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TCMFF 2021: Ocean’s 11 (1960)

When most girls were giggling over boy bands, I was that weird on in the corner playing the specially made, Rat Pack compilation CD in my clunky, portable compact disc player. So, just saying that, I suppose, my opinion on Ocean’s 11 already becomes clear; however, as I grew from a little film fan to a (hopefully) professional cinema scholar who tries to be objective, I learned that this movie wasn’t as well-loved as it seems (in my head) it should be. Is that warranted, well, read on?

The plot of Ocean’s 11 is perhaps well-trod now (thanks to its remake and many sequels). The story follows Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) the de facto head of a group of former World War II paratroopers who come to the conlcusion there’s one way they can get ahead in life… by robbing Las Vegas. Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, Cesar Romero and Angie Dickinson co-star in the film… among others. Lewis Milestone directs the film from a script by Charles Lederer and Harry Brown.

From the opening frames, it’s immediately clear just what Ocean’s 11 is. This movie is less about the script and really the film as a story. Rather, I would say Ocean’s 11 is instead a study of not only personality, but really this very specific period in history. This movie is the Rat Pack. It is Las Vegas, it’s cocktails and showgirls.

This cast, particularly the core group of The Rat Pack (Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford and Bishop) are purely and completely themselves on-screen. I mean, sure, these men have different names, but the characters, the dynamic and the chemistry is fully and completely them. If you’ve seen movies like Robin and the 7 Hoods, this feels immediately familiar. In another way of thinking about it, if you’re a fan of all things Sinatra, chances are you’ll enjoy Ocean’s 11. If his persona doesn’t work for you… I wouldn’t dive into this movie to start.

Certain actors in contemporary pop culture are often called out for appearing in movies which only feel like an excuse to go on vacation, and this is true here. The core group, particularly Sinatra and Martin are defined by the sheer effortlessness in their star personas. They pull no-punches. The biggest joy in watching this movie as a fan of The Rat Pack comes purely in seeing these iconic and charismatic men hang out, smoke and be fully and completely themselves.

Among the cast, the biggest stand-outs (as it relates to character) are most certainly Sammy Davis Jr and Richard Conte in their respective roles. Sammy Davis Jr. in particular is a treasure of classic entertainment. The man is a legend and he should be known far more than he already is. He steps into the role of Josh Howard and not only blends with the tone of the film around him, but injects a real humanity into this man, showing everything he’s been through in life. There’s a layer of complexity inherent in Josh which is difficult to read in the other characters.

At the same time, the always unsung Richard Conte takes a part which could so easily fade into the background of the picture and turns him into the emotional heart of this story. Conte is a leading man who never quite received the attention he deserved, but he’s always a workhorse and always brings his A-game and that is so true here in his portrayal of ex-con Tony Bergdorf.

As a fan of all things vintage Vegas, there are only a handful of movies which capture such a true sense of the town as it was. So much time has passed and a town like Las Vegas changes so fast in the quest for the almighty dollar. When looking at the TCMFF programming this month, there has been a huge focus towards preserving films as historical documents and I believe Ocean’s 11 really fits inside this theme.

This is exactly why Ocean’s 11 is so valuable. At the time, Las Vegas was a much smaller town and of the 5 casinos which are spotlighted (The Desert Inn, The Sands, The Flamingo, The Sahara and The Riviera) only The Flamingo and The Sahara remain and neither are recognizable as the historical locations which they are.

Ocean’s 11 takes us into each of these casinos and gives audiences a view of a Las Vegas which few who are still with us remember. We are taken into the casinos, the iconic showrooms, even the halls and corridors of the hotels in live and vivid color. Fans of The Rat Pack know that while there is some surviving footage of the group at their peak, often it’s grainy and it’s difficult to gain a true appreciation for the environment outside of the show.

Ocean’s 11 is a snapshot of history in all its forms. This extends beyond the noted location work to its depiction of the culture as a whole surrounding these men. This time, I’m going to pull no punches… it is a dinosaur when viewed through a contemporary lens. This film comes from a bourbon (brought to you by a scantily clad showgirl, of courses) tinged perspective viewed through the smoky haze of a Las Vegas showroom. Women in the film serve one of two purposes… to bring you drinks, or bring you…. other things. The machismo is unapologetic. However, this is the cultural norm surrounding the shooting of this film. Is it right? No. However, I do believe it is important to see and understand movies like this to truly comprehend this era. This is paramount to understanding the cultural importance of The Rat Pack.

Ocean’s 11 is like its co-stars. It’s calm, cool, effortless and it puts on no airs. While Ocean’s 11 is packaged as a heist film, I think this definition really sets the film up for failure. At its core the movie is a historical examination of the cult of personality in this very specific period in history. The fun in this movie comes from watching these men interact in these iconic locations and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ocean’s 11 airs as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival bright and early Friday May 7th at 3:00am EST.

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