RogerBW's Blog

Ocean's Eleven (1960) 02 March 2019

1960 crime/drama film, dir. Lewis Milestone, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin; IMDb / allmovie. Old war buddies from the 82nd Airborne get together again, to rob five Las Vegas casinos in one night.

To a modern viewer like me who doesn't spend a lot of time watching films of the fifties and sixties, there's an odd lacuna as each character is introduced, which is clearly meant to be filled by the viewer saying "oh, wow, it's (Frank|Dean|Sammy|etc.)" and hoping they do some musical numbers (some of them do, but briefly). I get the impression they're mostly playing stage personas that would already be familiar to the audience, as characterisation is often thin; but even so there are various wives and ex-wives and such like hanging about, and there's some attempt to explain why these basically good people would turn to crime (a combination of missing the excitement of the war and a civilian world that has no place for them). Mostly, though, this is about eleven men who, having been through hell together, now trust each other absolutely, and no outsider can come close.

And of course this is the 1950s version of Las Vegas as its friends wished to present it, wholesome family entertainment and not a mention of the Mafia. Which means that there's no hissable villain; when the casino bosses get together after the robbery, they talk about insurance and minimising their losses, not about concrete overshoes.

The focus is definitely on the cast joshing around (indeed, most of the lines in the group scenes were improvised), not on the heist itself; there's a Cunning Plan, but it's been put together by someone who's not doing it himself (Akim Tamiroff as a stock comic-relief cowardly guy), and there's never any sense that anything's going wrong or needing improvisation.

As with many films from before the 1980s when focus-groups became supreme, these film-makers aren't afraid to have a downbeat ending; in the original script, according to Sinatra's son, they all got away on a plane and died in a crash. This isn't quite as grim as that, but it's certainly not suggesting that crime pays.

Cesar Romero has a splendid scenery-chewing role as the retired real gangster who can take on these amateurs with one hand behind his back, but in the end this is a Rat Pack film first and a heist film very much second. It's amusing, if a little slow by modern standards, but very rarely tense or dramatic.

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