Senator
Frank Vincent as Frank Marino
John Bloom as Don Ward
Pasquale Cajano as Remo Gaggi
Melissa Prophet as Jennifer Santoro
Bill Allison as John Nance
Vinny Vella as Artie Piscano
Oscar Goodman as Himself
Catherine Scorsese as Piscano’s mother
Philip Suriano as Dominick Santoro
Erika Von Tagen as Older Amy
Frankie Avalon as Himself
Steve Allen as Himself
Jayne Meadows as Herself
Jerry Vale as Himself
Joseph Rigano as Vincent Borelli
Gene Ruffini as Vinny Forlano
Paul Herman as Gambler in Phone Booth