It’s hard to know what impresses the most in Casino – the mountains of cash, the bombardment of neon or the incredible performances. The film is an epic exploration of the high rollers, lowlife hoods and constant glitz and glamour of America’s great adult playground, Las Vegas. Is it the greatest ever film about gambling? Quite possibly.
While 1970s Vegas is the setting, the film is a crime drama through and through. Released in 1995, it was directed by Martin Scorsese and starred Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci (though a delightfully filthy performance by James Woods should not be overlooked). It’s based onCasino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, the nonfiction account of Vegas and the mob by Nicholas Pileggi. Pileggi also co-authored the screenplay with Scorsese, the pair’s second collaboration (the first, fittingly, was another iconic gambling movie:Goodfellas). Scorsese certainly knew who he liked to work with by this point – it was also his eighth collaboration with De Niro.
With a $116 million box office that more than doubled its budget and a solid (if more muted than for Goodfellas) critical reception, it’s safe to say it was a hit. The greatest film about gambling ever though? That might depend on your criteria.
Mob, murder and millions of dollars: a gritty plot
The film is a fictionalised account of the real life of Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal, characterised here as Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein and played by De Niro. Ace starts out as a sports oddsmaker in Chicago and draws the attention of the mob thanks to his flare with numbers. Sent to Vegas to run several casinos, he’s more of a businessman than he is a mob heavy. For that, he needs the help of his murder-y friend Nicky Santaro. Nicky’s going to be a problem.
The trouble doesn’t start with Nicky, though. It starts when Sharon Stone, as Ginger McKenna, stops Ace dead in his tracks when he first sees her on CCTV. He falls for her big time – and it proves to be a fatal attraction. Unfortunately, while McKenna is the absolute peak of 70s Vegas glamour, she’s also the peak of 70s Vegas danger. A high-end call girl, she’s been with her (incredibly-named) pimp, Lester Diamond (played by Woods) since she was a girl and doesn’t want to give up her profession. But when Ace offers her cars, diamonds, furs, a house with a pool and all the cash she can swim in, she says yes.
Once all three characters are in the mix, things go south fast and just keep on heading in that direction.
The power of place and process
A big part of the film’s success comes from its fascination with the Vegas of the time. Part of that is the glitz and glamour (the clothes deserve an article all of their own – Rita Ryack and John Dunn make Stone look incredible and find more different colours for Ace to wear than you’d think the human eye could detect) but part of it is the film’s fascination with the intricacies of running a casino.
Heck, the first hour or so plays out a lot like a documentary. Ace narrates, giving an in-depth explanation of how the mob skimmed millions and millions of dollars out of casinos.
Take the portrayal of slot machines. The film gets that the slots are the backbone of the casino and one of the major draws to customers. The system relies on people who know – or at least think that they know – the slot machines to come in and empty literal tons of change into the machines, to discover that they’re a gateway to bigger things.
In reality, gamblers can play slots to their advantage with some shrewd approaches to the game. From scouting machines that are likely to pay big, to knowing when to call it a day, an expert’s guide about how to win at slots will serve you well at the one-armed bandits.
If you’re the mob, though, it’s a different challenge. Skimming 25 per cent of the slots’ take might not be quite so difficult as finding a way to turn all that change into dollar bills that you can actually do something with. The mob in Kansas City wants greenbacks, not truckloads of quarters.
The film knows the answer, just like it knows how the mob would skim from all the other games, from food service, from the shows. The film understands the barely-concealed violence always simmering just beneath the bright lights of the strip, too.
De Niro and Pesci, of course, deliver their parts with aplomb. They’re assured and believable. It’s tempting to say you’ve seen them both do it before – De Niro is the cool and disciplined lone wolf while Pesci is the deeply damaged and murderous man-child – but that doesn’t mean that both of them don’t deliver on their roles with style. In fact, they were both widely praised for their performances.
For many, though, it was Sharon Stone’s breakthrough role as Ginger that really leapt from the screen. Stone’s Ginger is a woman for whom nothing, not even happiness, will ever be enough. Her breakdown towards the end of the film is a truly subtle and powerful piece of cinema. This was, for many, the moment when Stone cemented her place in Hollywood’s upper echelons.
The mark of Scorsese
Scorsese returns once again to the fall from grace arc of which he is so fond. It might be familiar territory for the director, but that’s not to say he doesn’t execute on it with panache. His ability to make us laugh at the absurdity of the whole thing then squirm uncomfortably at the violence is exceptional.
There are, however, moments when a little too much of the director’s past oeuvre feels like it’s on show. There are pieces of past Scorsese films buried in there, their corners just poking up above ground. You might notice elements of other crime films in there, too.
The whole, however, manages to be much greater than the sum of its parts thanks in no small part to the line it treads through both potent bitterness and brilliant extravagance.
The greatest film about gambling ever, though? If you’re looking for a film that captures head on the experience of the highs and lows of gambling, you might find something more like Rounders more to your taste. For the flavour of high-rolling Vegas, however, there’s nothing to match Casino.