I watched Casino for the third or fourth time last night. This is remarkable for me because I'm not much for mob movies or mob fiction. As an audience member I usually want to see everybody in the movie die in the slowest and most savage way possible. The romance of the mob--of whatever configuration or ethnic persuasion--misses me. To me they're parasites and thugs and as such not interesting as human beings, even the new kind with Harvard MBAs.
But Casino and The Cooler cut through my prejudices precisely because they didn't romance their subject matter. Though I have no way of knowing for sure, they seem to realistically depict one big aspect of mob life in Vegas.
The most amazing aspect of Casino for me has always been Sharon Stone's performance. Never before and never since has she been even close to this kind of range and depth and power. She is so terrifying in her addiction all you can do is watch her. You can't quite even sympathise with her. Coke has made her Other. DeNiro does a riff on Irving Thalberg from The Last Tycoon. Except here he's not a poetic man working in an industry that despises poetic men, he's a mobster with aspirations to be a celebrity, as expressed in those awkward scenes of his "TV show." The cigarette holder he uses is a great symbol of ersatz sophistication. And Joe Pecsi. Few characters have ever died so viciously and few have ever deserved it more. But again he's like Stone's character. His violence has made him Other. You can neither sympathise nor understand him. All you can do is want to see him die in some terrible prolonged way. And the same with all the thugs around him. (The Cooler does a better job of giving the people around Alec Baldwin personalities. You don't like them but at least you have some understanding of them.)
I'd say that if Scorcese had only done this one picture in his life he'd be remembered as a great director. It has flaws but it has the heft and feel of real life, of time passing, of people changing. Now he should do the Nathan Heller Books by Max Allan Collins, the only mob novels I've ever liked. Like Scorcese, Collins has found his own way into the mob world and the novels are masterful.
Addenda: There are obviously several other writers whose mob books I enjoy. Charlie Stella is a true original, a serio-comic street poet who can turn turds into flowers. I also like Richard Condon's Prizzi's Honor. The books I don't like celebrate mob life--Italian, Jewish, Irish--with a blind eye to the predatory nature of the characters. I know this is a priggish way to look at it but bullies--which is what they are--just don't interest much. If mobsters had any gumption they'd go into something that really paid big--Wall Street or banking or politics.