Movie review: ‘Ocean’s 11’ (1960)

The original “Ocean’s 11” was one of the fun projects for Frank Sinatra and his “Rat Pack,” just as the remake and its franchise would be for George Clooney and friends two generations later. The “Rat Pack” cats are smooth; they’re cool; and they’re all easy to watch – kind of like one of their cocktails that flow so freely in the film. The original “Ocean’s 11” has some great stuff going for it and it remains as watchable today as when it was released (plus, it’s totally great looking back at an ages-ago Las Vegas). The remake is pretty good on its own, but you need to watch the original to truly appreciate it.

‘Ocean’s 11 (1960)’
(1960; 127 minutes; rated UR; directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.)

IT’S THE COMPANY YOU KEEP, NOT THE CAPER

(NOTE: I updated this review by correcting a couple of typos; updating some links; and adding a bit of trivia on Jan. 2, 2016. I again expanded this review with more opinion, additional trivia and the updating of links on Dec. 6, 2017.)

It’s neat how some recent entertainment set in or around 1960, say TV’s “Mad Men,” gets accolades for costuming and sets. If you watch the original “Ocean’s 11” from 1960, you’ll see the real thing: They didn’t have to do anything other than shoot on location and buy off the rack – as if Frank, Dean and the boys bought off the rack.

In any case, “Ocean’s 11” is a flight of fancy … the coolest cats doing cool things and enjoying life to the fullest while drinking and smoking up a storm. Oh, and some don’t take marriage vows completely to heart: asked if character “Danny Ocean” was still married, another quipped, “Yeah, but he’s not workin’ at it.”

Of course Frank Sinatra is top dog here and plays “Danny Ocean” and the rest of his Las Vegas “Rat Pack” pals round out the top of the enormous cast including Dean Martin as “Sam Harmon;” Sammy Davis Jr. as “Josh Howard;” Peter Lawford as “Jimmy Foster;” and Joey Bishop as “’Mushy’ O’Connors.” Click here for Wiki’s explanation of the “Rat Pack” and why Marilyn Monroe and two other “Ocean’s 11” players (Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine) were considered “mascots” and that Humphrey Bogart founded the original “Rat Pack.”

The plot’s easy because the film is just a set-up for the actors pretty much being themselves on camera. Sinatra is called in to run an operation to steal millions of dollars from Las Vegas casinos (cue very early product placement for the casinos). He rounds up his World War II buddies (“they hold more meetings than the American Legion”), cuts power to the city, gets the money with no muss or fuss and a final twist in the plot is the icing on the cake. Easy peasy, as many characters like to say in Chuck Lorre sitcoms such as “The Big Bang Theory.”

The film doesn’t spend much time on the details, but enough to give the audiences of the day the chance to think they’re getting a somewhat behind-the-scenes look at Las Vegas casinos and all their glitz and glamor.

The robbery of the casinos is simplistic compared to what George Clooney and friends had to plot in the remake in 2001 and subsequent sequels (I only count one, “Ocean’s Thirteen” as a real sequel since the second had the uniquely talentless Catherine Zeta-Jones in the cast). You can read more of my take on the remade “Ocean’s” franchise here: click here for my review of the “Eleven” remake | click here for my review of “Ocean’s Thirteen.”

So, let’s look at the original’s co-headliners:

  • As in most of his performances, especially capers, Oscar winner (not for this one) Sinatra is smooth, assured and confident. It’s easy to see he’s the center of this guy universe and delivers sharp work in a film that would have been all too easy to mail it in. Sinatra had another good caper film in the 1960s (“Assault on a Queen” – click here for my review) but also did drama such as his Oscar winning turn in “From Here to Eternity” and cop fare such as “The First Deadly Sin” (one of the first “police procedural” movies and a dramatic turn a cut above his usual effort) and as “Tony Rome” (click here for my review) and its sequel, “Lady in Cement.” His songs were used in more than 300 films and TV shows. Sinatra received an honorary Oscar and an Oscar was presented for humanitarian work. He died in 1998 at 82 of cancer and heart and kidney ailments.
  • Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Martin is at his affable, sidekick best here as he tries to keep Sinatra from doing the caper. But he falls into line with the rest when he sees Sinatra’s made up his mind. Martin has a great scene kissing an uncredited MacLaine to distract her from the gang’s work at one casino and also sings (he has more than 200 vocal credits in film and TV). His movies include “Airport” and “Rio Bravo” and was nominated for “Who was that Lady?” Of course, he is an entertainment legend for his comedy work with Jerry Lewis. He won his Globe for his self-titled TV variety show and was nominated three other times for it. I liked that he and Davis teamed up again in Burt Reynolds’ “The Cannonball Run” and its sequel (click here for my review of the original | click here for my review of the sequel). Dean died at 78 in 1995 of lung cancer and emphysema.
  • The best singer here is Golden Globe nominee (not for this one) Davis – sorry, “Old Blue Eyes” and Dean-o. He’s got the voice and he’s got the moves and his acting is right up there with the rest of the “Rat Pack.” Davis is earnest and makes the most out of every moment of his screen time. He was in “Porgy and Bess” and “Robin and the 7 Hoods” as well as the classic TV “All in the Family” episode where he kisses “Archie.” He was nominated for a TV variety show and he died at 64 in 1990 of complications from throat cancer.

Here’s a look at the rest of the gang:

  • Lawford is competent here and his suave British countenance is a plus, but nothing spectacular. His scenes with Cesar Romero stand above the rest. Lawford was in “The Longest Day,” “Exodus” and a variety of TV roles from “The Wild Wild West” to “Bewitched.” He died at 61 in 1984 of liver and kidney disease.
  • Bishop looks and acts in this one like he was born to be a sidekick. He’s smooth and funny as needed, but really doesn’t do anything to make his character stand out. Bishop died at 89 in 2007 of multiple organ failure.
  • Richard Conte plays “Anthony ‘Tony’ Bergdorf” and has worked with Sinatra on other films as well (including “Tony Rome” and “Assault on a Queen”). Conte is apparently from the school of stoic actors, as he shows little range of emotion, even as his character dies of cancer on the Las Vegas Strip. He died at 65 in 1975 of a heart attack.
  • Henry Silva plays “Roger Corneal” and, like Conte, doesn’t have much range of emotion for his character. He basically fills in the background in several scenes and handles his biggest moments without embarrassing himself or the film. Silva has been in movies as varied as “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Above the Law” with Stephen Segal as well as a neat turn as an assassin the Burt Reynolds cop thriller “Sharky’s Machine.” He, too, was in “Cannonball Run II.”
  • As for the rest of the gang – Buddy Lester as “Vince Massler;” Richard Benedict as “ ‘‘Curly’ Steffans;” Norman Fell as “Peter Rheimer;” and Clem Harvey as “Louis Jackson – they do OK to solid work, but I’m not going to expound any more on their careers. As for their lives, Lester died at 87 in 2002 of cancer; and Fell died at 74 in 1998 of bone marrow cancer.

Here’s a quick look at some of the rest of the cast:

  • Golden Globe nominee (not or this one) Romero plays “Duke Santos,” who’s marrying Lawford’s mom and figures out the caper. He’s a big man (much taller at 6-foot-3 than most actors here) and someone is usually sitting while he stands or vice versa … a 5-foot-7 Sinatra doesn’t stand a chance in the physical department. Romero was on TV’s “Passport to Danger” and even shows such as “Charlie’s Angels” in a career that spanned nearly eight decades. Romero was nominated for “If a Man Answers” and he died at 86 in 1994 of a blood clot while suffering from pneumonia. He notched an astonishing 201 acting credits during his lifetime.
  • Two-time Oscar nominee Akim Tamiroff plays “Spyros Acebos” and is the gang’s financial backer. Tamiroff does a paper-thin effort as he tries to show frustration at the lack of punctuality of some of the gang and doesn’t do much else with his time on screen. He had an impressive 155 acting credits over five decades in Hollywood and was in “Touch of Evil” while being nominated for “The General Died at Dawn” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He died at 72 in 1972 of cancer.

Although this is pretty much a boys club flick, there are two solid performances by women:

  • Golden Globe winner (not for this one) Dickinson plays Sinatra’s wife “Beatrice ‘Bea’ Ocean” and makes sure every second of her time on camera is very good. She’s standing by her man even though he out gallivanting around and she fences very well with one of Frank’s girls and has a nice scene with Martin. Of course, Dickinson was most famously TV’s “Police Woman” as well as being in “Rio Bravo” and good in the slasher film “Dressed to Kill.” She won her Globes for “Police Woman” and “Rio Bravo” and was nominated three other times for the police show.
  • Patrice Wymore plays aggrieved girlfriend “Adele Ekstrom.” She doesn’t do much with her character and approaches trying a little too hard in a couple of scenes. Wymore was in “Tea for Two” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” She died at 87 in 2014 of pulmonary disease.

It’s difficult to judge how effective director Lewis Milestone was in making the film. It is so driven by the personalities of the stars that he could have just sat back and put it on cruise control. However, as Milestone was a two-time Oscar winner and one-time nominee, I’m sure he guided it just enough to make sure it didn’t founder on the egos of the stars. Milestone won Oscars for 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” and for “Two Arabian Knights” in 1927. His next film after “Ocean’s 11” was “Mutiny on the Bounty” with Marlon Brando, which earned seven Oscar nominations including “Best Picture.” Milestone died at 84 in 1980 of post-surgical complications.

So, there you have it. “Ocean’s 11” is the “Rat Pack’s” signature film and it remains watchable nearly three generations later. No matter if you like or dislike Sinatra and his crew, you should check this one out for the historical perspective of the entertainment industry. The “Rat Pack” probably never thought of it this way, but that’s how the years have treated it.

One thing I couldn’t quite put my hand on is the meaning behind the name of the film. It is “Ocean’s 11.” Note: singular possessive. Does this mean 11 guys with Danny or a total of 11 in on the caper? Hmmm, let’s check out the math.

Now there is “Danny Ocean” and TEN others … or 11 if you count the money man in this original film – and with Sinatra that would make 12. In the remake with Clooney, there’s “Danny Ocean” and NINE others … or 10 if you count the money man played by Elliott Gould (his is a bigger role than the one played by Tamiroff in the original) – and with Clooney that would make 11.

So, is it grammatically correct that it is “Ocean’s” 11 guys or a total of 11 in the gang? Either way, one of the films is wrong on this count.

One other thing: the title. I’ve used “Ocean’s 11” in this review. IMDb.com has it “Ocean’s Eleven” and it usually follows the film credits (just as it is “MASH” and not “M*A*S*H” for the film — check the credits as the asterisks were added for that movie’s poster). The credits for “Ocean’s 11” has both the numeral 11 and the spelling of “eleven.” Despite the credits being pretty clear about “Eleven,” I’m going with “11” to differentiate it somewhat from the remake “Ocean’s Eleven” from 2001.

Ocean’s 11” was the eighth ranked film at the box office in 1960, according to Wiki, with $5.5 million in receipts. It was a tough year for any film to make its mark with the No. 1 film “Spartacus” at $15 million followed by “Psycho” and “Exodus.”

Other cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • As I noted above, MacLaine was uncredited in her role. In the remake, there was an uncredited role, but it was for a major character: Don Cheadle as “Basher Tarr.” For her part, MacLaine ad-libbed her entire part and received a new car from the studio for her work.
  • Noted bad guy actor George Raft plays casino boss “Jack Strager” and was in the original “Scarface” as well as “Some Like It Hot,” “Red Light” and “The Patsy.” As an historical aside, Raft was involved with mobster Bugsy Siegel, a part of the mob’s Murder Inc. assassination organization and the builder of the original Flamingo resort and the prime mover of building Las Vegas’ Strip. Raft even did publicity for the Flamingo.
  • Lawford reportedly heard about the story idea from another film director, who reportedly got it from a gas station attendant. Lawford then acquired the rights to the story.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “In the final shot of the film, the eleven walk past the famous sign in front of the Sands hotel. The five members of the Rat Pack … are billed on the sign. They were performing alternately in the hotel’s Copa Room during production, at the “Summit at the Sands.’” Actually, IMDb.com is wrong on the count. It couldn’t be 11 because the “Tony Bergdorf” character had died and if you count Tamiroff’s character as part of the gang, he wasn’t in Las Vegas for the robbery or after-robbery adventure.
  • Finally and directly from IMDb.com: “According to Frank Sinatra Jr. on the DVD Commentary, Sammy Davis Jr. was forced to stay at a “colored only” hotel during the filming because Las Vegas would not allow blacks to stay at the major hotels despite his appearing with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the others at the Sands Hotel. He was only allowed to stay at the major hotels after Frank Sinatra confronted the casino owners on his behalf, therefore breaking Vegas’ unofficial color barrier.”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page.

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2014-2016, 2017.
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