Ripping Off Vegas is Easy in ‘Ocean’s Eleven’

If you’re just in the mood for a fun movie that could teach us all a lesson about what it means to be cool (and what might happen if you hide millions of dollars of stolen money in your friend’s coffin), it’s a solid choice.
By  · Published on March 1st, 2009

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a film that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

In a scene between George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Thirteen, Danny and Rusty walk the strip ruminating over the grand changes that have swept the desert village of Las Vegas. While planning a final job in honor of their dying mentor, they relive the golden olden days when The Sands and The Flamingo were right down the road from each other, when they weren’t sure whether to hit or stay on seventeen, when the sort of surveillance equipment used in modern casinos wasn’t even dreamed of. It’s an interesting hat tip to the original film – or at least the time of the original film.

You’d have to assume that the mere presence of a modern take on the film featuring some of the biggest names in the business would automatically make the original feel dated, but the two films are so radically different that one barely has anything to say about the other content-wise. However, the mere existence of the newer film adds another dimension on viewing the original. If anything, the newer film franchise built from the remake is just one more reason to see the original to get a feel for where the birth of cool comes from.

In Ocean’s, a group of military men from the 82nd airborne come together fifteen years after the war to knock over five Las Vegas casinos on New Year’s Eve. After the job, a reformed mobster offers to recover the money for the casinos and blackmails Ocean for part of the take.

Unlike the modern version, the original barely focuses on the heist or the planning for it. For the most part, the story takes a look at a core group of the men, their personal relationships, and their need for the money. All in a loose way. As a result, it appears as if robbing millions of dollars from secure casinos is a relatively simple task. Set up five men to work at each outfit, rig the electrical wires so that the cage doors are wired to the lighting system, and then blow up an electrical tower. Instant wealth. Of course this was during a time when you had to dial the operator to connect your call and access to the main electrical grid to a major hotel was as easy as slipping by a single guard. The theft of such a large sum of money, and the fact that they knock over five casinos all on the same night is treated with the same sort of ennui that typifies Rat Pack cool – an interesting way to deal with a high-concept that would be blown out of proportion in marketing these days. The men of Ocean’s may desperately need the money (or not), but you’ll never see them sweat (unless they’re having a heart attack).

The comic ease of stealing that much money is offset by characters that switch between effortless cool to solid dramatic acting jobs. In some ways, the no-worries attitude of the film outdoes most anything that could be made today while the film also seems much heavier. Some of the humor is a bit darker, and one of the eleven has a serious heart defect that rears its head during the heist in a serious way. The threat of being outed to the police by former gangster Duke Santos (played by Caeser Romero) is a very real threat that causes the first real scheming of the entire film.

This film never strives to be taken too seriously, though – it’s obviously the thinnest vehicle needed to showcase Sinatra being a bad ass, Dean Martin being cool, and Sammy Davis Jr singing. In fact, it could have been called Ocean’s Four if it was being honest. The film only really looks at those three and Peter Lawford almost exclusively, while giving small glimpses at the other men but never daring to develop their characters in any real way.

Still, the feel of the film is what’s incredible. The cinematography is really excellent – a surprise for the type of movie it is, but it makes sense if you consider the goal of the movie was to highlight the swank nature of Las Vegas and the epically cool nature of the men involved. The dialog is lacking in some of the scenes that Sinatra, Martin, Davis Jr, or Lawford aren’t in. Overall, if you choose not to take the film too seriously, there are barely any real flaws to find.

It’s been fascinating to re-watch the film after seeing the Clooney version and its incarnations. For one, the difference between Sinatra’s gang and Clooney’s is striking. Sinatra earns the same depth of cool by leaning on a wall that Clooney needs several lines of quick-witted dialog to achieve. For two, the chasm between the films is so wide – one a non-serious look at a heist, the other a detailed engagement where new problems come up only to be solved by ingenuity and technology – that it offers a deeper appreciation of both movies. The original is a fantastic product of its time that is quasi-musical, quasi-character study, quasi-morality play all wrapped up in Sinatra’s fame. The modern version is also a product of its time with fast-paced dialog, hipper-than-thou attitudes and a labyrinthine plot that satisfies when all the chips are finally laid on the table.

So if you’ve never seen it before, or if you haven’t seen it since it was remade, Ocean’s Eleven is a great movie to check out. It can both be appreciated on two levels now, which is almost always intriguing, but even if you’re just in the mood for a fun movie that could teach us all a lesson about what it means to be cool (and what might happen if you hide millions of dollars of stolen money in your friend’s coffin), it’s a solid choice.

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