Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The set that goes in for cocktail music and bachelor pads rediscovered The Rat Pack in a big way in the middle '90s. The Rat Pack's biggest film success was easily Ocean's Eleven, a middling caper picture whose real reason for being was to glorify the ultimate 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.
Crooked moneyman Sypros Acebos (Akim Tamiroff, as comedy relief) thinks he's organizing a fantastic plan to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously, but 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 cash bin of each casino by knocking out the power at the stroke of the New Year and using nightvision 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. Garbageman 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 were a curious phenomenon in late '50s culture, an unofficial club of actors and performers whose swingin' lifestyle 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, take over any room and leave someone else to pay the bill; together with his upscale star pals and their lesser hanger-ons, they influenced a lot of movie-making in Hollywood and literally took over Las Vegas whenever they felt like indulging a spree. Always preferring to have plenty of squares as witnesses to their hijinks, they reportedly carried on wild booze 'n' broads parties that never stopped. If any of their group were performing (and even if they weren't) they took over stages and dazzled
audiences with their hipster cool. Whatever hotel they showed up at was the hottest place in Vegas, and they revelled 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. The spectre of mob connections dogged Sinatra mostly because he encouraged them; he was way beyond the days when he might have needed relatives to put horseheads 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 was kind of the token black for the group, but only with his own self-affacing cooperation. The minor indignities of the film, such as playing a garbageman 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 have 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 some kind of orgiastic 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 and starring in the cheapo gangster epic Johnny Cool as a hit man backed up with his own theme sung by Sammy Davis Jr.
That's the basic background to Ocean's Eleven. 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 presence 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) and the big New Years' party scenes make the 2001 remake look chintzy in comparison.
As a caper film, Ocean's Eleven 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. Conte doesn't share many scenes with the other actors, and 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 ripped off from White Heat ten years earlier.
Dean Martin warbles a couple of tunes at a piano (could he really play?) but Sammy Davis Jr. gets the singing honors here, belting out a nice showstopper with the title theme and reprising it for the truly-cool kissoff 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 DVD of Ocean's Eleven is a great improvement on their 1990 laserdisc in both color and image quality, although it must be said that the picture never looked anything less than good on television. Fans of the Rat Pack with large monitors will enjoy the relaxed Panavision compositions and the frequent guest cameos from the likes of George Raft, Red Skelton (whose schtick seems to be a concession to the image requirements of the Vegas chamber of commerce) and Shirley MacLaine.
There's a feature length commentary from Frank Sinatra, Jr. and Angie Dickinson that, sorry, Savant had no desire to sample (this ain't the place for comprehensive extras analysis or audiophile opinions). A nice clip from The Tonight Show has Frank Sr. hosting with Angie as a guest, reminiscing about the experience. Besides the usual trailers there's a very welcome extra that 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. It's a creative extra that works because it adds to the movie experience instead of promoting something. Warners can be stingy with its Special Editions but regularly turns out great stuff like this on 'normal' releases. Savant is tired of '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 Eleven is still fun because it represents the height of their decadent appeal.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ocean's Eleven rates:
Supplements: commentary, The Tonight Show clip, Vegas life mini-docus, trailers
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 19, 2002
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 restauranteurs whose rooms he busted up meekly cowtowing 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 acquiesence 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 became 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.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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