Made the mistake of going to see Casino at the Film Museum in Vienna on Sunday night. In case you were tuned out in 1995, Casino is a three hour Martin Scorcese blockbuster featuring Robert De Niro and Sharon Stone. Not that Casino is a bad film, quite the contrary. As great art often will, Casino took me down a long rabbit hole seeking a deeper understanding of its subject.
The setting is mainly Las Vegas and it is a look inside the Mafia’s years at the top of the Vegas totem through the life of Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a sharp gambler who managed the casinos for them.
When in Vegas, Rothstein makes the mistake of falling for Ginger, one of the top hustlers/call girls of the town.
I couldn’t actually believe that Robert De Niro’s character would be foolish enough to put his whole life at risk for the sake of a strumpet. Then I saw the swimsuit pictures of the real life Geri McGee on whom Ginger’s character was based. Even Sharon Stone in her prime looks like a wallflower in comparison to the original here.
At the end of Casino, the whole deal falls apart with a campaign to drive Rothstein out of Vegas, Ginger dead of a drug overdose after robbing him of a million dollars and spending it on rough bikers. Rothstein’s best friend and nominal protector in Vegas, mafioso Nicky first watches his own brother beaten to death in an Iowa cornfield by the same guys who used to be his own crew before suffering the same fate himself. The higher up bosses who ordered the hit on Nicky have problems of their own, in the form of an indictment for racketeering and rigging the casino books. All witnesses and accessories must disappear.
Generally the message is not that crime doesn’t pay, but that you don’t get to keep the money and it costs too much personally.
As the plot behind Casino is based on a true story (Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal’s life), it sent me to research whether this message is the truth or a trite simplification.
Once you start digging into the lives of the mafia in Vegas, you are led into the mafia of Chicago and then New York. From there the story moves to Naples and Sicily and to the murders of the special prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino and the corruption of Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti who was in the pocket of the mafia and running interference for them most of his political life.
If you read them in a novel, you wouldn’t believe the stories of betrayal and viciousness. But they are true stories and people’s lives.
Of the thirty or so short biographies* I found and read, over 80% of the protagonists either spent decades of their lives in prison or were murdered by other mafiosi, in many cases their former closest associates. In some cases, both prison and murder.
Each of these men lives extraordinarily unpleasant lives of anticipation and worry and brutality before finally suffering a similar fate to that which he had so glibly wreaked on others. It’s Rousseau’s social contract gone totally awry.
There is so little room for upside in their world. In the case of Rosenthal/Rothstein, he accidentally survived a car bombing before being able to go on with his life. He should have been just another mafia victim. He only survived thank to a special floorplate installed on that model of Cadillac due to a factory recall.
What were Rosenthal’s crimes:
- appearing on television and thereby attracting attention to himself
- being at the centre of a very lucrative business which worked out very well, i.e. he knew too much.
It turns out that with the Mafia if you strike it rich, you have probably signed your own death warrant. Almost the entire generation of mafiosi who helped run the casinos in Vegas ended up in body bags at the end of Scorcese’s film. Otherwise they might talk.
A more striking example is the Lufthansa Heist which took place in JFK airport in New York. A crew managed to heist $6 million in a single evening in 1974. Jimmy Burke who organized the heist didn’t want to share so much money around. Moreover loose lips sink ships.
So instead he tried to knock off almost every heist participant. With great success.
The Lufthansa Heist is perhaps the single most successful single street level operation the Mafia ever managed to pull off. Yet the guys who did the good work ended up dead.
Quite frankly, as a career mafioso sucks. Do good work: get iced. Do bad work: go to prison and/or get iced.
When you look at each of their faces (mostly mugshots so one should make allowances) very little love and very little grace. Being a thug or a wiseguy is bad for your physiognimy.** These guys do not look as good as Dustin Hoffman and crew in The Godfather Trilogy. The dingy apartment of Lefty in the film Donnie Brasco is closer to the truth.
Most of those who do get to old age, get there without much in savings. Despite the millions that went through their hands as working wiseguys, they end up living very dreary lives in a suburb somewhere in Arizona.
Frankly after all the glamorization of the Mafia, I was surprised at how tough the life really is and how bad the odds are.
Conclusion: as a career move, joining the Mafia is probably even worse than signing up with Enron. At the end of the day, you can only lose and every day you know the reaper may be coming for you.
Notes and Trivia
* Surprisingly the Wikipedia entries for most of these guys are so badly written that basic sentence construction and verb tense are wrong most of the time. The entries are curiously repetitive as if never properly edited. I’ve never seen worse Wikipedia articles on any subject.
** Single exception La Piccolo in Italy. He was a very good looking young man and even now doesn’t look too bad for his age.