Looking Back Twenty Years – Casino (1995)

Last month, I told myself that this is 2015 and it is time for an addition, or new feature, to my blog. So I inaugurated a feature called Looking Back Twenty Years. What I will do with this feature is to review a film from 20 years ago, on a monthly basis. So, for the rest of this year, you can look forward to a once-a-month review, of a 1995 film.

I won’t be paying the strictest attention to the exact release dates – for now we will call it films from 1995, and leave it at that. Last month’s Looking Back Twenty Years feature was The American President, a film directed by Rob Reiner, who once-upon-a-time was TV’s original Meathead back in the days when Archie Bunker made everyone laugh.

Since this is February, and much of the country is having to deal with the severities of winter – I thought I would take us to a place where night and day have merged together to become a glittering city of neon dreams. That city could only be Las Vegas, and if ever there was a place that has been built on broken dreams – it would be this city which stands on the sands, or desert, of the American West known as Nevada. The film is Martin Scorsese’s Casino.

The film opens on a crescendo, or should I say an explosion. A car has just exploded in what could be called an assassination. From our vantage point, we weren’t sure of that until the intended victim of the assassination told us himself. He was able to tell us because:

Whoever it was, they put the dynamite under the passenger’s side. But what they didn’t know, what nobody outside the factory knew, was that model car was made with a metal plate under the driver’s seat. It’s the only thing that saved my life.

That was our introduction to Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein played by Robert De Niro.

Rothstein grew up in Chicago and became a master of figuring the odds or point spreads and making book on football. Soon enough the ‘mob’ decided to install Rothstein as the General Manager of the Tangiers Hotel. With his gambling smarts and his sartorial splendor plus his overall business acumen, it was a lock that Rothstein would make the Tangiers Hotel a howling success.

Rothstein’s friend from back home was Nicky Santoro. Of course Joe Pesci had the role. If you thought Pesci was a mad dog when he played Tommy DeVito in Scorseses’s Godfellas, you can think again. Santoro was pretty much the same kind of character, only this time, Pesci played Santoro the same way he played DeVito – only really, really amped up.

Nicky’s job was both collector and enforcer.

Maybe if I stick your head through that window over there you’ll get unconfused. Give me the fuckin money.

And it wasn’t enough for him. He put together his own crew and threw his weight around like you wouldn’t believe. Armed robbery was small time for Nicky. Beatings, killings, and extortion were as normal to him as was reading a newspaper with your breakfast coffee was to us.

Ace Rothstein (about Nicky) ; Nicky’s methods of betting weren’t scientific, but they worked. When he won, he collected. When he lost, he told the bookies to go fuck themselves. I mean, what were they going to do, muscle Nicky? Nicky was the muscle.

The words moderation were not a part of Nicky’s vocabulary.

The third-party of this morality tale set in Las Vegas was the hooker Ginger McKenna. Now by any stretch of either qualitative analysis or just critical reviews, this was easily the high point of Sharon Stone‘s acting career. De Niro’s Sam Rothstein was captured hook, line, and sinker by just one look. And it wasn’t even in person. He saw her on a monitor upsetting a craps table.

He knew she was a hooker, and he knew she was still tied to her long time pimp – one Lester Diamond. James Woods had that role. But Rothstein thought he could turn her around.

Decisions, desicions ....

Decisions, decisions ….

The clothes, the jewels, the money, a house on a golf course with a swimming pool, a child – surely these would be enough to turn this party girl into a beautiful trophy wife and mother.

Sam Rothstein was wrong about Ginger. Soon they were battling all the time. Ginger turned to – you guess correctly if you said Nicky Santoro, and that was the beginning of the end. By now, Nicky was banned by every casino in town, and every copper in Clark County Nevada was aware of Nicky’s antics. But Nicky had no mechanism to regulate his own behavior. Soon enough, even his pal Sam Rothstein was wary of Nicky:

Normally, my prospects of coming back alive from a meeting with Nicky were 99 out of 100. But this time, when I heard him say “a couple of hundred yards down the road”, I gave myself 50-50.

So it was pretty much ordained that these people would end badly. As Sam told us, the bosses would eventually have enough of Nicky. How could they not? Nicky believed in the legends that existed in his own mind. This is what he told Ace:

Get this through your head you Jew motherfucker, you! You only exist out here because of me! That’s the only reason! Without *me*, you, personally, every fuckin’ wise guy skell around’ll take a piece of your fuckin’ Jew ass! Then where you gonna go? You’re fuckin’ warned! Don’t ever go over my fuckin’ head again! You motherfucker, you.

So Nicky had to go. It was a scene that was so brutal, so violent, that I’ll choose to not describe it. Nice turn of events with some irony. Frank Marino played by Frank Vincent, was chosen by the mob to deal with Nicky. A final solution as it were. In Goodfellas, Pesci’s Tommy DeVito had murdered Vincent’s Billy Batts – what goes around comes around…

And Ginger? Once she left Sam Rothstein, it was if a target had been pinned on her back. She found some pimps, lowlifes, drug dealers, and bikers in LA, and in a few months they’d gone through almost all of the money and jewels.

Running at two hours and 50 minutes, this film was really the grandfather of Scorsese’s equally over-the-top The Wolf of Wall Street. I think Scorsese believes that ‘ nothing succeeds like excess’. Like he did in WOWS, he threw everything but the kitchen sink into this film. The attention to detail in Casino was astounding – from Rothstein’s wardrobe, to Ginger’s jewelry, to Nicky’s violence, the period cars, clothes, and furnishngs – everything was amped up or revved up mightily. Did you like the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas where Henry (Ray Liotta) and his then girl friend Karen (Lorraine Bracco) made their way through the labyrinth that was the Copa’s underbelly?

Well Scorsese reprised that scene – only this time it was mobster John Nance, who in Nicky’s voice over, looked like just another fat fuck walking out of the casino with a suitcase.  Only he made his way into the heart of the casino – the most sacred room in the whole casino, the holy of holies – the count room. Where he would fill up a suitcase with money, and then leave. On a regular basis. Like twice a month. No one stopped him or questioned him. This was the skim. Which made its way back to the mob bosses in Kansas City. Have a look –

While many would argue that this was a film that was too long, too loud, and too violent – I think that it was all of that, and more, yet it was fascinating. It had as many people that were loathsome and hateful than any other film you could think of. Yet you could not look away. It was a cornucopia of eye candy. It was Louis Prima singing, then Mick Jagger. It was gaudy, and glitzy, and over-the-top.

It was Scorcese at his most detailed as opposed to efficient. It was Scorsese showing us how Las Vegas worked. In fact the first hour of the film was more about the actual casino than the people was ran it. Take this stunning bit of voice-over by Ace Rothstein:

In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men. The pit bosses are watching the floor men. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I’m watching the casino manager. And the eye-in-the-sky is watching us all.

The point of that speech was tto tell about how a casino works. But the overall point of the casino was an even easier idea to grasp:

In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.

Only a Martin Scorsese could enthrall us with the inner workings of a business when the film was a drama about people. People who were blinded by greed, and mistrust. People that surely you hoped you would never meet. They had it all – in Rothstein’s words – it was a paradise sent down to a spot in the desert. And they let it all get away.

The casinos were and are in business to separate you from your money. Have no fear about that happening to you if you watch this film. While no one will argue that this is anywhere near Scorsese’s best film, and no one will call it a masterpiece, or even a minor masterpiece, if you do see it, you will surely call it  -unforgettable.


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