Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Zack Snyder’s Army Of The Dead bringing zombies to the Vegas strip, we’re bringing Vegas to Watch This.
While younger audiences may know of the stylish, Steven Soderbergh-directed, 2001 remake (and its subsequent sequels) where George Clooney and his A-list pals pull off elaborate heists, the Ocean’s Eleven of this century was merely trying to recreate the sharp-dressed fun Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack brethren had back in 1960. That was the year that Ol’ Blue Eyes and his mischievous band of brothers—Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop—got together to play ex-soldiers planning to knock off a quintet of Vegas casinos on New Year’s Eve. They shot the film mornings, after playing two shows a night at The Sands—a schedule that somehow left room for cameos in the 1960 Cantinflas vehicle Pepe, which was shooting in Vegas at the same time. Behind the camera was All Quiet On The Western Front director Lewis Milestone, burdened with the task of reining in these jokers and reminding them they had a damn movie to finish.
The original Ocean’s plays like a smart-assed, Technicolor version of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 heist thriller The Killing, with Sinatra leading a crew that’s more swinging than hard-boiled. These guys still lay on the problematic machismo, as evidenced by a scene where Martin’s character says he plans to take his money and get into politics just so he can take away women’s right to vote and make them slaves. But his sexist cad is no match for Sinatra’s Ocean. When he’s not coldly loving and leaving dames, he makes prank phone calls to the heist’s exasperated, Beverly Hills-based orchestrator (Akim Tamiroff). For a guy who’s supposed to be the revered ringleader, Ocean is a bonafide man-child.
Clocking in at over two hours, this Ocean’s piles on a lot. (It makes you wish Sinatra tore out more pages from the quip-filled script, which he allegedly did during one tense day of shooting.) The movie spends its first hour establishing all the main players in the crew, including Richard Conte’s dying ex-con, whose job is to shut off the power on the casinos so the jacking can commence. Angie Dickinson shows up in a couple of thankless scenes as Ocean’s long-suffering ex-wife. (She’s one of the few female characters, most of them unfortunately written as nagging shrews.) We also got a few musical numbers for Sammy and Dean; cameos from Red Skelton, George Raft, and an uncredited Shirley MacLaine; and let’s not forget Cesar Romero as the heavy who throws a monkey wrench in these guys’ plans in the last half-hour. With all this, it’s no wonder the movie kind of peters out, with a downbeat ending that shows how the Vegas strip can truly be a boulevard of broken dreams.
Nevertheless, the ’60s Ocean’s is a fascinating artifact because it shows Las Vegas still in the process of becoming the overwhelmingly glitzy, million-watt wonderland/tourist trap/eyesore that it is today. There’s none of the obnoxious opulence and billion-dollar splendor of modern-day Sin City. Back then, it was still a desert town with a few fancy hotels, complete with casinos that look like your dad’s wood-paneled man-cave. It’s no wonder Frank, Sammy, and the rest couldn’t get enough of Vegas back in the day. It still felt like home.