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Warner's newest Blu-ray release celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Rat Pack's biggest film success, Ocean's 11, a glossy caper picture whose real reason for being is to glorify the cool personalities of its stars. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford were living plenty high around 1960; they were the darlings of a culture that couldn't get enough of their playboy ways and easygoing 'ring a ding' lifestyles. Sometime around the early 1990s, the set that goes in for bachelor pads and "cocktail lounge" music rediscovered The Rat Pack in a big way.
The Big Heist formula gets a good run for its money, at a leisurely pace. Crooked moneyman Spyros Acebos (Akim Tamiroff, as comedy relief) organizes a fantastic plan to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously. The real force behind the caper is gambler Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra). Danny assembles ten of his ex-paratroop buddies in the desert Mecca to prepare to tap the casino cash bins by knocking out the power at the stroke of the New Year and using night-vision specs to navigate amid the confusion. Pal Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) is a popular crooner who takes a singing engagement in a casino bar; others likewise take inside jobs to get near the tills. Wealthy Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) attracts the suspicions of his stepfather Duke Santos (Cesar Romero), a gangster that doesn't figure out what's going on in time. Garbage collector Josh Howard (Sammy Davis, Jr.) also has a key role in the robbery, which goes alarmingly well. But with Las Vegas sealed off, the boys take desperate measures to sneak the loot out of the city, a gambit that has some drawbacks.
With Las Vegas and Beverly Hills their unofficial hangouts, the Rat Pack was a curious phenomenon in late '50s culture, an unofficial club of actors and performers whose swingin' lifestyles made them the darlings of the gossip columns. Frank Sinatra alone was the kind of unstoppable force who could meet any person, crash any party or take over any room. Together with his heavy-tipper star pals and their lesser hangers-on, they influenced a lot of Hollywood movie-making and literally took over Las Vegas whenever they felt like indulging a spree. Dazzling the squares with their hi-jinks, they reportedly carried on an unbroken round of wild booze 'n' broads parties. If any of their group were performing (and even if they weren't) they took over stages and thrilled audiences with their hipster cool. Whatever hotel they showed up at was the hottest place in Vegas. Sinatra, Martin and Davis Jr. reveled in their ability to requisition shows, dance floors, nightclubs, hotel suites and any woman they saw at a moment's whim.
The group as a whole represented a 40-ish group midlife fling, living proof that America was great because our celebrities never had to grow old or stop chasing skirts. Sinatra encouraged speculation about mob connections. He was way beyond the days when he might have needed friends to put a horse's head in a producer's bed to get a plum part. Sinatra naturally knew everyone who was anyone in Vegas, which must have included some crime bosses, but his celebrity made him bigger than all of them put together. 1
Dean Martin had broken free of Jerry Lewis 3 and was on a celebrity spree, having proven himself a bankable actor in serious roles. Even more naturally cooler than Frankie, Martin was neither the biggest drinker nor the wildest party man, but rather a loner functioning inside a series of masks. His motivation was his own business.
Sammy Davis Jr. had been in movies as a child performer since the early 30s and had come into his own as a socko Vegas performer and major chisel man on the race barrier. At this point in his career he served as sort of a token black for the group, but only with his own self-effacing cooperation. The minor indignities of the film, such as playing a garbage collector or standing by while jokes are made about slavery, indicates the style of the Rat Pack: No rules, nothing gets in the way of our cool.
Peter Lawford didn't display any particular talent in his MGM career but was a natural for the Pack by virtue of his slick lifestyle and his political connections, having married into the Kennedys. The legend of Hollywood is that Lawford is the one who got Marilyn Monroe tangled up with John Kennedy, 2 and conspiracy theorists have always tied the White House, MM and the Rat Pack together in a fantasy scandal that ended in Marilyn's supposed suicide.
Among the rest of the cast, there were official Rat Pack members like comedian Joey Bishop and deadpan actor Norman Fell, whose careers benefitted greatly by association with Frankie & Co.. Henry Silva had a ball at the parties that never stopped; hordes of women at these things would have sex with anyone remotely associated with the top swingers. Silva was a lesser Western actor but soon found himself an official Rat Packer. He starred in the cheapo gangster epic Johnny Cool as a hit man, backed up with a theme song crooned by Sammy Davis Jr.
That's the basic background to Ocean's 11. The movie isn't remembered really for itself but for the ambience of these pre-flab playboys and the aura of their wild lifestyles. Reportedly filming by day and partying all night, these guys still look snappy in their loafer shoes and fuzzy sweaters (Sinatra wears one that's day-glo orange), hardly hung-over at all. The ability to drink and **** and push people around all night, was the height of 'masculine' glamour.
The picture is stacked with women, most of whom have very limited filmographies. They're written into the show as disposable objects for Frank and Dean to bully about, insult and lord it over. There's a gesture of romantic responsibility in the brief appearance of Angie Dickinson as Frank's estranged wife, but the lax screenplay uses up a lot of running time on side-trips like this and then lets them drop. The unbroken string here is Misogyny with a capital M. The Rat Packers dismiss and abuse beautiful playthings as if carrying out some kind of revenge against the female sex on the behalf of square losers everywhere.
The movie is lavish and slick, accurately imparting the feel of Vegas at the time with its still fairly stylish hotels and casinos. Large but not gargantuan as they are now, they seem like movie sets and were probably simple to recreate on sound stages. There's nothing cheap about the production, much of which was filmed in the real hotels, a coup of cooperation only the Rat Pack could achieve. The big New Years' party scenes make the 2001 remake look chintzy by comparison.
As a caper film, Ocean's 11 makes casual use of the ex-army buddy motif, the professional-planning aspect of which is swiped from Sam Fuller's House of Bamboo. More noir nostalgia comes with the presence of ace actor Richard Conte (The Big Combo, The Brothers Rico, The Godfather), who holds up what's left of the serious original screenplay by playing his desperate ex-con character as a tortured soul right out of Cry of the City. As Conte shares few scenes with the other actors he always seems to be in a different film, thus providing some needed relief from the casual hipsters. The twist ending is well handled, and at the time wowed audiences who thought the twists on the Alfred Hitchcock TV show were the height of sophistication. The emotional payoff makes good use of the 'pass the news down the line' gag from White Heat ten years earlier.
Dean Martin warbles a couple of tunes at a piano (could he really play?) but Sammy Davis Jr. takes the singing honors, belting out a nice showstopper with the title theme and reprising it for the truly cool kiss-off end credits. The eleven thieves stroll down the Vegas strip in the harsh light of the morning-after ... the kind of morning-after that the actors involved made sure they never had to face.
Warner's Blu-ray of Ocean's 11 looks great, especially on a large monitor where its many wide shots have room to sprawl. William Daniels' high-key lighting seems right for these boys during the day, and the night caper scenes have a rich, non-noir look that benefits from jazzy images, like the colored night-vision markers used to guide the thieves. In Blu-ray the colors look soft instead of garish -- that bright orange-ish sweater of Sinatra's is finally under control. Fans will enjoy the frequent guest cameos from the likes of George Raft and Shirley MacLaine. Red Skelton's argument with a casino cashier (they won't let him exceed his limit) would seem to be a public relations concession to the image requirements of the Vegas chamber of commerce.
The goodies are ported over from earlier DVD special editions. A feature length commentary from Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Angie Dickinson begins the extras. A nice clip from The Tonight Show has Frank Sr. hosting with Angie as a guest, reminiscing about the experience. A welcome extra comes in the form of a map of the Vegas hotels: clicking on each in turn brings up an interesting mini docu on the hotel and an aspect of the Vegas lifestyle of the time, with ex- showgirls, croupiers, and other non-celebrities providing testimonials. The creative extra adds to the movie experience instead of promoting something. Savant grows weary of some 'special' editions that are mostly studio advertising.
The Rat Pack only made two or three movies as a team -- ever see Sergeants Three? Sheesh. Various members continued to meet up in twos or threes on the Johnny Carson show, at industry get-togethers or for more-subdued Vegas jaunts. Dean Martin got his television show and the Matt Helm movies; Sinatra continued as a star film attraction in roles both light and serious, and his singing career got even bigger with middle age. Ocean's 11 is still fun because it represents the height of their decadent appeal.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ocean's Eleven Blu-ray rates:
1. Cranky satirist Al Capp (Li'l Abner) had a running gag in his cartoons in the mid-sixties that made Sinatra furious, about a thug celebrity named 'Frank' who bullied his way wherever he wanted, beat up whoever he chose and had the restaurateurs whose rooms he busted up meekly cow-towing to him. 'Frank's' mob connections would make anyone who displeased him disappear. One schlemiel character in the strip made a habit of freeloading, using the catchphrase 'I'm with Frank' - the words alone got reactions of terror and acquiescence wherever he went.
2. I say legend because it's a claim everyone hears, but nobody seems to know from firsthand experience or testimony ...
3. Lewis of course also had a big Vegas career. My step-grandfather was an electrician in one of the hotels, and when I visited him in his little house in Henderson, Nevada, he always had a couple of dozen cigarette lighters embossed with a caricature of Jerry Lewis lying around. Apparently Lewis carried pockets-ful of the things around with him and gave them out in lieu of talking to people: "Hey how are ya?" You think you're shaking hands and you're left with a trinket instead. Back when the lack of technology required celebrities to mingle daily with ordinary mortals, they worked out such complicated schemes to keep the rabble at a distance.
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T'was Ever Thus.