Ocean’s 11 (1960)

Ocean's 11 (1960)Synopsis: New Year’s Eve in Las Vegas. Roulette wheels spin, cards snap, slots chime, champagne fizzes, the shows go on…and the lights go out. It’s the perfect time to steal a kiss or a $25 chip. But for Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) and his 10 partners in crime, it’s the perfect moment to steal millions.

Sinatra and off-screen pals Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and more play army buddies who devise a scheme to knock out power to the Vegas strip, electronically rig five big casino vaults and raid them all at the same instant. Packed with location-lensed glamour, sweaty suspense, swinging comedy and a stunning twist ending.

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Ocean’s 11 (1960) 7.0

eyelights: Frank Sinatra. its ensemble cast. its structure. it core concept. its unexpected ending.
eyesores: the performances. the editing. its simplistic plot development.

“There’s only one thing you love, Danny, and it’s danger.”

Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been enamoured with Frank Sinatra. Or Elvis, for that matter. But I do recognize that Sinatra had decent acting chops and made a few really fine motion pictures in his time. I haven’t seen all of them, of course, but he has great presence in the ones I did see.

I also hear that he was a decent singer.

Relax. I jest.

‘Ocean’s 11’ is the first in a short series of films that Sinatra made starring some of his closest friends, members of what was popularly known as “The Rat Pack”. Though he’d already made four pictures with select members of his entourage, the 1960 Lewis Milestone picture was the first to put so many of them in prominence.

When I first saw the picture, in 2008, I was really disappointed with it: the plot was thin, and more of an excuse for each actor to do their various shticks, the acting was weak (and sometimes simply abysmal!), the heist itself was simplicity itself and the finale took an unexpected downturn. It was okay, but certainly no classic.

And yet, Steven Soderbergh had recently remade it into a hit film which spawned two sequels!

I didn’t get the appeal.

‘Ocean’s 11’ tells the story of some former members of the 82nd Airborne who band together to use their various field expertises to steal millions from five Las Vegas casinos on New Year’s Eve. It follows each of them as they round up for their first team meeting, case each of the joints, pull the heists and then manage the fallout.

I think it was just a question of expectations, but I enjoyed it this time around. ‘Ocean’s 11’ is by no means a perfect film, but it certainly has its charms: There’s the delivery, which starts slow and steady but adds twists and turns. And there’s the dynamics in the ensemble cast, for one, which is akin to hanging out with buddies.

Mind you, I must admit that I have a weakness for ensemble casts, especially when I’m familiar with many of them. It’s like being in a candy store. On the plus side, there’s potential for a lot of interesting characters. On the down side, there’s less time to get to know them – and, in some movies, there isn’t even an attempt to.

In ‘Ocean’s 11’, it’s the reverse: director Lewis Milestone spends an inordinate amount of time setting up the characters. In truth, one gets the impression that the plot was sort of secondary to showcasing the actors, with some of them getting a chance to show off a bit, and others getting extensive though unnecessary screentime.

The problem is that some of them are just horrendous actors. I don’t know the reasons behind their casting (was Sinatra pulling the strings?) but there’s just no excuse for performances like Akim Tamiroff’s as Spyros, the man who funds the heist for a price – it was completely over the top, a caricature in a cartoon film.

He was clearly intended to be the butt end of jokes, always complaining about getting no respect from the others in a super thick accent, but he wasn’t funny at all. And the gags that Danny pulled on him, calling him and pretending to be someone else, weren’t even remotely funny; he was supposed to be gullible enough to be goofy.

In any event, ‘Ocean’s 11’ is anything but realistic: almost every scene is staged in a static fashion, more akin to theatre than to cinema, making it feel clunky, awkward at times. So it’s no surprise that the characters aren’t entirely believable and may even be stereotypes – well fleshed-out stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless.

It’s probably just a product of its time.

Having said this, I wasn’t sure if there was a racist undertone to it as well: for instance, while Sammy Davis, Jr. is part of the gang, he was relegated to the part of a garbage truck driver – he’s not on par with the more “upscale” members of the group. Given that it was released in 1960, it wouldn’t surprise me – but I’d rather think otherwise.

There’s also a disposable quality to the women, with Danny and some of his buds treating them like objects, there only to do their bidding, utterly disposable. Though Sam tries to get Danny’s ex to reconcile with him, the undertone isn’t love but the notion that a man can/should dictate to a woman what she should do.

Again, probably just a product of its time.

These things may very well be the reason why I didn’t naturally warm up to the picture the first time around. Not to say that I’m more racist or sexist now, it’s just that my expectations are different. I was probably also dismayed that it takes nearly 51 minutes before the whole group is assembled at Spyros’ mansion to discuss the heist.

51 minutes!

Still it’s interesting that the characters are developed for so long, whatever you may think of them. And the rest of the picture breezes by. Though the heist is simplistic by today’s standards (their big gimmick is fluorescent paint, and they don’t even do it well!) it’s fun watching them execute it, as it frequently is in these types of pictures.

And the ending is a classic. While the surprise seems a bit obvious, I really liked that the boys were not given the triumphant exit that you’d expect in a star-powered vehicle. That’s pretty cool. And the closing shot, showing (nearly) each of them walking away as realization sets in, is an absolute classic. It’s an unforgettable moment.

So, while ‘Ocean’s 11’ is a bit sloppy in its construction, and though it’s not exactly the tightest of scripts, it’s a picture that’s worth seeing anyway. With adjusted expectations, it can be a nice, light ride. And it’s certainly worth it for the rare occasion of seeing the Chairman of the Board and most of his “Rat Pack” together on screen.

After all, there’s a reason they stole the spotlight back in the day.

Date of viewing: November 24, 2016

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