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Tuesday, June 21, 2022

June 21, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: The Godfather and Casino

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On the important differences in how two gangster films portray the city.

Moe Greene, an important minor character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), was loosely inspired by yesterday’s subject, Bugsy Siegel. Greene is killed not in a Los Angeles home but in his Las Vegas hotel and casino (part of an orchestrated series of such murders that conclude the film, as that clip depicts), and not for allegedly stealing from the mob but for standing in the way of fellow mob boss Michael Corleone’s attempts to buy into the Vegas scene. But those changes between the real-life Siegel and the fictional Greene only amplify the film’s depiction of Las Vegas as an extension of the Corleone crime family’s world, another setting ruled by mob bosses who represent adversaries and obstacles that Michael has to overcome as he ascends to his father’s title and throne (a process that only deepens in The Godfather, Part II, in the present of which Michael has moved the family west to more thoroughly dominate that Vegas world). Audiences occasionally see the more glamorous sides of Vegas in the Godfather films, but they are clearly a façade behind which the criminal reality is always clearly visible.

Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert De Niro), the central character of Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995), was apparently based on a different Las Vegas gangster who became prominent two decades after Siegel’s death, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. But Scorsese’s Rothstein sure has a lot in common with Siegel as well: a Jewish kid from New York who moves west and to Vegas on behalf of the mob, gains control of a hotel and casino, and is eventually killed by his fellow mobsters due at least in part to his relationship with a Vegas socialite (Sharon Stone’s Ginger McKenna). As those plot details suggests, and as anyone even vaguely familiar with Scorsese’s body of work will be unsurprised to hear, Casino emphasizes the connections between Vegas and the mob even more fully than do the Godfather films, not only through Rothstein but also and even more fully through his violent criminal frenemy and the film’s third main character, the Mafia wiseguy Nicky Santoro (played by Scorsese favorite Joe Pesci). Yet at the same time, I’m not sure any film has made the glittering façade of Las Vegas look more glamorous and alluring than does Casino, never more so than in its justifiably famous tracking shots.

That final point is consistent with my overall critique of Scorsese as far too often glamorizing the people and practices his films ostensibly critique, and I know many other viewers and AmericanStudiers would read Casino (like all those films) differently. But I think the comparison between these two particular films can also be read through the specific lens of images and narratives of Las Vegas—and more exactly that whatever we think of Scorsese’s own perspective on the themes his film presents, there’s no doubt that the character of Rothstein is seduced by the glitz and glamour of Vegas (as, in their own ways, are both Ginger and Nicky). Which makes it very difficult for any viewer of Casino not to be likewise seduced—that is, even as De Niro’s voiceover behind those tracking shots is telling us that this is how the casino takes our money, I’d argue that the shots themselves are making us want to catch the next flight out to hand it over. Whereas the Godfather films present a Vegas that more clearly corrupts and destroys everyone, even the most powerful figures who come to be associated with it—and if we don’t want to end up like Moe Greene, we’d best keep our distance.

Next Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

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