Sabrina Mathew’s latest post is an interesting one that compares the two (1968 and 1999) versions of The Thomas Crown Affair. A couple of things from Sabrina’s review struck me: “The remake is keenly aware that the original got away with a lame robbery only because Steve McQueen planned it. So the remake fixes the problem with a daring art heist…”. And, ”The film is not just content with redoing the heist bit; it also wants to fix the romance by giving it a happy ending.” That reminded me of another film, again with two versions, for which I could quote Sabrina verbatim. Ocean’s Eleven, both the 1960 and 2001 versions, are also about robberies. And in this case too, the remake features a much sleeker robbery than the original—and a happier end.
Here’s a review of the original, therefore (which is mostly what this post is about—I’d be violating the self-imposed rules of this blog if I devoted an entire post to a film newer than the early 70’s!)
The film begins slowly and leisurely, meandering its way through a few conversations, some leg-pulling and a couple of emotionally tense scenes that help introduce the audience to the main characters. Of these, the ‘eleven’ in question are ex-commandos, men of the 82nd Airborne Division, guys who’ve worked as a team during World War II. In order, more or less, these are:
#1: Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra)
Sharp, thinks on his feet. Often the prankster who delights in playing tricks on his friends. Also not the reliable ‘family man’; he lives from one successful gamble to the next. Still in love with his somewhat estranged (it’s complicated!) wife Beatrice ‘Bee’ (Angie Dickinson), but that doesn’t stop him angling after other women—and dropping them when he’s had enough.
#2: James ‘Jimmy’ Foster (Peter Lawford)
The only son of a very rich woman whose wealth has come from five successive and highly lucrative marriages. Jimmy doesn’t lack riches; it’s the fact that those riches are dispensed that rankles. The other fact that rankles is that his mother’s latest fiancé Duke Santos (Cesar Romero), an ex-thug who still has links in the underworld, is a loud and pushy creature.
#3: Sam Harmon (Dean Martin)
One of my favourite actors (and yes, it really is a coincidence that the last English film I reviewed also starred Dean Martin). Sam Harmon is as quick-witted as Danny Ocean, but less flippant. And less gullible—this is a man who’s apt to question things, and to suspect even when others are complacent. He’s also intensely loyal to Danny Ocean, who once saved his life. And yes, he has a gorgeous voice.
#4: Josh (Sammy Davis, Jr)
Happy go lucky, and also with a glorious voice. Other than that? Well, the film doesn’t say much… except that he’s a dab hand at driving, especially a garbage truck.
#5: Roger Corneal (Henry Silva)
Another of those unfortunate guys, who (like Josh), we never come to know much about. This man gets dumped with a lot of the routine tasks: keep an eye on so-and-so; find out where so-and-so is; go fetch this, go fetch that.
#6: Tony Bergdorf (Richard Conte)
This one’s interesting: an electrical expert just emerged after a spell in jail, where he landed because of a heist in which he played a peripheral role but ended up incriminated. Tony’s wife doesn’t want him anywhere near their little son, whom she’s admitted to a military school. And Tony has just discovered that he’s terminally ill. Life is now basically a race: death versus Tony Bergdorf, with Tony scrambling to get money to provide for a son who will soon be fatherless.
#7: Vince Massler (Buddy Lester)
Hangs around at a burlesque show in Phoenix, where his wife is the main attraction. She’s the breadwinner, but a jealous Vince can’t take any more of the attention his wife gets from spectators: the hooting, the whistles, the very risqué suggestions.
#8 through 11: Curly, Jackson, Rheimer, and Mushy
Four men whom we barely get to know: Curly Steffans (Richard Benedict), Louis Jackson (Clem Harvey), Peter Rheimer (Norman Fell), and Mushy O’Connors (Joey Bishop). One dialogue here, one dialogue there, and that’s about it for these guys.
Last but not the least, the brains behind the eleven: Spyros Acebos (Akim Tamiroff), highly-strung and stereotypical Greek crook-magnate who lives in a plush sprawling mansion complete with pool, Oriental major domo and whatnot—all bought with years of ill-gotten gains. Unfortunately for Spyros, his life of crime has given him a notoriety that makes it impossible for him to carry out his latest plan by himself—the simultaneous robbing of five of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve.
Spyros’s evil genius, combined with the equally brisk (not to mention crooked) brains of Ocean and Foster, has devised a plan that’ll get them the money—millions to each of the men and Spyros, yet with very little risk of being suspected, simply because the eleven (with the exception of Bergdorf, of course) are not known to the police.
Ocean pulls in each of the men and gets them to Spyros’s mansion, where a briefing is held and the plan explained. The five target casinos are in the hotels Flamingo, The Sands, Desert Inn, Riviera, and Sahara. Ocean’s eleven will get jobs in these hotels and get things ready, keeping in mind that
(a) on the stroke of midnight on December 31, everybody in the hotels will be busy singing Auld lang syne and won’t be particularly fazed if the power goes off;
(b) when the power goes off in the hotels, auxiliary systems start up automatically;
(c) if somebody’s fiddled intelligently with the wiring of each hotel, when the auxiliary systems start up, instead of the lights coming on in the respective casino, the locked cages of the cashier’s cabin—where the earnings are kept—will click open. Ta-da!
And so they’re off, rehearsing and re-rehearsing and getting into position for the big night. But will everything proceed the way it’s supposed to? Or will something Ocean and his men haven’t accounted for, come hurtling out of the blue?
What I liked about this film:
It’s a good chance to see the Rat Pack at work. I’m not much of a Frank Sinatra or Sammy Davis. Jr fan in their avatars as actors, but Dean Martin’s a favourite, as are Peter Lawford and Angie Dickinson. And guess who else appears in a cameo? Shirley MacLaine, also part of the Rat Pack, and another of my favourites. I so love her smile!
Oh, and yes: if you pay attention, there are some delightfully subtle hints of tongue-in-cheek humour. Spyros, for instance, spends a lot of his time aimlessly making houses of cards—which always collapse. A sign of things to come?
What I didn’t like:
It doesn’t quite make it, as a story. If you look at Ocean’s Eleven purely as a heist film, it’s not that smart or clever. In any case, since exactly the same trick is being pulled off simultaneously at five locations, the novelty of it disappears. And I found it a little hard to believe that five men could, within a matter of days (or was it hours?) get jobs in each of the casinos. And that too jobs where they could wander about with seeming impunity, unquestioned and often even unnoticed by guards who should’ve been wiser. Yes, there are diversions, but they aren’t very convincing. Overall, this looked to me like a plan that depended hugely upon the stupidity or blindness of the victims—who obliged.
Otherwise too, Ocean’s Eleven falls a bit flat. A few stories are built up at the beginning of the film: Danny and Bee’s troubled marriage in spite of their love for each other; Tony’s imprisonment and its effect on his marriage (not to mention his illness); Vince’s need to get hold of money so his wife can stop performing; and Jimmy’s need to have money of his own. All interesting angles from an emotional point of view, and some of them affect the course of the story in a plausible manner. The others fall inexplicably by the side and one never gets to know what happened to that subplot.
The pace of the first half. The second half—the robbery itself and its aftermath—zips along deliciously, with twists and turns and unforeseen events that keep everybody (audience included!) on their feet. The first half, in comparison, is way slower than it need have been. Too much precious time is wasted on Ocean’s pranks on Spyros; on showing plot threads that don’t lead anywhere; and on a couple of pretty pointless conversations that neither add value to the story nor beef up any of the characters.
On the whole, the 1960 version could’ve done with much tighter editing, and a smarter storyline. It’s fun enough if you’re a fan of the Rat Pack, but there’s not much else here.
So how does the 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven compare with its older counterpart?
Like The Thomas Crown Affair, Ocean’s Eleven isn’t strictly a remake, either. Yes, the lead character in both the versions is Danny Ocean (in 2001, George Clooney), who with ten other men sets out to rob casinos in Las Vegas. And this film too is studded with stars: Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia. But that’s more or less where the resemblance ends (that is, if you don’t count the fact that here too someone—Shaobo Qin, as Yen—makes a house of cards, which significantly, doesn’t collapse). The differences are many: the casinos targeted are all owned by a single, rather nasty, character; the plan uses loads of technology and is pretty convoluted; and not all of the eleven men on Ocean’s crooked team have worked together before.
Where the 2001 version works is in that it’s much faster and unlike in the 1960 version, the audience isn’t told how Ocean’s eleven are going to pull off the job. Instead, the plan is shown being executed, so there are plenty of seemingly inexplicable actions that eventually make sense: that A-ha! moment, you know.
And then there’s the emotional, personal angle to it: Ocean’s wife Tess (Julia Roberts) who, while he’s been serving time for his last offence, has divorced him and gone off with Terry Benedict, the very man Ocean’s robbing. This, unlike in the 1960 version, is the only ‘personal story’ of the eleven men that’s given any sort of screen time.
If you’re looking for a thrill a minute, with sudden twists and turns and sleights of hand, then the 2001 version’s for you (do note: I’m not saying that all of the twists and turns are logical; some are obviously there just for the thrill. There are plot holes here, and inexplicable gaps in how and why some action takes place). The romantic angle is more neatly and sweetly handled than in the 1960 one (the latter leaves that plot element hanging). And the mere fact that the victim here is one man (and a nasty one at that) makes it easier to condone his being robbed. So, yes: Ocean’s Eleven (2001) while not a perfect film by any stretch of imagination, is good entertainment. Ocean’s Eleven (1960) while it has a certain old-fashioned charm about it, and a very whacky end, isn’t as riveting.
But yes, 2001 doesn’t have Dean Martin.