Gamblers never realise that as soon as they step into a casino with the intention of winning money, they will lose everything they have. They will sit at the jackpot machines and pull lever after lever, hoping for three in a row to line up. When they don’t, they will go again, pulling the levers. They will pull and pull until what they have left in their pockets amounts to nothing but lint, and then they will go home dejected and empty handed, and the casino will win all. Especially if it’s backed by the mob.
Because we are familiar with how a mob operates, we should know that no service they provide is free. If they decide to fund an up and coming casino, we can expect them to extract a heavy payment. If this payment fails to arrive in the quantity that’s expected, lives will be lost and the big bosses who run the show will be very upset. But the big bosses in Casino don’t look very threatening. They’re a bunch of old men in Kansas who sit around a dingy dinner table, arguing over trivial matters while eating mum’s home cooked meals. Occasionally they play cards, and throw tantrums when they lose. We see them sitting in the dark, in their expensive suits, doing nothing except waiting for skimmed money to arrive from Vegas. When they are all brought to court for illegally backing and extorting casinos, some of them are bound to wheelchairs, with oxygen masks glued to their faces. But don’t be fooled. Their operation is grand, rich, and fool proof.
Well. Not really.
Casino opens with a couple of narrations by Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) and Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), describing the day to day operations of The Tangiers, and the brazen method the mob uses to “skim” money from it, respectively. By the end of their opening narrations, they’ve reached a similar question: How they managed to turn a fabulous empire into a rubbish heap that, today, “Looks like Disneyland”. They had it all; money, fame, women, clothes, cars. Sam even had a wardrobe of suits that numbered up to 80 (he wears a different one in almost every scene). But bad decisions and poorly constructed associations squeezed them dry, dry to the point of exhaustion. And then it all crumbled. Casino elaborates on the bad decisions and poorly constructed associations.
It is a violent and vulgar movie, but it is also beautiful, ripe with catchy and memorable songs that evoke strongly a sense of time and place. It tells the story of one man, through the eyes of himself as well as a couple of others: A dangerous and almost psychotic childhood friend (Nicky), and a dangerous and almost psychotic wife, Ginger (Sharon Stone). The man is Sam Rothstein, a former sports bookkeeper who was so good that the mob had to have him. They pick him up and drop him off in The Tangiers, believing that with one of their own in charge of a big casino, more cash will be flowing into their pockets. They were right. To a point. What they didn’t count on was Sam’s disdain for trouble, and his mistake in marrying Ginger.
While watching the security cameras at The Tangiers one day, Sam spots Ginger for the first time, the attractive call-girl who has just swindled a high-roller out of big bucks. The high-roller confronts her, she throws his chips at his face, then in the air. She causes a big stir. Sam is so captivated by her beauty — or by her mischief — that the image on the security camera screen becomes a freeze frame. He asks her to marry him. She refuses. He buys her expensive clothes and jewellery. She says yes. They have a grand wedding. But they don’t know the road this odious partnership will take them down. You see, Ginger used to be with a pimp, Lester (James Woods), whom she’s still loyal to, and it’s this loyalty that will eventually ruin her marriage. She’s also a drug addict and a little whacked up in the head. You could say she is Sam’s big mistake.
And then there’s Nicky, the volatile psycho who loves stabbing people’s necks with pens and popping their eyes out by squeezing their heads in a vice. He comes to Vegas from Kansas because he’s sick and tired of the old fogies back home, and he wants to make a name for himself. His violent ways soon get him banned from every single casino in Vegas, and his notoriety grows so large that the FBI has to bring in lip readers in order to find out what he’s telling his henchmen. He starts his own “business” and stashes his loot in the floor of his wardrobe. Later, he becomes Ginger’s confidant and lover. You could say that Sam’s association with him is another big mistake.
This is the beauty of Casino. Scorsese is no stranger to the mob — having dealt with them in his movies on numerous occasions in the past — and so he’s able to bring his characters — who are loosely based on real casino people — to the forefront of his story without having to invest a lot of his time and effort into the characterization of the mob.
The Tangiers acts both as a MacGuffin as well as a gorgeous backdrop for our characters to inhabit. It is a bright place, filled with noise and sounds of coins clinking and clanking all over each other, but it is not important, and Scorsese lets us know this. By the time Sam’s and Nicky’s opening narrations are complete, we know enough about the casino business to thoroughly enjoy the chemistry between De Niro, Pesci, and Stone without having to piece together the little mafia cogs in the money-stealing machine. The relationship between the three is so sour, so tainted with hatred and backstabbing, that it makes for great, clear-conscience entertainment. We feel helpless while watching the trio tear their own lives apart, but we cannot look away (especially not with De Niro looking splendid in every single suit he wears). Perhaps their self-destructive nature is the very thing that draws us to them.
They are playing a chess game with one another, with possibly fatal consequences. They try to outsmart the other with words, sometimes with threats and violence. They want what’s best for themselves, not for each other. Little do they realise that they are not the ones with any sort of power. Everything they do, and everything they have yet to do, is controlled by the fogies in Kansas. When Nicky finds out that Sam has been bad mouthing him to the fogies, he blames Sam; he doesn’t blame himself for being such a dangerous individual. Such is the selfishness inherent in every single character of the movie, except perhaps Don Rickles’. So you could say that it’s somewhat ironic that three selfish individuals can’t keep one of the world’s most selfish industries afloat, and that their inward-looking tendencies ultimately cost them all either their lives or their careers.