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Casino: The Mafia Thriller That Often Gets Overlooked

Updated on July 31, 2020

Martin Scorsese’s many films have appeal in the greater Hollywood spectrum from Mean Streets (1974), Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990) and most recently The Irishman (2019). Scorsese’s films often include violence, vulgar language and of course a usual hint of criminal activity in the mix. All of the following films mentioned have earned him outstanding acclimation, however, one of his better films seems to be passed over from time to time. Casino (1995) gets overlooked by many mob movie critics who favor Goodfellas and of course The Godfather Trilogy. These films are in fact better by my opinion but it seems that the general public forgets that between Goodfellas and The Departed (2006), Scorsese had a film that redefined how we look at Las Vegas and how the American Mafia controlled it. In particular the film deals with a minute part of how Las Vegas became the gambling empire it was however it does focus on the greater theme that the casinos themselves were run by the mafia and that their disappearance from Las Vegas was not exactly a quiet one.

Reality of the Mafia in Las Vegas

Contrary to popular belief in the film, the mafia did not arrive in Vegas in the early 1970s. The film appears to make it seem as though they arrived their without consequence. In fact, the Italian-Mafia had interests in Casino’s dating back to the early 1930s. Although, prior to this Las Vegas was a hotspot for legal gambling. The Mafia played a role only in that they were allowed to open their own businesses in Las Vegas for the purpose of revenue and no taxation. The mafia had dug its heals into Las Vegas well before when it made the proposal to venture across the United States from New York begin forming these large gambling parlors.

Las Vegas became a home to many of the world’s finest casinos following World War II when the mafia had decided to make a point to venture west to escape the prying eyes of Federal Law Enforcement. What happened was a series of eyes were turned away from the mafia as they did not commit any crimes on the west coast and therefore were not registered criminals their. This also allowed organizations from Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to all come together for one purpose, more business. Las Vegas became more of a tourist destination as a result and it was a place of luxury just as Atlantic City had been in the prohibition era. One of the first hotels formed was the Flamingo which was located on what is now the Las Vegas strip. The Casino was unofficially run by Bugsy Siegel, a Jewish Gangster from New York. Siegel was also influential in the creation of Murder Inc. in New York during his younger days as the mafia had ascertained control of New York City by this point with the formation of “The Commission”. Siegel with the help of Meyer Lansky helped buy property on the west coast and enjoyed a different sort of life than the one he had left in New York. Siegel did not last out west however as he was assassinated in 1947. Soon after this, other mob organizations from around the US started to form their own casinos in response to the success that the New York mafia had built. The largest of these was to be the Chicago Mafia known as “The Outfit.”

Movie Background

Casino is based upon a true story that occurred during the same periods of which the movie takes place. However, names have been changed to protect the real life characters. In the film, Sam “Ace” Rothstein (played by Robert DeNiro) is placed in charge of the fictional “Tangiers” Casino in Las Vegas and as a result he is responsible for a large portion of “The Outfit’s” revenue. The Casino makes lots of money for them and they like “Ace” in charge because of his personality and the fact that he keeps things in check. However, things get a little hectic when “The Outfit” sends some of its associates to watch “Ace” in Las Vegas. “Ace” although an associate and according to them “damn good earner” is not one of them. Sam is Jewish which means he is not a part of a specific sect of the organization but operates under their jurisdiction. They effectively control his every move as he runs the Casino his way. If anything goes wrong, he reports to the top. The associates sent by “The Outfit” are Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) and Frank Marino (Frank Vincent). Nicky is sent by his boss, Remo, to make sure that nothing goes wrong with the Casino and that “Ace” is staying ahead of the curve and continually earning. Nicky has some issues though, one of which is greed. He sees Las Vegas as an opportunity to start something completely new. Las Vegas’s politicians tolerated organized crime as they did not have many reports of illegal activity. However, this did not mean that nothing was necessarily going on. It was often kept under wraps. Nicky though was opposed to this approach and doing just as the mob did in New York and Chicago, inspire fear by acting irrationally. Nicky was known for being a loose cannon and it did not help when “Ace” was asked about his association with Santoro on several occasions. “Ace” denied being associated but Santoro made everything worse as usual because he did not see any consequences of his actions.

“Ace” also had a far more personal situation going on at the time of what was happening at the front of his Casino. “Ace” was a bachelor and met a wonderful woman named Ginger who had been a hustler of sorts around Las Vegas. He met her and they soon hit it off. Ginger though had a lot more baggage than what is initially explained. She had an attachment to a street hustler named Lester Diamond. Diamond is not respected by anyone including Rothstein who even goes as far as nearly killing Diamond at one point in order to keep him away from Ginger. Ultimately, “Ace” loves Ginger but she finds it very difficult to love him. His relationship with her ultimately crumbles his relationship with Nicky as the two coincide causing the eventual fallout and in turn the fall of the Casino.

What the film does Correctly

Casino (1995) features an all-star cast from Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, and Don Rickles. The cast brings the based-on characters to real life unlike what is often done in films that are based-on actual events. In some cases characters are condensed and mixed with a variety of other characters who surrounded Rothstein in the real-life tale of a Las Vegas Casino. Personally, Joe Pesci’s portrayal is one of his best in his career. Some would even say that his performance in Casino was better than his performance in Goodfellas (that person would be me). Not only did Nicky Santoro look like his real-life counterpart Tony “Ant” Spilotro but Pesci is said to have studied mannorisms of what occurred during Spilotro’s time in the outfit. Several scenes involving Nicky were even modeled after recorded events during his life, for instance, the media questioning scene prior to Nicky entering the court house. This scene was shot for that purpose. Pesci nailed his performance in this movie especially for playing someone as ruthless as Nicky Santoro.

Furthermore, with Pesci’s performance, Robert DeNiro did not receive enough of a nod for his portrayal as Rothstein, based on “Lefty” Rosenthal. DeNiro captured the essence of owning a Casino and what an owner with his ties to organized crime would appear to be. DeNiro over the course of the film wore 44 different suits during the film, which must be a record for most different outfits in a film. DeNiro also captures multiple personas of Rothstein including his personal battles with Ginger, his relationship with the Casino and its staff as well as his relationship with Nicky. It is very difficult to do this in a set time of just under three hours while still telling two different sides to the same story. DeNiro even goes as far as showing off his brutality towards cheats and scam artists in his casino. It appears that Rothstein although a good-hearted loving man, at least on screen and in public, is actually a much more cynical personality who needs to be in charge and in control of everything in the film. His fear of losing control is what causes him to lose everything in the process of what he had built. It breaks his marriage apart and he removes his ties with Nicky leaving only himself to deal with all of the problems.

What makes Casino a more detailed film worthy of recognition is the fact that is recognizes two differing accounts of what occurred between 1973 and 1983, the years in which the film takes place. DeNiro and Pesci’s characters play both the protagonists and antagonists in the film. It makes perfect sense why each of them gets a narration addition to their character. Furthermore, with multiple narration there is a sense that each character has power over the story and how it turns out. With Scorsese’s direction, the film’s account being told in two areas shows exactly what the viewer wants to see. The mob in a different light. An unexplored version of what really went on in Las Vegas. With Goodfellas, Scorsese was only able to tell Henry Hill’s side of what happened. In this tale, also written by Nicholas Pileggi, he takes a similar approach.

Although, not entirely historically accurate, the film does a nice job of placing not only the time period accurately but incorporates the change of Las Vegas culture throughout the period. In the beginning there are simply high rollers who attend Vegas Casinos. These people are “Big Fish” who gamble simply because they have enough money to do so. They bet big and in many cases lose big but return to the tables for the thrill of maybe winning it back. By the 1980s, the situation takes a different direction as Rothstein puts it, “Today it looks like Disneyland. And while the kids play cardboard pirates, Mommy and Daddy drop the house payments and Junior’s college money on the poker slots. “ It seems that in just one decade Las Vegas had changed dramatically and from then on it would never return to its old ways. Las Vegas started as a sanctuary to discuss mob business while gambling but became an inviting place for all people, at least according to the film.

What the film could have improved on

Although her perspective is not more essential in the film it actually hurts the film in the long run. Ginger plays a big role in Sam Rothstein’s success in Las Vegas. Her perspective of what happened arguably would have added more to the film but it also would have taken away from the macho perspective and made the film more of a love story instead of a mafia thriller. Personally, it would have made for a more interesting story in some opinions.

Another aspect of the film is the character accuracy of Sam Rothstein. Although he is based on a real person it is important that he be told properly. The real Sam Rothstein, “Lefty” Rosenthal, was in many ways different from what is portrayed in the film. Yes, he was a very controlling individual which the movie depicts well. Yet, his real life character was actually harmful to Ginger. He was apparently known for abusing her more times than the film leads on. It depicts Rothstein as being a man of principle despite being a mafia associate. Rothstein never intended to harm anybody in the film but he used force when it was “necessary.”

Why viewing this film is a must

It is a Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci classic. They have done many movies together usually with DeNiro in the lead and Pesci as a sidekick. The duo with the addition of Martin Scorsese makes the film way more of thriller than what any other director could have portrayed. Furthermore, any mob movie fan that has never seen this film cannot call themselves a real mob movie fan. The film needs a rewind but due to lots of questionable content the film is rarely shown on television. Find a way to watch it as well since the film is not on Netflix or Hulu at the moment but there are many other ways to watch this film that is not worth going into on this article. It makes Las Vegas truly look like a city of sin from the mafia perspective to the financers, the politicians, and most of all the casino owners. It seems that in the portrayal of Las Vegas there is no safe area of Vegas that is clean. Everyone puts up airs and is greedy. That is the message of this film, how a century old organization rose to own one of the richest cities in the world and blew it all.


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