Casino: Why Martin Scorsese’s Masterpiece Stands The Test of Time
According to Vocabulary.com ‘Epic’ refers to “long ambitious novels or movies, especially if they involve a long journey.” There have been several movie epics, which by definition they last in excess of 150 minutes. Alas, many could send you into an irreversible coma. Think Ben Hur, Titanic or even Gone With The Wind.
Thankfully, far fewer films are labelled as ‘classic’ but in the shape of Casino, which celebrates its 25th birthday in November 2020, we have something extremely rare; it is an ageless, epic masterpiece.
That’s not simply our opinion, this Martin Scorsese directed 18+ rated movie regularly tops ‘the best gambling movies’ charts and has done so for over two decades. Generally speaking, only 1998’s Rounders, 2008’s 21 and Molly’s Game from 2017 have periodically come close to toppling Casino from the top-spot of most ‘best ever’ lists.
So what makes Casino such a popular movie amongst gamblers? Well, according to mainstream movie critics, Casino is “not Scorsese’s best work” and it is “too thematically similar to the director’s Goodfellas”. Casino was the third Martin Scorsese movie to star Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent following 1980’s Raging Bull and Goodfellas (1990).
Hey-ho, Goodfellas is widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made but unlike its younger brother there’s not a craps table, card-counter, roulette wheel, sportsbook or crooked croupier to be found. Strangely enough these are the kind of thing gamblers like to see.
For those who haven't seen the film, this article does contain some spoilers, although as we'll allude to later the plot itself is fairly loose. Casino is a blazing account of mob-run Las Vegas throughout the 1970s. It is based on the book Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas which was published, just one month before the movie, in October 1995. Its author was Nicholas Pileggi who had previously penned the non-fiction book Wiseguy which was the basis for Goodfellas. Ultimately, he co-wrote the screenplay for both but never completed Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas until the filming of Casino had actually begun.
However, unlike Goodfellas, the Scorsese/Pileggi collaboration clearly wanted to nail all historical aspects down as tightly as the characters the cast depicted in this real-life plot. Ultimately Casino is very faithful to the truth.
The film opens with an ‘Adapted from a True Story’ notification which for many is forgotten the moment the opening and bookending ‘car bomb’ scene explodes on to the screen. The bombing really happened and, as you will discover by the end of Casino, its intended victim survived the assassination attempt through nothing more than miraculous luck.
But, such is the subtle tinkering with facts throughout the film, the opening scene is credited as happening in 1983. It didn’t, the date was October 4th 1982 and that victim, played by Robert De Niro in the movie, was not called Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein. In reality Rothstein was actually a character called Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal who did indeed run one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas.
That venue was the Stardust, but once again refined tampering with the facts led to Casino’s makers renaming it ‘the Tangiers’ and the film failed to mention Rosenthal was, in reality, at the helm of four Chicago mob-owned Vegas casinos: The Fremont, Marina, Hacienda and Stardust.
In the scheme of things, these are unimportant minor details. Similarly, the Stardust, which was imploded via a controlled explosion in March 2007 after 48 years in operation, was not used for any scenes in Casino. Instead, interior filming was carried out within a working casino, the Rivieria, with filming taking place between 1am and 4am. Exterior shots were filmed from outside the Landmark Hotel which was also imploded, just two weeks prior to Casino’s theatrical release.
In the film, Frank ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal is rightly credited with introducing the first sportsbook to operate from within a casino – which was the Stardust. His innovation came in 1976 and whilst not making direct mention of it in Casino, he also set a trend by doubling the number of female blackjack dealers in the Stardust which immediately doubled the venue’s blackjack revenue.
The Angry Ant
The character portrayed by actor Joe Pesci in Casino is Nicky Santoro. In the real world this unsavoury mobster, who was believed to be involved in the deaths of 25 people by the time he was murdered in 1986, was Anthony Spilotro, AKA ‘Tony the Ant’.
Pesci bore a remarkable resemblance to Spilotro and according to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi, “when Pesci entered the casino where the movie was being shot, some pit bosses who once had personal dealings with Spilotro almost fainted”.
By all accounts Spilotro was every part as volatile and violent in real life as Pesci/Santoro was in the movie. The gruesome scene in which Santoro tortures and later kills a rival villain by placing his head in a vice may or may not have taken place during the decade or so this film incorporates. But unquestionably the real-life Anthony Spilotro did play a role in dispatching a rival gangster by this method way back in 1962 when he was in his early 20s.
It is also undisputed that, as in the film, Spilotro did have an affair with ‘Lefty’ Rosenthal’s wife, who is the third major character in the movie. Played by Sharon Stone, Casino’s script writers renamed Geri McGee as ‘Ginger McKenna’.
In the movie, Stone’s character had just the one child but in reality she had three, one was aged 10 and was from a previous relationship (with the film character Lester Diamond) when she married Rosenthal in 1969. The pair had two children together, a boy and then a girl.
The pair were divorced in January 1981 and, as in the movie, Geri McGee died of an overdose in a Californian hotel room. The autopsy found a lethal combination of cocaine, Valium and whiskey in her system. It was November 1982, just five weeks after her ex-husband had survived his car bombing.
Rooted in Reality
Beyond the main cast many of the supporting actors who starred in Casino had roles which were so historically accurate they themselves were rooted to reality.
A case in point being Oscar Goodman who played Sam Rostein’s lawyer in the movie. Remarkably, Goodman was Rosenthal’s lawyer in real-life and he also represented several well-known gangsters during his legal career before he was elected Las Vegas Mayor in 1999!
Singer song-writer Frankie Avalon also appeared as himself in the film’s ‘Sam Rothstein’s Aces High TV show’ scene. That program did exit in reality although it was unimaginatively called the ‘Frank Rosenthal Show’. Its guests included Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Don Rickles.
Here realty meets fact once again as Don Rickles, a massively popular American stand-up comedian and author, played the part of Billy Sherbert, Sam Rothstein’s casino manager, in the movie.
Rickles, who died in 2017 and did well not to be murdered in Casino’s closing scenes, may not have left much of a footprint outside of America, although younger readers will have at least heard him as he was the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.
Rickles was one of two well-known funny-men to have a role in Casino. The other was Dick Smothers who depicted a corrupt Nevada State Senator – that being former United States Senator Harry Reid, who once chaired the Nevada Gaming Commission.
The only name not changed in Casino – systematically done for fear of implicating or alienating living characters even though their personality is blatantly obvious – was that of ‘bag-man’ John Nance. He was once a casino owner and was employed by the film-makers to act as a consultant. Despite, like so many characters in Casino, being dead by the end of the film, he later had a cameo in the 2001 Vegas movie ‘Ocean’s Eleven’.
Remarkably, Martin Scorsese’s mother featured nine times in her son’s movies. In Casino she can be seen as the little old lady in a grocery store who is shocked by the cursing. Scorsese's sister also had a walk-through part in Casino.
The most notable uncredited cameo was that of Frank Cullotta who played the grey-haired hitman in sunglasses towards the end of the movie. In reality he was the chief lieutenant of Tony Spilotro during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
After his arrest in 1982 he became a government witness and entered the witness protection program. A consultant on Casino, Cullotta later became an author and a Vegas tour guide. He died this summer in a Vegas hospital from complications related to COVID-19 and other medical issues.
Indeed, there’s only one thing that happens more often in Casino than death and that is the use of the “F” word. It is said 435 times during the movie (2.4 times per-minute on average) which made it a record holder when the film was released.
Whale and Suitcase
Despite being such a popular film with gamblers there are actually very few gambling scenes in Casino. Films such as Indecent Proposal which precluded Casino by two years actually has more. But in what we are given there are no inaccuracies.
The chief gambler is the high-rolling oriental whale K.K. Ichikawa. Once again this character is based on a real-life being although Akio Kashiwagi was a big deviant on the Casino storyline as he did his gambling primarily in the Trump owned Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City in the closing years of the 80’s and early 1990.
Nevertheless, Kashiwagi, who was a Tokyo-based real estate investor, regularly won and lost $10 million during an Atlantic City weekend earning him legendary status. For good measure, he was murdered – via 150 samurai sword wounds – in 1992 near Mount Fuji.
Look closely at Casino and you will find a number of gaffs, mistakes and meltdowns. Put simply, it is poorly edited. Sound booms and cameras are caught in their own reflection on more than one occasion and the continuity is woeful. Of course, that’s only if you are looking for cigarettes to more from one hand to another between shots or an actress’ hair to be up, down and up again in the space of 15sec. People that have watched this movie 25+ times will notice these things. But it all adds to the charm of Casino.
Somehow, the more you know about Casino, the more you find yourself wanting to know. It’s a winner, but still a peculiar film with Scorsese himself quoted as saying: “There’s no plot at all. It is three hours, no plot, so you know this going in. There’s a lot of action, a lot of story, but no plot."
Remarkably – perhaps unremarkably – Casino was not highly decorated in terms of awards. It received just one Academy Award nomination whereas later Scorsese films such as Gangs of New York, The Aviator, Hugo and The Irishman have earned at least 10 nominations apiece. Ironically, the actor who won the ‘Best Actor’ award in Casino’s year, the 1996 Oscars, was Nicholas Cage for his role in Leaving Las Vegas.
And while the director has been behind the lens of films that have received 94 BAFTA nominations, this movie was completely blanked by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Thankfully, Sharon Stone does have a Golden Globe on her mantelpiece for her role in Casino and this was the only major accolade the film ever received.
To bookend our story, just how the film bookends its tale: Frank Rosenthal, AKA Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, survived his car bombing because his car, a Cadillac Eldorado, was a 1981 model and that was the only year General Motors applied a robust metal plate to the underbody of the car beneath the driver's seat to correct a balancing issue.
This plate shielded Rosenthal from the full force of the explosion and, as live local Vegas TV footage showed, the casino boss was almost unscathed while his car was a catastrophic, unrecognisable mess.
Rosenthal was 66 when Casino was released, by which time – via California – he had moved to Florida to run a sports bar called ‘Crocks’, later running a sports betting website and acting as a consultant for offshore betting companies. He died in 2008 aged 79.
Of the interesting footnotes to come from one of his obituaries, in the New York Times, was Rosenthal’s obsession with clothes: “He was a clothes horse whose closet was said to contain 200 pairs of pants”. This is one fact not missed by Casino’s makers who allocated a ‘costume budget’ of $1 million for the movie. Ultimately, Robert De Niro had seventy different costumes throughout the film and Sharon Stone had forty. Both were allowed to keep their costumes after filming was complete.
And a word for Joe Pesci’s ex-wife Claudia Haro, she played Trudy, the co-hostess and band leader of ‘Ace's High’ in the movie. Haro had remarried when Casino was released but five years later her new husband, stuntman Garrett Warren, was shot four times on the doorstep of his house. Haro was later convicted of two counts of attempted murder for hiring a hitman to kill her other ex-husband. A true gangster!
The Final Analysis
As Casino draws to a close De Niro explains: “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.” Of course, that referred to the time the movie was released. The question is, a full 25 years later, has Vegas changed that much since?
‘Casino 2’ does not beckon any time soon, which is probably for the best as the original would take some beating.
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