Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Casino (1995)

Dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, James Woods 

At one point in Casino Sam talks about all the punters funnelling in to Las Vegas and points out that the only one to ever win is the house. His tragedy is that he does not realise that, to Las Vegas, he is just another punter. 

We open in 1973, just two years after Hunter S. Thompson wigged out big style. Thompson wanted to compare the glitz and glamour of The Strip to the seediness of North Las Vegas. In Casino we are shown that the seediness reaches right up to the front desk. The person whose job it is to hide the seediness behind the glitz is Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), the Mafia’s top book-maker. With a track record of always getting a result when gambling he is sent out to Vegas to manage the casino at the Tangiers on the behalf of the Midwest Mob bosses. They are known men so they can’t go any further west than Kansas City. It is up to Sam (aka “that Jew motherfucker”) to keep the money flowing in. He doesn’t even need to be corrupt – well, no more than any other casino in town. His job is just to keep people gambling, keep them coming back, keep an eye out for professionals looking to do over the house, and keep the heat away from their door. And there is no one better at it. As for how the Mob get their cut? They take the cash straight from the counting room in a suitcase before it can be accounted for. So much cash coming in, off the books? They are prepared to give Sam the leeway he needs to do the job he wants to do. 

He is not the only man carving out an empire in the desert. Hoodlum Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) has also realised that the Mob bosses dare not tread on Nevada soil. Their eyes are fixed only on the suitcases coming in from the gaming floor. They have never employed the usual tactics that have worked so well in other cities: extortion, robbery and muscle. Las Vegas is “virgin territory”. So he brings in some guys and goes to work. Both Sam and Nicky are useful to the Mob, each bringing in valuable earnings. But Las Vegas goes to their heads. They start to think outside their pay-bracket. Sam starts to turn professional: he wants to run an efficient, respectable casino. Meanwhile Nicky thinks of breaking off from the old-timers in Kansas City and go solo. 

Their both thrive on the independence they are given but their aims and tactics are mutually incompatible. Nicky’s robberies are nosy and noticeable; Sam’s skimming relies upon being done quietly. He does not appreciate that whenever Nicky makes the news he drags in Sam too. Sam loves running the casino and is good at it, but his known link to a criminal like Nicky from back in the day jeopardises his respectability. He wants the respectable lifestyle: the trophy wife, the family, the country-club membership, the fame for running a tight ship. So he makes two mistakes. Firstly he sacks one of his undermanagers after one mistake too many. Fair enough, the guy was a doofus. But he was a doofus with influential family. Not ‘Family’ in a Mafia sense, but family that is settled in Nevada and has been for generations. He is one of the honky-tonk cowboys with boots, bootlace ties and big hats that have to be kept appeased because they own the land, the council and the state legislature. “Everybody out here with cowboy boots is a fuckin’ county commissioner or related to a county commissioner. I’m fuckin’ sick of it!” complains Sam. Part of his job is keeping them sweet with “comps” – complimentary stays, chips, girls. And jobs. But this doofus offends his professionalism and he refuses to compromise and take him back. With a stroke he has put the backs of the Nevada cowboys up. He is warned: they own the town. He is only a guest. 

His second mistake is falling in love. For the cerebral bean-counter this is unexpected. But I suppose it is another sign of how Vegas has got to him. It can make any man feel like a king. With his ego flattered he feels he can make it with whoever he wants, and he wants hustler Ginger (Sharon Stone). She is charming, beautiful, blonde, smart – who wouldn’t want her? So he proposes to set her up with a lifestyle she could never attain by herself. But she doesn’t love him. Her heart, inexplicably, remains with weasely gigolo Lester Diamond (James Woods). Her marriage to Sam is transactional. He gives her the dream house, the walk-in wardrobe, the million dollars of jewellery and she gives him that perfect home life. For as long as she can. But she is in thrall to self-destructive influences: booze, coke, Lester, Nicky. The bitter disintegration of the Rothstein’s marriage is a subplot to the disintegration of the Mafia’s Las Vegas empire. It becomes too loud, too public, too violent. Las Vegas chews them all up and spits them out the other side: Sam, Ginger, Nicky, the Mafia. Only Las Vegas itself endures. The rest – they are just punters… 

"Welcome to Jack-a-fuckin'-nory. Are you cock-suckers
sitting comfortably? Then we'll fuckin' begin..."

Casino was Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to Goodfellas – with all the guns and f-bombs that involves. And – like The Departed – it is an intelligent film. In The Departed the audience are left trying to think through the twists and double-crosses; in Casino they can intellectualise how to make money from gambling. Here you have the casino bosses and the gamblers each trying to outwit the other and keep just one step ahead for long enough to make a killing. But where Frank Costello in The Departed shown the seductiveness of evil, here we see the banality. The Mob bosses are old farts bitching in a back room over their momma’s ragú. 

For all that, though, the rampant criminality of Mob rule is presented as the better than the alternative. The Mobsters were hands off gentlemen who knew the benefit of hospitality. Who has taken their place?

After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. 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. In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you played. Today, it's like checkin' into an airport. And if you order room service, you're lucky if you get it by Thursday. Today, it's all gone. You get a whale show up with four million in a suitcase, and some twenty-five-year-old hotel school kid is gonna want his Social Security Number. After the Teamsters got knocked out of the box, the corporations tore down practically every one of the old casinos. And where did the money come from to rebuild the pyramids? Junk bonds.”

It is clear that Sam – or Scorsese – finds the latter approach less noble. 

One gripe I would have is the voiceovers. The film was adapted from Nicholas Pileggi’s book. Many of the characters were based – at least loosely – on real life individuals. Sam Rothstein was Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, Nicky Santoro was Tony “the Ant” Spilotro, Frankie Marino was Frank Cullotta. But Scorsese could not escape from the literary nature of it. Rather than have the characters drop great chunks of exposition in dialogue he uses voice overs from Sam, from Nicky and – in one place – from Frank (Frank Vincent). Considering that from the very first scene it looks as though not all of those characters will reach the final reel alive it is more confusing than otherwise. It might be preferable to Doctor Who­-ish exposition, but it is still a clunky tactic and it is disappointing that Scorsese couldn’t escape from it. It jarred more here than just having a single voice narrating the story (as in Goodfellas). 

What have I learnt about Nevada?
The film chronicles the rise, fall and rise again of Vegas. The Mob moved in, they funded their casinos with Teamster money, they sold the idea of glitz and glamour, they built up the image, and then they imploded. Now Vegas is a corporate hospitality playground where the marketing strategies are, if anything, even more cynical. 

For all that, though, Las Vegas is a city in a desert. That desert has its uses – such as disposing of bodies – but it is a reminder that there is a wider Nevada out there, and that the Mafia do not control. Rube cowboys have their own dynasties and run the state, and their coexistence with the flash casinos run by Easterners is a tenuous one. They may look dumb but these cowboys hold all the aces. People who refuse to accept that come a cropper. As do those that refuse to tread carefully. 

Can we go there?
There is no Tangiers Casino. There never was. The story is in part based upon that of the now-demolished Stardust Casino (something obliquely referenced by use of the tune Stardust on the soundtrack). But Marty did get better access to Vegas than Terry Gilliam did for Fear and Loathing… - surprisingly considering that this film damns the casino authorities rather than the punters. The Riviera was used for principal filming. 

Sam and Ginger’s house can be found on Cochise Lane. Nicky’ restaurant was Piero’s on Convention Center Drive. Nicky’s jewellers, the Gold Rush, was set in a now-demolished Kawasaki dealership in West Sahara. When Sam is called to meet Nicky in the desert, that scene was again filmed at Jean Dry Lake Bed. They also meet at an isolated café – this was the Idle Spurs  in Sandy Valley. Nicky later meets Ginger for sex at the La Concha Motel on Las Vegas Boulevard South; the motel can now be found in the Las Vegas Neon Museum. Nicky plays golf at the Las Vegas National Golf Club; later he and his brother have an unpleasant time amongst the corn at the Rocking K Ranch. 

Overall Rating: 4/5


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