Should I Watch..? 'Ocean's 11' (1960)
What's the big deal?
Ocean's 11 is a comedic heist film released in 1960 and was directed by Lewis Milestone. The film centres on a group of retired military veterans who plan on an ambitious robbery of five casinos in Las Vegas around midnight on New Years Eve. The movie stars a number of members of Hollywood's infamous Rat Pack - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop with supporting turns from Angie Dickinson, Cesar Romero and Richard Conte. The film received a mixed reaction from critics at the time although it still went on to make more than $12 million in the US. It did, however, prove to be the inspiration for Steven Soderbergh's 2001 remake Ocean's Eleven which sparked not just renewed interest in this Sixties original but also spawned a series of films featuring an ensemble cast involved in clever or daring heists of their own.
What's it about?
Criminal financier Spyros Acebos is asked to host a meeting of a number of surviving members of the 82nd Airbourne Division by Danny Ocean, who has masterminded the ultimate plot. His ambition is to rob five casinos in Las Vegas - the Sahara, Riveria, Sands, Flamingo and Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn - simultaneously around midnight on New Years Eve. With every member of the eleven-strong team ascribed set tasks, the operation should go as smoothly as one of their military operations during the Second World War.
Naturally, things don't go according to plan. Danny's estranged wife Beatrice suspects he may be up to something, reformed gangster Duke Santos smells a rat after talking with his fiancé (the mother of Jimmy Foster, one of Ocean's eleven) and there is the small matter of actually getting themselves and the money out of Vegas without attracting the attention of the police. No doubt about it, it's going to be a long night...
Sammy Davis Jr
Harry Brown & Charles Lederer*
Release Date (US)
10th August, 1960
What's to like?
It's difficult to watch this film without immediately comparing it to Soderbergh's excellent remake, which is unfortunate. Ocean's 11 might lack the hi-tech razzamatazz or the familiarity with Vegas as it is today but it still has plenty to offer viewers. The lead actors, firm friends off-screen as well as on, play off themselves like they have known each other for years - much of the dialogue you see is ad-libbed. Not only is there a strong sense of comradery but also a very definite style at play. Much like the remake, this film simply oozes cool in every shot from the typically cool title card sequence by the imitable Saul Bass. And I mean, every shot - Sinatra's bright orange fluffy jumper that he wears in an early scene still doesn't distract you enough.
It's fascinating watching a film that depicts a Vegas still very much in its infancy, a strip of road running through the desert dotted with small casinos and hotels that somehow attracted legendary entertainers of the day - some of whom also appeared in the movie. Seeing Dean Martin perform Ain't That A Kick In The Head mere metres away from the ordinary paying punters seems unthinkable these days, given how most headliners perform to vast auditoriums. The film harks back to the days when Vegas had glamour and glitz but also intimacy and a friendly face from a cocktail waitress or go-go dancer. It's a hard film to dislike.
- Sammy Davis Jr was forced to stay at a "colored only" hotel during the shoot because the major hotels in Vegas prohibited African-Americans staying with Caucasian visitors - despite Sammy frequently performing with Sinatra and Martin. This all changed when Sinatra learned of this and confronted the casino owners, breaking down the racial barriers in Vegas.
- Lawford first heard the story from director Gilbert Kay who heard it from an attendant at a petrol station. When Lawford told Sinatra, he reportedly said "Forget the movie, let's pull the job!"
- Shirley MacLaine, another unofficial member of the Rat Pack, cameos as a drunk lady who Martin has to distract outside a casino. She quickly filmed her appearance during a break in filming The Apartment, which coincidentally also features New Years Eve.
- One of the hardest parts of the production was persuading Nevada's Clark County officials to allow the use of one of their garbage trucks for filming. Sammy had to use wooden blocks on the pedals to enable him to actually drive it.
What's not to like?
As cool and stylish as the film is, it has not aged as well as you might expect. Of course, this is a Rat Pack film so there is copious amounts of scotch drank, cigarette smoke hanging in the air in every scene and women are treated very much like second-class citizens - I don't recall any female character having much of an impact on the story whatsoever. Worse, there are also hints at racial undertones - there's a couple of gags about Sammy's skin colour while the few other black or Asian characters are strictly in subservient roles like drivers, butlers or concierges.
Much of the humour has also dated although the film does still have some decent lines in there. What puzzled me was the use of the UV spray and footprints - I get the use of the spray but what were the Day-Glo footprints all about? The film doesn't really get going until the heist itself reveals itself, spending a good half-an-hour plodding around in circles without going anywhere. Until the neat trick Sinatra pulls with the map, the film is slow and plodding. It improves massively during and after the heist but at no point does it become seriously entertaining like its remake. Speaking of which, this also has a twist ending but maybe not the one you might expect.
Should I watch it?
Not just a curiosity for fans of the remake, Ocean's 11 is a film very much of its time but succeeds in being an enjoyable blast from the past. With the charismatic charm of Sinatra, the effortless musicality of Sammy and the impossibly good-looking Dean, the movie is a ride through heist-movie cliché and buddy comedy stereotypes but with just enough good will to make it worth watching. It lacks the smugness of the remake but it also lacks the excitement, the flair and the strength of the supporting cast.
Great For: people who remember Vegas' 'golden years', Rat Pack fans, fans of the remake, stylists
Not So Great For: anyone wondering where the rest of the Strip is, people born after 1980, anyone thinking of robbing an actual casino
What else should I watch?
The Rat Pack made a number of films but none would have as many cast members on screen as Ocean's 11. Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Bishop and Lawford would all appear together again in 1962's Sergeants 3, a western remake of Gunga Din. Lawford and Sinatra would fall out with each other, meaning that another film with all five was unlikely to ever happen again. Sinatra, Martin and Davis teamed up again in 1964 for Robin And The 7 Hoods which, unbeknownst at the time, would be the last time they would be seen on screen together until 1984's Cannoball Run II. Not exactly a classic but it was the last time any members of the Rat Pack would be seen in a theatrical release.
So is the remake of this film really that good? Frankly, yes - Ocean's Eleven combines the glamour and glitz of contemporary Vegas with endlessly charismatic turns from George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle as well as a story that only slightly mirrors the original. The heist itself is more dangerous and more exciting and it still has a twist for audiences to savour. A shame things quickly went downhill with Ocean's Twelve which reunites the gang in Europe to essentially look good at Lake Como while radiating smugness through the screen. It's a thoroughly unlikeable exercise in celeb worship, a cinematic flick through OK Magazine and so utterly unenjoyable that it has forever put me off watching Ocean's Thirteen.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox