Often written off as a cash-in on the success of Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 1995 true crime movie, 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 story 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 about love, gambling, and gangsters in Las Vegas, from the people who knew them best.
Updated on March 31st, 2021 by Mark Birrell: The characters of Scorsese’s movies are always so compelling and relatable that fans often find themselves quoting them in daily life. Though they’re often undone by inherent flaws, the main players of a Scorsese picture, particularly his gangster movies, are wiser and more clued-in than they let on to the world around them and they can make some truly insightful observations not only about their own lives but about life in general. We’ve added another 5 quotes to this list to better honor the genius of Casino, from its funniest moments to its most thought-provoking.
15 “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?”
The theme of trust in the movie is explored most intensely through the relationship between Ace and his wife, Ginger. From Ace’s somewhat-sociopathic perspective, he makes the tragic mistake of placing too much trust in Ginger. 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 movie 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.
14 “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.
13 “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.
12 “Downstairs he takes us for $2 million and upstairs he takes free soap, shampoo, and towels.”
Here, Ace talks about some of his methods for keeping the casino profitable in the face of high-stakes gamblers. In this instance, K.K. Ichikawa, who appears to get the better of the Tangiers at first.
The frugal shark seems as good with money as Ace at first but, as Ace reveals, through some creative tinkering with Ichikawa’s travel plans, all of the winnings end up going back into the casino as the only real trick is to keep the players gambling.
11 “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.”
10 “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.
9 “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.”
8 “Carmine left?”
One of the movie’s funniest exchanges takes place between Nicky and two criminal associates who have shown up to take advantage of the casino, something they would have never attempted had they known it was under Kicky’s protection.
Nicky has a very brief and subtext-laden conversation with them at the reception area, asking them why they’re here. When they say they’re here to see someone called “Carmine”, Nicky quickly tells them that Carmine already left. So, if Carmine was ever there or even existed at all, it’s safe to say that they won’t be back to the Tangiers anytime soon. The unspoken understanding between the gangsters as they mull over the line “Carmine left” is pure Scorsese gold.
7 “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: “Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The boxmen are watching the dealers. The floormen are watching the boxmen. The pit bosses are watching the floormen. 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 almost religiously dogmatic.
6 “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, a professional grifter who Ace respects for her dedication to her craft. He observes how Ginger manipulates the ecosystem of the casino in a very similar way to his own method.
5 “Back home, they would have put me in jail for what I’m doing but out here, they’re giving me awards.”
Ace is clearly motivated by selfish desires in the movie, often related to his obsession with Ginger, but it’s undeniable that he actually does care about his work.
Ace is an outsider, and Las Vegas ultimately chews him up and spits him out, but he finds a real home in the city of sin and this quote shows just how liberated Ace feels by his work for the mafia.
4 “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.
3 “In the end, I had to put his f****** head in a vise.”
For all the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual mining that goes on in all of Scorsese’s movies, not just Casino, the scenes that often end up becoming the most famous are the scenes with the most violence, and this line comes during the movie’s most bloody and well-known scene.
Attempting to extract information from a man who shot up one of the mafia’s bars, Nicky resorts to actually putting his victim’s head in a vise and tightening it until he talks. Gross but certainly not forgettable.
2 “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 filmmaking 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.
1 “…paradise, we managed to really f*** it all up.”
Scorsese’s crime movies are as beloved as they are because, while portraying serious and violent criminals in a charismatic light, he rarely lets them get away with it. One of the most famous parts of the director’s structure in the genre is the moment when it all goes wrong, as it inevitably does for just about everybody in Casino.
Ace says this line as the weight of all the main characters’ misdeeds finally adds up and the cops swoop in. Ace clearly found a slice of heaven in Las Vegas before he lost it but was it all an illusion? Was it truly something good ruined by greed and mistrust? It’s not black and white and the audience is left to meditate on it for themselves.
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