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Criminal minds: Casino managed to be exciting and edgy, but also educational.
Casino film stills courtesy Universal Studios

Criminal minds: Casino managed to be exciting and edgy, but also educational.

Twenty years ago, Martin Scorsese’s meticulous Casino explained Las Vegas to the world

It’s not surprising that 1995 saw the release of three major movies set in Las Vegas. Twenty years ago, Las Vegas was riding as high as it ever has. Subdivisions were spreading to the foothills. The Strip bulged with massive new resorts. The world was flocking to the desert to gamble, eat and party on an unprecedented scale.

Las Vegas was on fire, and Hollywood took full advantage. Leaving Las Vegas earned four Academy Award nominations, including a Best Actor honor for Nicolas Cage. Showgirls was widely panned but grossed more than $20 million at the box office and is enjoying a mild critical reappraisal. And Casino was a critical and popular success. These films joined dozens of others that have been set in Las Vegas. But most of them are not about Las Vegas. In most cases, Las Vegas is simply a provocative backdrop for a tale that could be told just about anywhere.

In Martin Scorsese’s Casino, released 20 years ago this month, Las Vegas is the main character. The city, depicted during the rollicking 1970s and early ’80s, takes top billing over Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone. Casino is not a documentary, but it is a credible resource to understand pre-corporate Las Vegas. For one thing, it explains how a casino works:

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Like a (mob) boss

Like a (mob) boss. Casino film stills courtesy Universal Studios

“In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else,” says Ace Rothstein (De Niro) in one of the film’s many voiceovers. “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.”

It also shows the process by which the mob skimmed casino profits, and it describes what happened to people who crossed the line. “A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes,” says Nicky Santoro (Pesci). The almost giddy reaction of the mob guys to their great good fortune is reflected in Rothstein’s comment that, “back home, they would have put me in jail for what I’m doing. But out here, they’re givin’ me awards.”

Scorsese’s achievement is considerable. He devised an effective method to give viewers not only what they want but what they need. Casino is slick, exciting and edgy, but it’s also educational.

When critics rank the greatest mob movies, Scorsese’s other gangster film, Goodfellas, often tops the list. Casino usually earns a place on such lists, but it’s not as highly regarded. One writer who takes exception to this hierarchy is Natasha Vargas-Cooper, who, in a 2011 article for GQ magazine, argued that Casino is the superior film.

Casino is a more substantial, artful, and engrossing movie than Goodfellas,” Vargas-Cooper writes. “It’s partly because Ace Rothstein, Casino’s main character, is a far more fascinating creature than Henry Hill. It’s also because Casino is a dazzling period piece, a penetrating historical work that captures Las Vegas better than any other movie that has come before or after it.” She is right, especially concerning Casino’s all-in commitment to Las Vegas. Rather than use Las Vegas as a metaphorical backdrop or winsome window dressing, Casino embraces the city, its history and its people. The movie was filmed here. Hundreds of local actors and extras appeared in the movie. And locals were consulted constantly as Scorsese strived for accuracy and authenticity.

Scorcese directs a scene. He consulted with actual mobsters for  authenticity and realism.

Scorcese directs a scene. He consulted with actual mobsters for authenticity and realism.

“When they decided to do this movie, the producers contacted me and asked me for background,” says Gwen Castaldi, a well-known local television reporter who had a cameo in the movie. “I gave them a lot of my affidavits and press clippings so they could read some of the real stuff. We had several conversations before they started filming. They did their due diligence.”

Casino hews fairly closely to the true story of the mob’s last major racket on the Strip. A Midwestern mob syndicate, with financial assistance from the Teamsters Union, took control of the Stardust, Hacienda, Marina and Fremont hotel-casinos and set up what may have been the most lucrative skimming operation in Las Vegas history. The syndicate put Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a sports betting guru, in charge of the casinos, and sent out enforcer Tony Spilotro to handle any problems Lefty might encounter. (“Ace Rothstein” is Rosenthal and “Nicky Santoro” is Spilotro.)

These boyhood friends made their bosses in Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee and Cleveland very happy for a time, sending home suitcases full of cash every month. But their outsized egos and sloppy antics — along with some well-placed wiretaps — eventually resulted in their downfall and the mob’s extrication from the Las Vegas casino industry.

Attorney Oscar Goodman was at the center of the maelstrom. Long before he served three terms as mayor of Las Vegas, he represented Spilotro and Rosenthal as they battled federal prosecutors and state gaming regulators. He speaks well of the movie (in which he briefly plays himself):

“I thought it depicted a slice of Las Vegas life that will never be repeated. I thought it was very realistic. But based on personal experience, I didn’t agree with all of it. I know some literary license had to be taken, some composite characters created. All in all, it gives you a good sense of Las Vegas and the mob during those very turbulent and interesting years.”

If there’s a missed opportunity in Casino, it’s that Goodman appears only briefly. He was a huge media presence during that era, a relentless spigot of piss and vinegar, and a formidable obstacle for those who wanted to put Spilotro and Rosenthal behind bars.

Frank Cullotta, who was Spilotro’s right-hand man during that era and was played by Frank Vincent in the movie, served as a consultant during the filming. He often sat next to Scorsese and pointed out things that weren’t accurate.

“It’s a good movie,” Cullotta says. “Is it accurate? It runs along accurate lines, but to be completely accurate would be impossible to do, because it’s a movie. Real life is ordinarily dull. An audience wouldn’t go for something like that, so they adjust it and make it more exciting.”

Cullotta’s primary complaint may seem trivial, but it is shared by others who knew the real characters. “In Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Tony, he swore too much. Tony did not use that kind of language. And Tony wasn’t an obnoxious guy in public at all. He was very, very courteous to everybody. He had his bad ways, of course, but he didn’t walk around like a tough guy.”

One intriguing theme in Casino is often overlooked: the uneasy relationship between the mob and local politicians. Though the film doesn’t explore this subject as thoroughly as it could have, it conveys an important point: The mob was able to exploit Las Vegas not because of its power or threats, but because political leaders permitted it to happen.

“Your people never will understand the way it works out here,” an unhappy county commissioner tells Rothstein. “You’re all just our guests, but you act like you’re at home.”

Not long after the commissioner makes this assertion, Rothstein is denied a gaming license and Santoro is placed in the Black Book. There’s no question the mob was critical to the rise of Las Vegas — it provided the money and expertise to build the casino industry — but it was always a temporary, transitional role.

The movie’s most famous voiceover is Rothstein’s lament about the corporatization of Las Vegas. “The town will never be the same,” he says with derision. “Today it looks like Disneyland. … In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it’s like checkin’ into an airport.”

This sentiment is widely shared by Las Vegas old-timers, but there’s really not a whole lot in Casino’s 178 minutes to recommend the mob era. Where is the glamour in burying “problems” in the desert? Was it really better when millions in untaxed casino winnings were secretly handed to criminal bosses 1,500 miles away? Should we look back fondly on a time when a casino manager wore a salmon-pink blazer and white slacks?

On the other hand, there’s no question the Casino era was an embarrassment of riches for the city’s journalists, who reveled in the crimes, courtroom dramas and political scandals.

“We all actually to this day talk about how lucky we were to live in that era and cover it, because it was so encompassing and complicated and powerful,” Castaldi says. “The stories were stories you would read in a book. The soup was being stirred on such a big scale, and it was unfolding right in front of you.”

Casino captures the high stakes and electric atmosphere of that slice of Las Vegas history, and it does so without resorting to a string of car chases and shootouts. The conflicts and violence are woven naturally, authentically into the story. It’s a wild movie, full of high drama, but it never feels like a sop to the Friday night audience. Besides being an artistic and entertaining film, Casino serves the valuable purpose of explaining Las Vegas to the world. 

 

Geoff Schumacher is the director of content for the Mob Museum and the
author of Sun, Sin & Suburbia: The History of Modern Las Vegas.

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