Still Mean in Las Vegas

Casino Destroyer

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Casino (1995) starts with a bang, literally. The third of Scorsese's Mafia trilogy begins with an explosion that, like the gruesome murder of Billy Batts that opens GoodFellas, is not explained until near the end of the story. As we will discover, the booby-trapped car belongs to Ace Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), an elegant manager of the Tangiers, one of the most successful casinos in Las Vegas, and the story backs up to tell the story of his rise and fall in the family. In this respect, the plot structure is similar to that of GoodFellas. Likewise, it chronicles the disintegration of the old-time Mafia, whose demise Scorsese again views with some regret.

Despite these obvious structural and thematic similarities, in several respects Casino represents a departure from the earlier mob films. In this film Scorsese and the Mafia have completed their migration from Sicilian roots. Charlie in Mean Streets belonged to the Sicilian clan and was destined to inherit his position as proprietor of a mob-run restaurant as a birthright. Henry Hill of GoodFellas had a Sicilian mother, whose parents came from the same village as Paulie Cicero's, but he also had an Irish father and a Jewish wife. Ace Rothstein is Jewish; his relationship to the Mafia is based not on bloodlines, but purely on his professional competence. He is an employee whose position is secure as long as he turns a profit, and in turn, he is well rewarded for his services. In three steps, the trilogy has traced the development of organized crime from Sicilian village life relocated in Little Italy to a quintessential multiethnic American business enterprise in an artificially concocted city of neon and glitz in the Nevada desert. With a few very important exceptions, as we will see, everyone seems to have come from someplace else to make a fortune in Las Vegas.

Thus the geography changes along with the ethnic roots. As the American Mafia expanded to assimilate non-Sicilians, Scorsese has moved its operations from a social club on Elizabeth Street in Mean Streets, to East New York in Brooklyn in GoodFellas, and in Casino to Kansas City and Las Vegas. As the script explains, because of prior convictions for illegal gambling in the East, the old-time bosses were excluded from the burgeoning gambling industries in Las Vegas. Physical presence made little difference to them, however. They float a loan from the teamsters' pension fund, set up a syndicate, and open the Tangiers, one of the most lavish casinos on the Strip. From the back room of an Italian food store in Kansas City, the old dons talk and drink grappa, like feudal lords in the manor house, while their trusted lieutenants in the field operate the casinos and their runners bring back tribute, in the form of suitcases full of cash. Still touched with nostalgia for the old ways, Scorsese presents them as benevolent grandfather types from his home neighborhood. He even casts his mother, Catherine Scorsese, as the proprietor of the food market and has her complain about the coarse language one of the soldiers uses making his report. The man apologizes, but does not change his vocabulary. These are benevolent chieftains; they know that some of their underlings are skimming profits, but as long as the money flows in, they prefer to allow their agents on the scene see that the leakage is kept within acceptable limits. In an opening scene, Scorsese's camera shows the high-tech counting rooms, with machines for sorting and stacking the bills. The Tangiers is a factory for making money, and the bosses would be foolish to let greed slow down the assembly line by disrupting the chain of command to stop some relatively insignificant skimming.

As veterans of the illegal gambling business of the East Coast and not quite accustomed to the multibillion-dollar legal entertainment industry in Las Vegas, the bosses of Kansas City dispatch one of their own, Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci), to provide enforcement, if any is necessary. Ace has learned how to work within the new rules. He sees Nicky's presence as a potential problem, and of course he is right. The character reprises the volatile Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas. Nicky has risen through the ranks, but he still functions like a strong-arm man from the neighborhood. A criminal anachronism, he soon becomes first an embarrassment, then a liability. In Las Vegas, Nicky is mesmerized by the immense fortunes passing across the gaming tables and becomes restless to get a bigger cut for himself. When he is banned from the casinos because of his criminal record, he reverts to more traditional activities, like robbery, fencing, and extortion. Even more oblivious to the new ways than his bosses in Kansas City, Tommy fails to understand that gambling is legal in Las Vegas, and the rules have changed from the old days of numbers running in bars and barber shops. His violent tactics draw too much attention to the operations, and the bosses warn him to pull back. In a rage, he even shoots up the house of a police officer who had arrested one of his men. Ace tries to reason with him, but Nicky continues to put self-interest above the interests of the organization. Inevitably, he must pay for his crimes against the clan. After being beaten senseless with baseball bats, he is buried alive in a cornfield. The old-time Mafia style that he lived by caught up with him in death.

Ace represents the new style of Mafia leadership. As a technician of crime and near-crime, he operates on the edges of the law, but he rarely soils his hands with traditional tactics. He manages a business that is legitimate in Nevada, even though his record with illegal gambling should disqualify him from the job. He remains within the law as long as his application for a gambling license is pending. When the gaming commission is set to review his case, he switches his official title and applies for a new license and again his papers go to the bottom of the bureaucratic stack. Even though he is careful to work the loopholes within legal boundaries, Ace is not above allowing his staff to smash the dealing hand of a crooked gambler with a hammer, but this is an extraordinary situation, and the dirty work is left to underlings. Ace is a technocrat who has built a reputation as the best handicapper in the business. As an odds maker, at the start of his career, he left nothing to chance. As manager of the Tangiers, he counts the number of berries in the muffins and personally supervises the weigh-ins of the showgirls. Oddly enough, his meticulous management style leads to his downfall. He reprimands a floor manager for placing the slot machines in a poor location. Later, when the same machines yield an improbably huge payout, Ace concludes that the floor manager was either in on the fix or too stupid to realize the winners had rigged the machines. Ace fires him on the spot. Unfortunately, the man comes from an old Las Vegas family, and these old WASP families still control the legal establishment in town.

The tribal solidarity of the old Las Vegans hardens against this Jewish newcomer and his outside organization. At his license hearing, the commissioners refuse to review his petition and simply deny his application. During the heated exchange, Ace reveals that the commissioners stayed at the Tangiers as nonpaying guests and had requested receipts to put on their expense accounts. They are corrupt, but they have the power, just like the Irish policemen shaking down the Italian boys to allow them to play stickball on the streets of Little Italy.

Another respectable member of the Las Vegas social establishment acted as a silent partner to enable the mob to set up a front corporation to open the Tangiers. As the money flows east to Kansas City, she becomes greedy and demands a bigger cut, and she even threatens that if she doesn't get it, she will tell the police about the various arrangements between the teamsters, the mob, the corporation, and the Tangiers. Nicky murders her, and of course the police must respond to the murder of a prominent citizen by a vigorous investigation of all her business dealings, including the casino. Obviously, the police would have little trouble tracing the connections from Nicky, who was rash enough to shoot up the home of a fellow officer, through the Tangiers, back to Kansas City.

Ace is clearly caught in the middle, fighting for survival. On one side, he has the authorities, whom he feels he can finesse by payoffs and keeping within the law while operating a legitimate business for the syndicate. On the other side, he has the old-time Mafia, with its penchant for wanton violence, as embodied in Nicky Santoro. Ace, as a non-Sicilian, tries to use his Jewish gift for accommodation to help the mob acclimate to the new rules, yet he remains loyal to the bosses in Kansas City and respects their ways of doing business. The tension he feels is a third-generation immigrant's experience: the need for assimilation to new circumstances balanced against the inevitable loss of identity that comes with abandoning the old ways. In a sense, the dramatic conflict of the film has grown out of Scorsese's experience of the tensions of cultural life in Little Italy during the 1950s and 1960s. Driven to desperation, Ace tries to relieve the pressure by telling the bosses that he feels Nicky's tactics have become a liability to their operations. If the bosses themselves rein in Nicky, Ace feels he can still deal with the WASPs. Nicky sees this as a personal betrayal and plans to eliminate Ace by planting the bomb that explodes in Ace's car in the first scene.

The relationship between Nicky and Ace had already grown strained because of the tangled relationships centered around Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone), whose Irishness provokes several comments. Ginger, possibly an expensive call girl, now separated from her boyfriend and manager Lester Diamond (James Woods), is playing the tables when she attracts Ace's attention. Ace pursues her, they have a child, and then, at Ace's urging, decide to marry. Eager to settle into a traditional relationship at this phase of his life, he offers her an extremely generous prenuptial contract that gives her access to much of his assets. Ginger becomes progressively more unstable, clearly becoming dependent on alcohol, pills, and cocaine. She can't be trusted with their daughter Amy (Darla House). When Lester reappears, her old dependency on him reasserts itself, and he persuades her to raid the joint bank accounts Ace has set up. Public drunkenness and abuse of their daughter has poisoned their marriage, and the final betrayal with Lester is too much. Ace throws her out. She goes to Nicky for protection and enters into a sexual relationship with him to assure his loyalty. Nicky, married with children in a Catholic elementary school, falls into her trap and sees Ace as a rival. Ace's complaints about Nicky's tactics to the bosses in Kansas City merely put the final seal on the death certificate that Nicky had written for himself some time earlier.

This clash of cultures leads to a violent end. Ginger returns to Los Angeles with Lester and seems to have resumed her former profession. She last appears staggering down the hallway of a dingy motel and falls to the floor in a coma. We learn that she died of a "hot dose" of uncut heroin after all the money she took from Ace is gone. Nicky had to pay the ultimate price for defying the instructions of the bosses and setting his own rules. Ace survived the blast, but with all the investigations and publicity, he could not remain at the Tangiers. He returns to his old line of work, setting odds for the bookmakers, and he is still one of the best.

Scorsese seems dispassionate about the fate of his three principal figures. For him, Las Vegas is a tough world, and losers always outnumber winners. Ace, Ginger, and Nicky each drew bad cards, but they knew the rules of the game before they started. The only sense of loss Scorsese voices at the end of his 172-minute film is for Las Vegas itself. The mob is gone and impersonal multinational corporations have taken over, with their well-manicured boards of directors in New York, Toronto, or Tokyo directing operations, just like the old dons in the food shop in Kansas City. The machines for sorting and counting money that Scorsese has shown in great detail have made Las Vegas a robotic assembly line for profits, only now the money flows into international holding companies rather than into a back room. The bosses sipping coffee in the back room and giving orders gave the industry a human face, but in the end, they are squeezed out by impersonal MBAs and their accountants. The glitter and glamour are gone, and as far as Scorsese sees it, Las Vegas has become a theme park for wealthy retirees wearing polyester. For him, the film ends with a sense of loss for a passing generation.

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