Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

The heist movie would prove to be one of the most reliable money-spinners of the 60s. The genre started with two movies released in 1960, the British production The League of Gentlemen and the American Ocean’s Eleven (or Ocean’s 11 as it’s sometimes rendered). Coincidentally both dealt with heists carried out by ex-military personnel. Ocean’s Eleven also had the distinction of being the ultimate Rat Pack movie.

Playboy Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) has been living on his mother’s money for years. Now he’d like to have some of his own. He’s been sold on a plan by Spyros Acebos (Akim Tamiroff). Acebos has a talent for coming up with ideas for robberies. Very good ideas. He doesn’t have the ability (or the inclination) to carry them out but that’s where Jimmy Foster comes in. Foster has recruited a bunch of old army buddies, all of whom served in the elite 82nd Airborne Division in World War 2. They will carry out the plan. And a very ambitious plan it is. To rob one Las Vegas casino would be ambitious enough - they’re going to rob five all at once. It will have to be carried out with the precision of a military operation. Ex-paratroopers are obviously ideal for such a caper.

Foster’s old army pals include Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra), Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) and Josh Howard (Sammy Davis Jr). And since this is a Rat Pack movie some of the female Rat Packers naturally had to be involved. Angie Dickinson plays Danny Ocean’s wife while Shirley MacLaine pops up in an amusing cameo.

The plan will need a couple of demolition experts. That’s no problem - the 82nd Airborne had guys like that. It will also need a master electrician. As luck would have it the ideal choice for this role, Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte) has just been released from San Quentin.

As would become standard in heist movies a good deal of time is spent on the elaborate preparations. The robbery itself lacks the spectacle of some of the later movies of this type although it makes up for it to some extent with sheer complexity.

The script gives the players plenty of the right sort of dialogue. The presence of veteran cinematographer William H. Daniels behind the camera is an asset, as always. Special mention should be made of Nelson Riddle’s wonderful score and Saul Bass’s brilliant main titles. Director Lewis Milestone knew his job and handles it will his usual skill.

I think The League of Gentlemen makes cleverer use of the idea of ex-soldiers carrying out a robbery but Ocean’s Eleven earns bonus points for the ending - a very nice little sting in the tail indeed.

Sinatra was a fine if rather lazy actor, his major strength being his ability to project effortless cool which he does here to wonderful effect. Dean Martin could also be a superb actor on the rare occasions when he really extended himself (as in Howards Hawks’ Rio Bravo). Most of the time Martin just treated acting as fun but in a light-hearted movie such as this that approach worked just fine. Richard Conte by contrast took acting very seriously so it’s not surprising that Tony Bergdorf ends up being the most complex character in the movie. Cesar Romero enjoys himself as Jimmy Foster’s shady but very rich prospective father-in-law. Angie Dickinson has little to do except look glamorous but she does that very nicely. Look out for a neat little cameo from George Raft.

Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr both get to sing. Oddly enough Sinatra doesn’t.

This is very much a Vegas movie, the mood of the film reflecting the mood of the city. This is of course the Las Vegas of 1960, very different from the Las Vegas of today. In that sense the movie is a wonderful time capsule, a feature enhanced by the fact that so much of the filming was actually done in the Las Vegas hotels of the day.

The Region 4 DVD offers a very impressive anamorphic transfer and includes a number of extras including a commentary track with Frank Sinatra Jr. and Angie Dickinson.

Ocean’s Eleven is high-spirited witty entertainment done with a great deal of style. Highly recommended.

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