*. Some people see this as the third part of a trilogy of gangster movies Scorsese made, the first two parts being Mean Streets and Goodfellas. Scorsese himself refers to it as at least being a sequel to Goodfellas, taking us into a world of even greater excess: more money, more colour, more drugs, more music, and just more. It’s a slick and glitzy movie about slick and glitzy lifestyles, but also a movie with a bloated running time. Few directors can rip through three hours as quickly as Scorsese, but it’s still a lot.
*. I think this is part of a larger evolution (I won’t say advance) in his career: from Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street. His later movies are tragedies, meaning stories of spectacular rise and fall, but are less indebted to classical models or Shakespeare than they are to Marlowe. For Marlowe the tragic hero is undone through his desire to do whatever he wants to do, to live a life without limits, and this has increasingly become Scorsese’s theme. It’s the same tragic arc that he found in the story of Howard Hughes in The Aviator, and which Scorsese poses as the question of “what happens to you when you have no limits?” Sam, Nicky, and Ginger all want so much.
*. Well, to some extent that’s the gangster ethos. They want the world and everything in it. It’s a story with universal appeal, no matter how pathological it is at heart.
*. To some extent it’s a grandiose way of thinking that applies to the movie business as well. Scorsese saw Vegas as a metaphor for Hollywood: an industry obsessed with a blockbuster mentality, making bigger and flashier pictures until cinema will eventually be forced to reinvent itself. Which he frankly doubts it will be able to do. Like the old Vegas, the glory days of ’70s cinema “are long gone never to come back.”
*. We may feel like we’ve been here before. Sam Rothstein is the cool, calculating boss. Nicky is the brutal, sadistic thug (just a reprise of his role in Goodfellas really). Ginger is the moll.
*. There are, however, some subtle variations. De Niro’s Ace is too soft and Pesci’s Nicky too hard. Those are their tragic flaws. And with De Niro as a more than slightly effeminate gangster it’s playing against type. Nicky complains that Ace looks like John Barrymore in his pink lounging robe and cigarette holder, and he seems incapable of taking care of business.
*. Ginger is also a complicated twist on the gold-digging tramp, self-destructively drawn to the caricature pimp Lester Diamond (James Wood). It’s odd though that she seems to know herself so well (she warns Ace about marrying her), but can’t seem to do anything about it.
*. I wonder how significant it is that Ginger isn’t give any voiceover duties. Even Frankie gets a few lines. Is there nothing she can explain? Is there nothing more to her to reveal?
*. Speaking of Frankie’s few lines of voiceover duty, it’s done in exactly the same way as the shot in Goodfellas I hate so much where we freeze frame on Henry Hill as he explains something that we are already aware of and might want to enjoy without having it underlined and printed in bold.
*. After a first viewing I was hard pressed to remember if Don Rickles had any lines at all. He does, but they are few. He’s mostly in here for his face, which sort of floats in the background, over Sam’s shoulder.
*. The main characters are paradoxically both representative of Las Vegas and foreign to it (something that L. Q. Jones’s cowboy county commissioner, if he isn’t just making an anti-Semitic swipe, tries to explain to Ace). The titles identify the mid-West as “back home.”
*. Scorsese saw them all as “lost,” and after a while you’re just watching “the pageantry of their demise” alongside the death of the old town. As with the death of the now-old New Hollywood, Scorsese is wistful about this, and indeed it’s probably that sense of the New Hollywood having “blown it” that sits somewhere behind all of his wistful reveries of semi-magical lost worlds, through Age of Innocence and Kundun to Hugo.
*. The “spotlight” style of lighting strikes me as very artificial. It also draws attention to itself, in so far as it leaves you wondering what source there could possibly be for these brilliant, random beams that make people glow like they’re radioactive. But then, this is Vegas. Shouldn’t everything look artificial and draw attention to itself as much as Sam’s pastel suits and Nicky’s hair?
*. Having said that much in its defence, I don’t like the lighting. It looks cheap and small. Look at the overhead shots in the warehouse scene (the one with the head-in-the-vise business), or all the characters with flaring coronas coming out of their hair like platinum solar storms. Doesn’t it seem a bit ridiculous?
*. Scorsese really likes those shots that follow behind a character as they enter a building or room, doesn’t he? When you see a motif recurring like that in any artist’s work, especially over several decades, it usually has some personal meaning, but I don’t know enough about Scorsese to say what this might be. I suspect though that it has something to do with wanting to be a made man.
*. The ending is deliberately anticlimactic. Ginger drops dead from a hot dose in some flophouse corridor. Pesci is belaboured amid the alien corn. And Ace, half his face concealed behind comic sunglasses, has gone to play the numbers in his retirement in San Diego. They all blew it. Vegas, meanwhile, opens its doors to a flood of America’s well-fed bourgeoisie: more zombie losers for the cane mill. Disney has taken over both the slots and the movie biz. It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas in heaven. Every single day.