At its heart, “Casino” is really a love story. As Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert DeNiro) says in the film: “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. Otherwise, what’s the point? And, for a while, I believed that’s the kind of love I had.” The movie centers around the heyday of Las Vegas casinos during the 1970s, when the mob was skimming money from every operation and people caught cheating at blackjack weren’t just tossed out: they usually had a few fingers broken first.
Rothstein is based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, who ran one of the biggest casinos in Vegas under similar conditions during the 1970s. Like Rothstein, Rosenthal was married to a beautiful but out-of-control woman (named Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) in the film) and had an old mob friend (named Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) in the film) whose violent ways eventually brought the attention of the authorities and ruined an ideal situation.
In a lot of ways, “Casino” is not only about Rothstein’s futile attempts to hold onto a woman who didn’t truly love him in return but also his equally futile attempts to keep the peace in a friendship that could only spell trouble. Rothstein, who had been convicted for gambling in other cities, saw Vegas as the ideal place to legally rake in piles of cash while looking the other way as the mob skimmed from the enormous profits. As long as he kept a relatively low profile, he could have kept the operation going indefinitely, but Santoro not only wanted to be part of the action, he wanted to bring his style of public violence to the city.
In the end, the complicated relationships between three people unraveled the mob’s control over Vegas, opening the way for the corporate-controlled, DisneyLand-like look of the place shown in the final shots of the film. While Santoro and McKenna paid the ultimate price for their out-of-control behavior, Rothstein was able to slip away to Florida and retire, where all he could do was look back on what he lost and shake his head. While “Casino” deals with a sprawling city and a large time period, it’s really an intimate character drama that vividly shows how simple human relationships can ultimately infect and kill any empire, if they’re diseased from the start.
This 10th Anniversary Edition from Universal is a double-sided disc that features on side one a digitally re-mastered picture, along with a commentary that bears the lofty title “Moments with Martin Scorsese, Sharon Stone, Nicholas Pileggi and Others.” It’s not a group commentary, however: it’s simply outtakes from the side two documentary materials, matched to specific scenes as much as possible and featuring someone who introduces each participant before they speak. It’s good stuff for the most part, although some of it is repeated from the featurettes.
You’ll find those featurettes on the second side. Broken into segments called “The Story,” “The Cast and Characters,” “The Look” and “After Filming,” together they run close to an hour and cover the making of the film from start to finish. You hear from all the cast members and principal creatives, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, as they recall the production and its challenges. For example, instead of building a set, they actually filmed in a real casino during the middle of the night, which posed all kinds of hurdles since no Vegas casino ever shuts down, so they had to deal with the lookie-loo’s and making sure they were always capturing a 1970s/1980s look and feel.
On side two we also get “Vegas and the Mob,” which is actually a 14-minute story pulled from an NBC news show. It’s kind of redundant, though, in light of the other major feature on side two: “True Crime Authors: Casino With Nicholas Pileggi,” a 44-minute documentary that originally aired on The History Channel. That one deals strictly with the real people behind the film’s characters, complete with those cheesy re-enactments The History Channel always uses. (Hmmm … DeNiro or the goofy guy from The History Channel? Which one exudes oodles of charisma?)
It also references the film in certain spots, showing how Scorsese and Pileggi adapted the real story for their pseudo-fictional tale, but most of the focus is on Rosenthal and the real-life Ginger and Nicky. Rosenthal shows up in an interview during the show (the real Ginger and Nicky are available only via archival footage and photographs, of course), and one of the best bits from him is something I wish Scorsese and Pileggi had figured out how to use: toward the end, he admits that even though he’s officially banned from stepping inside any Vegas casino ever again, he simply wears disguises and sneaks in. It might have been interesting to hear DeNiro’s final voice-over on top of footage of his character walking around a modern casino in disguise, rather than simply seeing him at a desk wearing those ridiculous sunglasses.
Yeah, there’s a reason Scorsese earns the big bucks and I review DVDs. Anyway, fans of the film should check this one out. Like many other recent releases of older films, you get a lot of content for a very reasonable price. You can’t go wrong there, although I wish Universal had sprung for a two-disc set rather than using a double-sided disc. How can they splurge on something like “Jaws” but cheap out on “Casino”? C’mon, treat your classics equally.