A Vegas epic previews in Atlantic City the director screens a cut of "Casino" for movie-biz insiders.

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Just across a lobby the size of an airplane hangar, Atlantic City’s weekday gamblers go right on noisily working the slot machines of Donald Trump’s Taj Mahal casino. But the big draw in the Taj’s vast Xanadu Theater this October afternoon is Martin Scorsese’s sweeping, much-anticipated (and slightly late) Casino, now due in theaters Nov. 22. ”You’re the first audience to see this picture,” the director announces to nearly a thousand movie exhibitors and guests. They’ve awaited this final screening at ShowEast — the trade affair at which studios court the folks who show their movies — and they’ve given Scorsese a standing ovation. The maestro gestures, hands extended, to assuage the throng. ”This is a work print,” he reminds them. ”It’s not finished yet.”

As the auditorium dims, the Animals’ ”House of the Rising Sun” cranks up on the film’s soundtrack, and there on the 50-foot screen is Robert De Niro as Las Vegas casino boss Sam ”Ace” Rothstein, attired like a natty flamingo in a pink jacket, pink shirt, and pink tie. The crowd roars its delight. ”Nice threads!” sings out an enthused viewer, prompting giddy, isn’t-this-exciting laughter.

But finding someone who’s still tickled 170 minutes later isn’t easy. As the conventioneers tramp out onto the hot pink threads of the Donald’s carpeting, many do have warm words for Sharon Stone’s turn as De Niro’s ice-cold ex-hustler wife; the phrase most in the air is ”very believable.” But there’s more clucking than acclamation going on — remember, these are bottom-liners for whom a brainy epic like, say, Lawrence of Arabia signals parched sales of popcorn and candy, which are core profit items at cineplexes. And here comes Scorsese with his own desert-bound Samuel of Las Vegas.

”He could’ve done this in an hour and 40,” grumbles an AMC Theaters rep at a post-Casino cocktail party. ”When do you show it?” asks Mike Edmonds of Massachusetts’ Westboro Cinema. ”At 6? At 9:30? Do you go that late?” When not worrying about schedules, most of these witnesses can’t stop talking about key scenes of savage violence. In one, Joe Pesci’s Mob enforcer Nicky Santoro administers a fountain-pen tracheotomy; in another, a man’s eyeball sails across the screen. ”I know that stuff goes on, but I don’t wanna see it,” winces Joe Komjathy of Bagcraft Corp., a popcorn-bag manufacturer. One tired guest who’s on his way to laryngitis can be heard croaking ”This guy’s so dahk.”

Maybe, but Scorsese is sunniness itself at that evening’s dinner, at which he receives ShowEast’s Cecil B. DeMille award for career-long accomplishment. He delivers a marvelously inspiring speech, telling of the night he and Steven Spielberg discussed their first movie memory (for spectacle-minded Spielberg, it was DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth; for broody Scorsese, it was the ”hallucinatory” Duel in the Sun, at age 4, ”in beautiful Technicolor”). His ink black brows raised empathetically, Scorsese pours out his admiration for exhibitors, ”the people in the industry who’re really the closest to the audience.” Scorsese appreciates them even more than most directors, he says with a chuckle, because ”quite honestly, I make pictures that are not easy to sell.”

Amid the attendees on the vast banquet-hall floor, just one diner’s hearty Ha rings out. The rest are poker-faced.

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