Often written off as a cash-in on the success of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 1995 true crime film Casino is one of his most accomplished and overlooked works. Like Goodfellas, the screenplay was based on events chronicled in a non-fiction book written by author Nicolas Pileggi and adapted by both Pileggi and Scorsese.
The film follows the rise and fall of casino executive Sam “Ace" Rothstein as he moves to Las Vegas at the behest of the Italian mafia and runs the fictional Tangiers casino. Through dialogue and narration by Ace and his long-time partner in crime, the audience hears pearls of wisdom on love, gambling and gangsters in Las Vegas, from the people who knew them best.
10 “She knew how to take care of people, and that’s what Vegas is all about. It’s kickback city.”
Ace Rothstein’s love for the Tangiers casino is only outmatched by his obsessive, possessive, love and adoration for Ginger McKenna, who would soon become his wife after the pair meet. Both characters were based on real people and events, namely Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal and Geri McGee.
In an Oscar-nominated performance, Sharon Stone plays Ginger as a professional grifter who Ace respects for her dedication to her craft. He admires her ability to take a married man, apply him with the exact amount of drugs and liquor to keep him up for several days straight, and squeeze him financially dry.
9 “For guys like me, Las Vegas washes away your sins. It’s like a morality car wash.”
Arriving in Las Vegas as a casino manager enables Ace Rothstein to feel like he’s truly hit the big time. Not financially, but in terms of credibility and self-esteem. It makes him feel like the ‘somebody’ that a character like Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver always wanted to be. Someone with a purpose in life, almost in a divine sense.
To create a cinematic equivalent, which the film often invites you to do, Ace’s ascension to being the director of a casino is like becoming the director of a major motion picture in Hollywood.
8 “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.”
When their run on Las Vegas comes to an end, Ace laments the passing of the Golden era (as he sees it) into the modern era of huge corporations that rebuilt Las Vegas into a family-friendly tourist attraction.
“In the old days, dealers knew your name, what you drank, what you play. Today, it’s like checking into an airport and, if you order room service, you’re lucky if you get it by Thursday.” For all of Ace’s lack of scruples, he took pride in what he did and he did it out of an almost artistic sense of professionalism.
7 “I mean, god forbid they should make a mistake and forget to steal.”
Owning a casino is little more than a license to print money for the gangsters in Casino, and everyone they employ is in on the scam too. Especially the people who are meant to be the most trustworthy, such as the people in the count room.
“The guys inside the count room were all slipped in there to skim the joint dry. They’d do short counts, they’d lose fill slips. They’d even take cash right out of the drop boxes.” The Tangiers is run like a never-ending fountain of cash and it relies on everyone taking a piece and nobody saying a word about it. “Somehow, somebody’s always looking the other way.”
6 “While I was trying to figure out why the guy was saying what he was saying, Nicky just hit him.”
Ace Rothstein’s primary partner in crime is a far more typical gangster named Nicky Santoro. Nicky is essentially the muscle of their operation, the guy attached to Ace by the bosses to protect him and his valuable brain whenever violence enters the equation; as it so often does.
This line comes from the first example of Nicky’s excessive use of force, in which Nicky stabs a man repeatedly in the neck with a pen for insulting Ace. His persona made all the scarier by the fact that it’s coming from lovable ol’ Joe Pesci, of all people.
5 “That’s the truth about Las Vegas. We’re the only winners. The players don’t stand a chance.”
What makes Ace Rothstein so effective at his job is his totally objective viewpoint of everything. Though he loves Las Vegas and the very idea of gambling with all of his heart, he’s completely immune to all of the razzle dazzle that ensnares his marks.
“This is the end result of all the bright lights and the comp trips, of all the champagne and free hotel suites and all the broads and all the booze. It’s all been arranged just for us to get your money.”
4 “In Vegas, everybody’s gotta watch everybody else.”
Ace Rothstein works his casino down to a simple, empirical, system that hinges on procedure and trust – specifically, not having any. As he puts it: “...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.”
Again, much like Scorsese’s understanding of cinema itself, Ace’s understanding of a casino is resolute.
3 “When you love someone, you’ve gotta trust them. There’s no other way. You’ve got to give them the key to everything that’s yours.”
From Ace’s somewhat-sociopathic perspective, he makes the tragic mistake of placing too much trust into Ginger as his wife. But, from the perspective of the audience, it’s easy to see that Ace forces this notion of trust onto Ginger when she never wanted it to begin with.
Ace gives his meditation on trust and love as the first lines of the film before we witness his attempted assassination. It establishes Casino as a tragedy, but the course of events comes to show it as a tragedy that Ace creates for himself.
2 “At night, you couldn’t see the desert that surrounds Las Vegas. But it’s in the desert where lots of the town’s problems are solved.”
Out beyond the enticing lights of the strip lies the seemingly endless desert where the real business of the gangsters controlling Las Vegas at the time happens. To Ace, it’s an incidental aspect of his work but to Nicky Santoro it’s essential and maybe even their favorite part.
It’s not really a Scorsese gangster movie without copious amounts of violent death, and Casino definitely does not disappoint in that area. Nicky presents himself as an expert on the art of digging holes and burying bodies to solve problems, a double-edged sword that he both lives and dies by.
1 “I’m not only legitimate but running a casino, and that’s like selling people dreams for cash.”
Through all of the allusions that Scorsese makes to film-making and Hollywood in Casino, one of the strongest comes in the opening of the film as Ace arrives at the Tangiers for the first time. As mentioned, Ace sees his placement at the Tangiers as a legitimizing career move. “Anywhere else in the country, I was a bookie, a gambler, always looking over my shoulder, hassled by cops day and night. Here, I’m Mr. Rothstein.”
But it’s Ace’s equating of the casino lifestyle as “dreams for cash” that evokes the image of Hollywood the most. It contextualizes the casino as a grand illusion, a constructed fantasy that suckers in even the most hardened players in one way or another. Despite all of Ace’s many foibles, he’s still a dreamer and still a passionate creative type.