A framed photo of the legendary Rat Pack members sharing drinks and a laugh at Carnegie Hall in 1961 has hung in my apartment for a decade. The black and white image captures with it two things; a frozen moment in time, and the essence of coolness that these men were at the genesis of Hollywood stardom.
Half a century before the 2001 remake was the original film “Ocean’s 11” and as is usually the case, the original is always the best.
The cast itself is a thing of beauty, featuring members of the Rat Pack in their prime as the Kings of Tinsel Town. The plot itself was somewhat unique for its time, and one that would create the influence for hundreds of movies since.
“Ocean’s 11” opens with the planning of a criminal conspiracy, and we are introduced to the characters at play and the elimination of any doubt that Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) is the ringleader of the crew. The scheme is an elaborate one that will consist of Danny and his 11 cronies robbing 5 casinos simultaneously in one night – New Year’s Eve.
What’s great is that 2-time Academy Award winning director Lewis Milestone invests the majority of the movie into the depth and development of the characters and not the heist itself. And the real life friendship of the stars bleeds through in every scene. The viewer will gain an instant bonding between the cast, and it makes for much more realism with the plot itself.
With fast paced scenes that cut to and from the various characters, and slick dialogue that will leave you laughing and clapping at the same time, the movie appears to be thirty years ahead of its time. One of the heist crew members agrees to join into the fracas only after getting a lethal diagnosis from his doctor. Does he cry or panic at the thought of his impending death? Of course not. “Doc, give it to me straight.” He simply and coolly asks. “Is it the Big Casino?”
It’s fascinating to watch these iconic figures on the big screen, all of which are surprisingly great actors. Dean Martin plays Sam Harmon, a charming gent with aspirations of living on the beaches of Hawaii post heist. At one point, Sam describes to a cohort Hawaii’s combination of weather and woman with the same analogy. “Sometimes it rains, sometimes it’s sunny.”
Sammy Davis Jr is Josh Howard the driver of the crew. Both he and Martin showcase their singing and dancing attributes at appropriate times throughout and will leave you with the awe of how great these men were, not only with their vocals, but at being at entertainers.
Leading the pack is smooth talking womanizer Danny Ocean. Frank Sinatra is mesmerizing in the role, and the part seems to have been written specifically with him in mind. While many lines are memorable, the all time best has to be Danny Ocean putting one of his girlfriends in place. “Listen to me very carefully, my dear. I picked you up at the Biltmore Bar because I thought you were attractive and I had nothing better to do. I made a pass at you for the very same reasons.” Only a character as cool as Frank Sinatra could get away with a line like that. It’s the kind of scene that would never be uttered in today’s world.
As backstories are detailed, it becomes apparent that Ocean is a swindling low life, not a sympathetic character in any way, but so cool you have to love him. Danny Ocean is described by a giddy dame as a man who loves danger more than any woman. Ocean and company are former WW2 paratroopers, and as he casually quips at the onset of the plan, “why waste all those tricks the army taught us just cuz its sorta peaceful now?”
“Ocean’s 11” is more lighthearted and comical than one may expect. From the great and somewhat cartoonish coolness of the gangsters involved to the perfect twist ending. Some of the background score is out of place and unneeded, something that seems to be the case with many older films.
And unlike present day heist movies, “Ocean’s 11” offers little to no violence at all. One great fight scene depicts a genuine old fashioned donnybrook at an upscale gentlemen’s club, but if you’re looking for guns and blood you wont find any. The genius comes from the intense plotting of the robbery itself, a robbery committed sans guns and explosives. A robbery committed by gentlemen.
The secondary characters are all great as well, but lets be clear; the stars of the movie are the aforementioned Rat Packers and with good reason. Each carries the movie in a way that shares the limelight with each other. They interact on screen with a perfect synergy not common among today’s generation of selfish social media sensationalism.
“Ocean’s 11” is a cool and fun movie. Its a great exercise in the early art of film making, and an enjoyable mystique to watch stars of the past in a long gone but never forgotten era.
by – Matt Christopher