There have been hundreds of gambling films set in casinos, but Martin Scorsese’s Casino in 1995 became an instant classic. It’s the third of Scorsese’s Mafia films, and the second that he co-wrote with investigative journalist Nicholas Pileggi, who penned the original story behind Goodfellas too. Casino is also based on a true story, gleaned from Pileggi’s 30 years spent investigating the Mob.
Casino stands out from the pack because it presents real events, although names and locations have been changed, from the period in the 80s when the US government was battling to drive organised crime out of Las Vegas. They eventually succeeded in transferring the ownership of all of Vegas’ casinos to major finance and trading corporations, which many players may not necessarily consider an improvement. Scorsese’ explosive drama chronicles this transition accurately, while telling a gripping story.
Brilliant Cast Playing Perfectly
Another of Scorsese’s strengths is perfect casting in every role, and the Casino cast, led by Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci, is no exception. De Niro gives his best as a man of icy, dangerous calm and occasional bursts of temper, while Pesci chews the scenery just enough to be irresistible in another wild-man role.
Stone is the biggest happy surprise, however, bringing depth and nuance to her performance as the unstable hooker-turned-Mob-wife that would have looked trashy or overplayed in less capable hands. Stone deservedly won a Golden Globe for the role of Ginger, and was nominated for an Oscar. Scorsese also took home a Golden Globe for his direction.
Cat and Mouse with the Feds
Casino starts in 1970, when De Niro’s character, Sam Rothstein, is moved from his role running sports betting handicapping for the Chicago Mob to secretly run one of their Las Vegas casinos, using a frontman to get around the Nevada Gaming Commission’s objections to Mob associates running casinos. He increases the casino’s overall take, and thus the amount the Mafia can skim off the profits.
There are three flies in Rothstein’s ointment – his childhood best friend, his demanding wife and the FBI. Childhood pal Nicky Santoro, played by Pesci, is supposed to be Sam’s bodyguard, but his violent temper soon gets him banned from every casino in Vegas, and he starts moonlighting as the head of a gang of armed robbers. Sam’s ex-prostitute wife, Ginger, also complicates his life through her alcoholism and her relationship with a former pimp. While trying to deal with both these loose cannons, Sam also has to cope with constant FBI wiretapping and surveillance.
The Demise of an Empire
When Nicky starts an affair with Ginger, his fate is sealed. He is taken out into the country and killed. As Ginger’s demands for money and custody of their daughter increase, along with her embarrassing drunken behaviour, Sam is at his wits’ end. Finally, when Ginger is arrested and the Feds close in on Sam, the Mafia hold on Vegas begins to crumble.
Casino is beautifully shot in great Vegas locations, with an excellent script and every role exquisitely cast. It’s not just a faithful recreation of real-life Las Vegas events; it’s also a consummately watchable movie.