Rat Pack Vegas: Ocean’s 11 (1960)
Hitting the town with Frank, Dean and Sammy
There’s probably no crime that elicits more sympathy than robbing a casino. When the house always wins, a person can develop a strong sense of revenge. So for one of the best heist movies to be set in Las Vegas is no surprise. But for that film to star the complete Rat Pack brings a ton of cool to the dry desert.
The Rat Pack was a major producer of cool. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin, together with Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, were men who knew how to have a good time. Ocean’s 11 marked the only time the entire Rat Pack was together on film, and with the film’s Vegas setting, it’s not hard to imagine them agreeing to do the picture simply because they wanted to hang out together in Sin City.
Before the film, Sinatra, Davis, and Martin had already spent a lot of time performing in Las Vegas, and performances continued during the shoot. They would typically wake up in the afternoon, perform two shows in the evening, and then head to the set where they would film until dawn. The on-set camaraderie led to a lot of ad-libbing, bringing their natural banter to scenes. Shirley MacLaine, in a cameo of a drunken New Year’s reveler, tells Dean Martin that she’s “so drink she can’t lie down without holding on,” a playful jab at a line Dean Martin frequently used in his act.
The Rat Pack’s Vegas seen in the film is a more modest version than we know today, and a little rougher around the edges. The film’s heist knocks off the Flamingo, the Sands, the Desert Inn, the Riviera, and the Sahara. Today, only the Flamingo and the Riviera are still open, the rest having been replaced by more extravagantly themed resorts.
What’s more, filming Ocean’s 11 significantly changed these and all Las Vegas hotels. At the time, Las Vegas hotels had an unofficial color barrier which would have prevented Sammy Davis Jr. from staying at one of the major hotels, despite him performing with the others at the Sands. Upon pressure from Sinatra and others close to the production, casino owners changed their policy. [One area where filmmakers received more resistance was in getting Nevada’s Clark County to let the production use one of the county’s garbage trucks.]
In 1960, the city’s rough beginnings were still fresh, and are hinted at, indirectly, in the film. George Raft, who has a cameo as a casino owner, but who was most famous for playing mobsters, actually helped real-life mobster Bugsy Siegel finance and promote the Flamingo Hotel.
No matter how cool the cast, however, Ocean’s 11 is still a heist film, and the way they pull off the caper is clever and even rather believable. The film is full of twists to test their mettle, but the Rat Pack turn out to be just as cool in the face of trouble as they are at the bar – you only have to watch their silent exchange in the last scene for proof.