Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

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.

Comparisons, comparisons:

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.

29 thoughts on “Ocean’s Eleven (1960)

  1. Dean Martin was in this film?! And here I thought I’d never seen any of his films! All I remember, though, is Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. I watched this after I saw the new Ocean’s Eleven and this felt like a rather pale attempt in comparison.

    One thing that struck me as interesting was the evolution in filmi morality over 40 years. While this one puts forward the idea that crime does not pay, the new one is actually a joyous celebration of crime!

    I must admit to an inexplicable fondness for Frank Sinatra the actor. “Inexplicable” because he is very Humphrey Bogart-ish and I am not very fond of the latter! It might be because Sinatra played the adorable idiot with Gene Kelly in a couple of musicals, or because he has some great thrillers – a favorite is one with a 36 Ghante sort of story but with an assassination at stake (imdb is not helping out with the name!).


  2. My reason for not usually liking Frank Sinatra is admittedly a result of prejudice. When I was about 10, I read the book Von Ryan’s Express – an amazing story. I knew a film had been made on the book, and wanted desperately to see it. I eventually managed to get hold of the VHS when I was in my teens. Frank Sinatra starred in it, and the film was an utter failure. They even inexplicably changed the end (which in the book is a happy one) to a sad one! Later I discovered that Sinatra was the one who insisted on the film’s end being sad. I haven’t quite forgiven him for that… though I liked him in Not as a Stranger.


  3. haha! Sounds like my feelings for Laurence Olivier – I have never forgiven him for not being the Darcy he should have been. Actors meddle with our childhood fantasies at their own peril! ;-)

    I just checked on Von Ryan’s Express (the book). It sounds wonderful, and my library has it. :-D Will steer clear of the movie since I see no point in subjecting myself to a sad ending when I can have a happy one!

    Speaking of adapting books, have you seen the TV version of Gaskell’s North and South? The TV version is fairly filmi and different from the book in several ways, but its still wonderful.


  4. Do, do read Von Ryan’s Express – it’s fabulous. In hindsight, I suppose the film isn’t as bad as I remember it, but then I’d built up such hopes that anything that didn’t match the book was automatically relegated to a mental trashcan! ;-) And I couldn’t forgive Sinatra for the sad end.

    Oh dear, I have to admit I’ve not even read North and South yet. *blush*. But I see Project Gutenberg has a copy, so will download that and have a look… and will try and find the TV version.

    Which reminds me, another book that I read off Project Gutenberg – Scaramouche – was way better as a film. But then, what do you expect of something starring Stewart Granger?


  5. Scaramouche was a book?!! I learn new things everytime I come here!! It must be said, though, that I have no desire to read a book that has no Stewart Granger in it! ;-)

    Sinatra probably wanted a movie that was more than just a World War adventure tale (like Where Eagles Dare) and what better way to achieve it than to give it a sad end? A tragedy is always considered more memorable and important compared to a happy story!

    I think you’ll like North And South – its very Austen-ish in the romance but with a wealth of contemporary detail (social and political) that you dont find in Austen. Plus, the heroine is a whole lot more feminist and interested in national affairs than your average Austen heroine. The TV series has very charismatic (and extremely good looking) leads and works very well inspite of its filmi-ness.


  6. Yes, Scaramouche is a book, by Rafael Sabatini. A digital version is available here. It’s not bad, but really can’t compete with the film!

    I guess you’re right about the tragedy being more memorable than a happy ending – which accounts for Casablanca and A Farewell to Arms, I suppose. I confess to being utterly childish and liking my stories to have good, happy endings!

    I’ve been reading the imdb page on North and South – sounds (and looks) very good. How had I not heard of this before?!


  7. I have seen the original and thought it was Ok at the time, but movies nowadays drive me up the wall with their totally OTT plots, maybe they feel there have more impact that way! In fact, I didn’t actually watch the new one all the way through, got a stage where I couldn’t care less.

    Dean Martin is not on my fav list either.
    Don’t like Frank Sinatra but love Bogart (The Big Sleep. African Queen): besides anyone Lauren Bacall loved in real life had to have something! What a lovely thing she said about him this Monday on getting her honorary Oscar

    But you are such a good writer dustedoff, that I actually did read the review all the way through!


  8. Bawa, thank you – that’s very sweet of you! :-)

    I wish they’d scripted the 1960 Ocean’s Eleven better – I am one of those who don’t believe that technology is a pre-requisite for a good heist film (How to Steal a Million was fun without relying heavily on technology). I thought the 2001 version was overall more interesting, in comparison… not necessarily if one had only seen either/or the 1960/2001 version.

    Somehow I can’t summon up a liking for either Bogart or Bacall – but I love what she said about him, it’s so beautiful! And I am glad they finally gave her the award. She deserved it.


  9. Oh, they are favourite pair of mine, maybe because I love Chandler novels and film noirs (ok, depsite their “fantastic” plots) and I enjoyed the way these two played those roles.

    When I taught English, I used to use extracts from Raymond Chandler novels for the more Advanced classes: I think there is not another writer in the English language who describes scenes with such imagination and variety!

    Ok, going off-topic so will look forward to your next review.


  10. Yes, Chandler is very good, isn’t he? Nobody else quite manages to bring alive the hard-boiled PI and the sleaze of the era better than he does… maybe I should review The Maltese Falcon next! :-)


  11. Hi, everybody. I have no memory of this movie if I ever saw it, but a few side comments…

    Dustedoff, a review of The Maltese Falcon would be interesting – I’ve always liked Dashiell Hammett! :)

    Regarding the Rat Pack, I guess Sinatra and Dean Martin had nice voices, but for various reasons, I’ve often found Sinatra hard to take. I prefer hearing one of his early influences, Bing Crosby.

    By the way, this talk about the Rat Pack inspired me to watch a bunch of Judy Garland clips – which I do sometimes.


  12. Aw shucks, I’m really going bananas, aren’t I? *deep blush* What made me confuse Chandler with Hammett?! Whew. But yes, I think I will watch The Maltese Falcon next. Noir enough.

    Long time since I watched Judy Garland. I remember when cable TV first came to India, they used to show a lot of her films – she was so much fun! I think my favourites were In the Good Old Summertime and The Pirate (though my liking for the latter probably has a lot to do with the fact that it also starred Gene Kelly, whom I am very fond of!)


  13. Maltese Falcon was great!
    Hammett’s work produced excellent films (for me) Rear Window and that rather weird “I Walked with a Zombie”..have it somewhere among my VHS’s. Liked it though.


  14. Now its me, confusing Cornell Woolrich with Hammett! And confusing I Married a Dead Man with I Walked with a Zombie.. Comes of being half-asleep at the computer or all the paint fumes are getting to me (have been DIYing…)

    The ones I like of Hammett are The Thin Man series of movies, although when I read the novels, I was fascinated by the amount of drink (and no food) that Nick & Nora Charles got through on any given day!!


  15. Join the gang, bawa! ;-)

    I remember seeing a couple of the Thin Man series years ago – don’t recall any of them now. But oh, I do like Rear Window so much, one of my favourite Hitchcock films.

    By the way, which I Married a Dead Man do you mean? imdb lists two – one’s 1950, the other’s 1983, both based on Woolrich’s work. Wasn’t this also the same story on which Kati Patang was loosely based?


  16. The 1950 one, I never connected it to Kati Patang! But now I see it must have been.

    I think the movie was titled differently, but I wrote it down with the name of the novel to remember it better.


  17. And here I thought Gulshan Nanda came up with that device out of his own colorful imagination! I Married A Dead Man – the book and films actually sound a lot more interesting than Kati Patang (sadly, nothing can equal those songs!), too!

    Count me in for the Thin Man series fanclub – I LOVE those films. Never tried the novels, because I really didnt want anything that didnt feature William Powell and Myrna Loy! ;-)


  18. bawa: According to imdb, the 1950 version was called I Married a Dead Man as a working title, though it was otherwise known as No Man of her Own. The 1983 version was a French film.

    bollyviewer: I wouldn’t give up Yeh shaam mastaani or Yeh jo mohabbat hai even for a better story! :-) Kati Patang had awesome music.

    And oh, I have to see the Thin Man series again. It’s been too, too long!


  19. Saying the original OE fell a bit flat is the understatement of the year. :D Never have I seen a more boring heist movie. The 2001 version was tons better. And the reason why it fell so flat is of course the same reason why the original Thomas Crown Affair fares so much better in the comparison stakes – its leading man.

    I admit, it’s personal prejudice at work: the only time I’ve ever found Sinatra bearable on screen is when Gene Kelly was doing the heavy lifting for him (I couldn’t even remember his role in From Here to Eternity until I rewatched the movie in college one semester). But McQueen had the kind of animal presence and the original Thomas Crown Affair was made with such a different sensibility, that there’s still something attractive about it even if its not as much fun as the Pierce Brosnan movie. That scene in which he’s driving through the sand dunes like the devil’s on his tail? So HOT. In way Brosnan could never portray, much as I love the man.

    Sinatra and gang otoh were clearly making a movie that allowed them to kick around Vegas and have a good time. It’s terrible. People like to snark on Ocean’s Twelve for the same vibe but even that’s better than the Sinatra flick.

    PS: I will not hear words against Stewart Granger. He acted in what has to be my favoritest white man on safari through exotic black man land movies: King Solomon’s Mines. I LOVE THAT FILM! So much great cheesy fun.

    PS2 – North and South is the best Bollywood movie ever made outside of India. Richard Armitage is perfect! And the book is a great read too.


  20. Hey, nobody’s speaking out against Stewart Granger, not on my blog! I meant Scaramouche was way better as a film, largely because it had Granger. I adore that guy, and King Solomon’s Mines is so delightful. Also The Prisoner of Zenda… but Scaramouche remains my favourite.

    Yes, isn’t Richard Armitage wonderful? I have since seen North and South and liked it thoroughly, filminess and all. So beautifully romantic.


  21. How did I miss this? You called Casablanca a tragedy?!! Try thinking Ingrid staying on with Bogey – now that would be a tragedy. O wait, I forgot. It is a tragedy – nothing can be more tragic than Ingrid Bergman pining away for Humphrey Bogart! ;-)

    And Amrita, can Granger be disliked? Trying to think about it… hmm… umm… NOPE, cant think of a single reason not to love him!


  22. Wicked, wicked!!! :-D
    I love it! ;-) But now I’ll never be able to write an unbiased review of Casablanca

    BTW, have you seen Beau Brummell? I know it stars Granger (opposite Elizabeth Taylor) but haven’t seen it, though I like this delicious still (not that Granger looks much like himself). I was wondering if it’s worth buying… since the real Brummell died an ignominious death, and I can’t bear the thought of seeing Granger die onscreen, it’s not a risk I’m willing to take unless I know it ends happily!


  23. I have seen it (years ago) and remember liking it a lot. They turned Beau Brummel’s life into dashing and romantic story, something that always works for me! I dont remember how it ends though. The real Brummel had to leave England to escape form his debts and I think thats where they end the film. At any rate, it didnt depress me – so it cant have been him dying! ;-)


  24. I just finished reading von Ryan’s Express – its really absorbing and I landed up pulling an all-nighter because I couldnt bear to put it down! I havent seen the film (and dont intend to, after your warning!) but try as I might, I cant imagine Frank Sinatra as Col. Ryan. Sinatra just doesnt have the right build (Ryan was supposed to be tall!) or commanding presence to be Ryan. Wonder why they chose him to play that role…


  25. I’m glad you liked the book! I too found it unputdownable, it’s so fast-paced and utterly riveting.

    And I agree completely: Frank Sinatra is so absolutely the wrong choice for Ryan. The build isn’t right, the presence isn’t there, nothing seems to be what one would’ve imagined Ryan as. Now that I think of it, who would be a good Ryan? Mitchum, perhaps? The sort of Mitchum one saw in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison? He could’ve done it, I think. And Mitchum acted in a lot of war films too… but then I couldn’t have borne having Mitchum die at the end of the film.

    But wait, the end was changed because Sinatra insisted on it – so maybe if it had been Mitchum, the end wouldn’t have changed.


  26. Oh yeah! Mitchum would be totally the right choice for it – he could be pretty chilly and commanding and could even pass for a German with his hair dyed blonde (like Ryan could!). Kirk Douglas wouldnt be a bad choice, either.

    Now that I’ve read it, I dont understand the point of the sad ending (did they all get caught, or the train met disaster, or did just Ryan die saving his troops?) – the whole point of a war escape story is for the escape to work!


  27. Okay, spoiler here:

    The film ends with Ryan running behind the train – I think he volunteered to blow up a bridge or some such thing that would delay the Germans chasing them. His men on the train are reaching out to grab him and haul him on to the train, but the Germans shoot him down and kill him before he can make it – though the train does make it into Switzerland.

    I could never have seen that happen to Mitchum. As a villain in Cape Fear or The Night of the Hunter, he does make me despise him, but whenever he’s in a sympathetic role, he has me rooting for him all the way! :-)


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