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The huge success of the Italian Sergio Leone Clint Eastwood Westerns in America prompted a flood of big-studio purchases and co-productions with European providers. Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West was a costly Paramount-Italian effort filmed both in Spain and in John Ford's Monument Valley in Arizona. Italo horror and sword 'n' sandal movies had pretty much been phased out, but Eurocrime flicks were on a big upswing. Importers passed over classy art productions by politically minded directors like Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano), but cheap thrillers with American guest stars received major distribution. Giuliano Montaldo's Grand Slam and Machine Gun McCain hired names like Edward G. Robinson and John Cassavetes. The vein petered out fairly quickly, however, when U.S. audiences showed resistance to big European stars like Alain Delon. The enormous European hits The Sicilian Clan and Borsalino didn't play well here; perhaps because Americans rejected subtitles and really didn't like English dubbing.
1968's They Came to Rob Las Vegas is one of the more extreme examples of this hybrid Italo-Yankee crime genre fad. Filmed in Spain, Nevada and California, Las Vegas, 500 milliones (original title) is a big-scale action caper. With recognizable American stars roaming all over the Mojave Desert, it looks quite expensive. But looks can be deceiving.
The mob springs old-time criminal Gino (Jean Servais) from jail. He contacts his nephew Tony Ferris (Gary Lockwood) and then attempts a daylight robbery of a Skorsky armored car in San Francisco. The company's modern security measures enable the cops to wipe out the entire gang. Tony retaliates by laying a complex plan to knock off another Skorsky armored car that carries casino receipts from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. The crack crew includes gunmen, construction experts and a helicopter pilot, and Tony takes a job as a casino dealer to communicate with his new girlfriend Ann Bennett (Elke Sommer) -- who happens to be the mistress of Skorsky Security president Steve Skorsky (Lee J. Cobb). Ann will provide the key armored car route information from Steve's mainframe computer. But the perfect plan has a fatal wrinkle: Skorsky is also transporting illicit gold bullion for the mob. The company's activities are being closely monitored by a team of Treasury agents led by the determined Douglas (Jack Palance).
Heist fans love They Came to Rob Las Vegas's innovative method of robbing an armored car: the thieves hijack the futuristic, tank-like van and bury it in a specially prepared pit in the sand dunes of the high desert in San Bernardino County. A second decoy truck drives to Mexico to throw off the cops. The thieves camp out in their underground bunker, waiting for the guards inside the fortified truck (it has a rear door like a bank vault) to surrender and open up. Tony Ferris has thought of everything -- corrugated steel plates (war surplus temporary airstrip material) serve as a "road" to drive the heavy truck over the sand. Then a pal in a helicopter uses his rotors to blow away all the tracks and traces. The cops, the Feds and the Skorsky people comb the desert and turn up nothing. 1
The only thing lacking is a genuinely interesting hero. Gary Lockwood doesn't exactly exude warmth or personality, and he's directed to be as cool and mechanical as the caper clockwork around him. Lockwood plays Tony as a well-functioning obsessive. Elke Sommer's Ann loves Tony enough to cheat and steal for him, and in return he withholds his affection. Ann can barely get the boy's attention, despite wearing a spectacularly low-cut dress to play at his blackjack table. Director Isasi hasn't got time for deep characters, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a picture with as much action as this one. Co-screenwriter Jo Eisinger was a crack noir talent (Night and the City) who did quite a bit of work in Europe, such as William Dieterle's now-obscure two-part science fiction spy chase epic, Mistress of the World.
French actor Jean Servais is the star of the original caper hit Rififi, a fact that only one out of a thousand Americans would pick up on in 1968. Having him wiped out in the first scene is clearly meant as a farewell to an earlier era of Eurocrime. The film's thesis is that modern technology is making the work of crooks much tougher, an idea that goes back as far as 1950s White Heat. 2 Tony ups the ante to defeat modern computers and radio tracking, but he can't predict the unpredictable.
They Came to Rob Las Vegas abounds in plot complications. Douglas unravels Ann's deceit when he thinks to check up on who accessed the Skorsky computer. Tony doesn't know that one of Douglas's highly trained pro Treasury agents happens to be riding in the back of the buried van. Worse, a couple of Tony's men pull a murderous mutiny midway through the caper. While Steve Skorsky rushes back from his mob confab in Mexico, Ann tries to rendezvous with Tony in Vegas - and discovers that she's being tailed by the Feds and the Mob.
The fast-moving caper has only a few loose ends and klunky issues. The phony road across the desert taken by the fancy armored money van isn't even wide enough for two-way traffic, and the sand trap that catches it looks bogus as well. The producers have altered the map of the desert north of San Bernardino to add a large, non-existent lake for Steve Skorsky's seaplane to land on. When we see the plane take off from this lake, there's no land on the horizon - it has obviously been filmed on the coastline of Spain or Italy. I partly grew up in San Bernardino. Believe me the place was such a bore that we'd have loved a gigantic lake like that, out by Barstow.
We quickly realize that the bulk of the movie was filmed in Europe. The interiors were shot in Italy, including a large and elaborate Vegas casino. Many of the exterior set pieces look like Spaghetti western country in Southern Spain. The sand dune area for the hijack scenes appears to be the same desert location seen in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. This means that actors like Lee J. Cobb, Elke Sommer and Jack Palance never had to travel to America at all. When they and the Euro actors appear, good doubles are used on location in Vegas and Los Angeles, and the stars (like Jean Servais) are seen against neutral matched backgrounds. It's an old trick, usually done with less finesse. Here it's designed into the fabric of the movie.
Director Isasi, a former editor, arranges these deceptions very well. To dress a San Francisco cutaway filmed in Europe, co-producers Warners appear to have provided some old 1950s three-sheet posters. The illusion is very good, if you accept the fact that Randolph Scott's old western Thunder over the Plains is showing on San Francisco theater screens in 1968! When Tony and Ann stop at a remote motel in Amboy, it's a two story modern place with nice rooms, not a shack as it would be in reality. The motel looks like a building on some European beach, actually -- I'll bet that the Mediterranean was just off-screen, to the left. All of this jigsaw puzzle work, if you look for it, is as fascinating as the movie. The cars and vehicles are a good match; it's possible that they were shipped to America after the Spanish filming was completed, or vice versa.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of They Came to Rob Las Vegas looks great in a very colorful enhanced transfer. It's in the small-gauge 2-perf Techniscope format but there are few grainy shots and material filmed in different parts of the world matches very well. Nat Wachsberger's production carries a lot of Spanish names and some fairly unfamiliar talent in top slots. Composer Georges Garaventz has 105 credits in the IMDB, and I'd be hard pressed to find one that stands out. The same goes for the Catalonian cinematographer Juan Gelpí, whose work here is very good.
The American poster art on the cover looks very much like the work done for Paramount's Danger: Diabolik, the same year.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
They Came to Rob Las Vegas rates:
2. Movie crime is getting more difficult to dramatize, thanks to modern advancements like cell phones. In The Town, the crooks splash a chemical all over their crime scenes to "destroy DNA evidence". Getting away with anything sounds pretty hopeless, provided that the cops aren't so overworked that they can't respond.
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T'was Ever Thus.