Saturday, September 27, 2008 07:02 AM
On the Viewer - Ocean's 11 (1960)
 by Fëanor

Poppy and I really enjoy the modern Ocean's movies, but neither of us had ever seen the original Ocean's 11, starring Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack. Thankfully, Netflix was recently able to help us fill in this gap in our movie-watching experience.

The film starts with Danny Ocean (Sinatra) putting his team together. Turns out they were all in the same outfit in WWII and now they're going to use those organizational skills to knock over a bunch of casinos during the chaos of New Year's Eve. Some of the guys don't want to get involved, but inevitably some crazy random happenstance or other (one dude is diagnosed with a fatal disease; another dude loses his job) ends up convincing them to come along anyway. While Ocean is wandering around pulling everybody together, the man with the plan, a nervous fellow named Spyros Acebos (who's played by the great character actor Akim Tamiroff, a favorite of Orson Welles), sits at home fretting. He's essentially comic relief; he pulls faces and hems and haws while Ocean pulls gags on him. Dean Martin pretty much just plays himself (he's a lounge singer in Vegas), which provides the perfect excuse for him to get in a couple of music numbers. Not that they really need excuses; Sammy Davis Jr. plays a garbage man, and he manages to get in a music number, too. Anyway, after a while they do finally all get together at Acebos' house and get down to brass tacks. The plan is pretty simple: kill the power to a bunch of casinos, and rewire their electrical boards so when the backup power kicks in, instead of the lights going back on, the electronically locked doors that lead to the safes pop open. From there on in, it's a classic robbery job: hold a gun on whoever might be nearby while you clean out the safe. There are the usual last minute problems during the actual caper (the sick guy's sickness surfaces; a very young, very drunk, very horny Shirley MacLaine gets in the way), but overall it actually goes quite smoothly, and the cash gets hidden safely away. Now all they have to do is settle in and wait for the heat to die down. Then they can just walk out of town with the money.

One of the gang - Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) - has a possessive, rich mother who dotes on him and has always given him everything he wants. And he hates it. He can't wait to become independently wealthy so he can stop going back to her for everything. But it turns out that during the heist, Mother happened to be in one of the casinos, along with her latest fiance, an ex-con named Duke Santos (Cesar Romero), and Danny Ocean's bitter ex-girlfriend (whom he had a little fling with and then threw away). Duke is certain that with his criminal connections he can figure out who pulled the job and get the casinos' money back, acquiring an exorbitant finder's fee in the process. At first he has a hard time finding out anything, because Danny's gang isn't really connected with the criminal underworld, but eventually he stumbles upon the information he needs, and he shows up to blackmail the gang into coughing up the dough. This forces them to move up their timetable and come up with a new, clever plan for sneaking the money out of town - a clever plan that ends up backfiring spectacularly.

The movie is a little odd in that certain red herring plotlines get introduced as if they're going to be important and have an effect on the heist, but don't end up actually going anywhere at all. It looks like Ocean's bitter ex-fling, for example, could step in and ruin everything, but she turns out to be only a minor annoyance and quickly disappears. Likewise, Ocean's estranged wife, Beatrice (Angie Dickinson), whom he seems determined to get back in the opening of the film, and whom you therefore assume he's going to get back by the end, actually shows up only one more time, in a short scene in the latter half of the picture that doesn't even include Danny, and then never appears again. No romantic subplot for you! In fact, the women in the film are pretty much all throw-away characters, and the men treat all of them badly (to an extent that's really rather upsetting; a modern audience would find it hard not to sympathize at least a little with Ocean's bitter ex-fling, he casts her off so brutally). This is a man's movie about men, and the women just get in the way. (And what men! Besides Sinatra, Tamiroff, Dino, Romero, Sammy, and Lawford, the cast also includes Richard Conte [Barzini from The Godfather], Joey Bishop, and Henry Silva [another of my favorite character actors].)

Still, if you can put that aside, it is an entertaining, clever, and funny film, even if some of the humor and slang was a bit lost on me (I love Akim Tamiroff, but I found his character in this movie, and the way the other characters rag on him, to be mostly grating and unfunny). The final joke, which gets played on our heroes, was actually a bit of a shock to me, and a little disappointing and anticlimactic. I thought this was a caper movie! Aren't they all supposed to get away clean with the cash? Still, I couldn't be too angry with such an amusing and unexpected twist.

One of the most interesting things about the movie are the differences between it and modern films of its type. Not only has security and technology increased a great deal since then, so have the expectations of audiences. I was struck by how quaint and old fashioned the robbery was. They just pop open a door, walk in with guns, open a little old school combination lock safe, and walk off with stacks of cash. In modern Las Vegas, they don't just keep all their money in a little safe in a back room anymore. And even if they did, over the years heist and caper movies have had to one-up each other so many times in terms of the complexity of the robberies that it could never go this simple or this smoothly. There would have to be ten times as much security and ten times as many obstacles, requiring the robbers to devise many insanely labyrinthine plans and bring into play all kinds of crazy equipment. Plus, during the heist, at least half a dozen things would have to go wrong, requiring the robbers to rethink things on the fly.

All that being said, it's the dated nature of the film that gives it much of its charm. And despite the differences, the modern Ocean's Eleven and the original Ocean's Eleven have a lot in common in terms of construction and tone. Both films were made by a bunch of guys who liked each other and who pretty much just wanted to get together, pal around for a while, and have a lot of fun. And that sense of fun comes through in the end product.
Tagged (?): Movies (Not), On the Viewer (Not)

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Welcome to the blog of Jim Genzano, writer, web developer, husband, father, and enjoyer of things like the internet, movies, music, games, and books. For a more detailed run-down of who I am and what goes on here, read this.

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