Don’t Roll the Dice if You Can’t Pay the Price — or, some writing lessons from a 1960 heist film
A group of friends and I have been having a weekly movie night during quarantine. Each of us have nominated some movies, we put them into a rotation in a shared spreadsheet, and each Sunday night we all cue up the movie to stream or otherwise watch together and we text each other comments while we watch, then talk about it afterward. This last Sunday the movie was The Thomas Crown Affair /(the 1999 remake/).
There were at least two of us in the group old enough that we remember watching the 1968 version starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway. So while we were contrasting the newer version versus our recollection of the original, a young friend in the group mentioned that the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven was awful compared to the newer version. I started to get affronted, but fortunately before I typed anything my second thoughts pointed out that I haven’t watched the old version since I was about fourteen years old.
And I honestly couldn’t say whether I would agree with 14-year-old me about the merits of the movie.
So, since it was available to stream for free on one of the services I subscribe to, I watch the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven that night.
Short review: I still really enjoyed it. However, I completely understood why younger viewers would not enjoy it at all. It was a great reminder that no creative work stands in isolation.
More detailed review: One of the film’s greatest weaknesses is that there is virtually no character development. As more than one contemporary review pointed out, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop — also known as the Rat Pack — aren’t playing fictional characters unique to this movie, but rather just playing the personas that each had become associated with over the course of several movies and other performances over the years before the release of this film.
Cesar Romero–who was never considered part of the Rat Pack–is essentially playing the same character he played in a large number of movies before this. And much less famous members of the cast (Richard Benedict, Norman Fell, Hank Henry, Robert Foul,, Richard Conte, and Henry Silva to name a few) were all playing a type of character that they were frequently cast as. So for a vast portion of the 1960 audience of the film, the script didn’t have to do any work to establish the characters—the audience knew what to expect when they saw the actor walk into frame.
A further example of this is the recurring gag during the first half of the movie. For no apparent reason, Sinatra’s Danny Ocean keeps doing or prompting others to do things that greatly upset the mastermind of the operation, Mr. Acebos /(played by Akim Tamiroff/). Nothing about this sub-plot ever contributes to the end of the film, let alone moving forward any part of the plot. Tamiroff was an exceedingly well regarded actor who had been nominated for an Oscar a few times in his early career, but by the late fifties he was often cast in roles like this one of a easily excitably, overly worried character. His main role in those sorts of files was the be the easily wound up character who was unnecessarily worried about the ability of the main character to do whatever he was supposed to do for the plot.
Slight digression at this point, Tamiroff was an Armenian-American who was never able to shed his accent, and thus enjoyed a 60-some year career in Ho0llywood being cast as virtually every ethnicity except Armenian. The character he played in 1940′ The Great McGinty is often cited as the inspiration of the character of Boris Badenoff in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons.
Another big shortcoming of the movie for modern audiences is the heist itself. The way that Danny Ocean’s eleven comrades go about stealing millions in cash from five casinos simultaneously is not even slightly as intricate or clever as the plots of later caper films such as The Hot Rock or either version of The Thomas Crown Affair or even any single episode of the television series Leverage.
But, to defend the movie (which made a tidy profit for the studios at the time), one doesn’t have to ignore all of those deficits. Rather, one should ask what sort of story was it trying to tell?
First, even though it usually presented as a stand-alone movie, that wasn’t at all how the movie executives (nor most of the audience) perceived it. If you were a studio making movies at that time, you didn’t cast Sinatra, Martin, Davis, Lawford, et al, to portray a new and unique character. You cast them to play a particular type of character they had become famous for. Similarly, if you were an audience member going to the theatre to see this film, you were expecting those actors to deliver a certain kind of entertainment.
Second–and possibly most important–this film is not part of the modern genre of caper film. The title itself foreshadows the ending. Early in the film Sammy Davis, Jr. sings a song called "Ee Oh Eleven." The song is about a person who is trying to claw their way out of a less than advantaged background, and almost reaches financial success, but life is a crap-shoot, and the character rolls an eleven, losing everything he had amassed. And that is the clue that was meant to tell audiences what was coming. The title appears to refer to Danny Ocean and his ten army buddies who, as a gang of eleven, are going to do the impossible. But the eleven in the title actually refers to that moment in a game of Craps where the person rolling the dice rolls an eleven and loses everything.
While I was looking things up about the film to make sure I remembered all the details of its release and so forth correctly, I happened upon a quote from a contemporary review of the movie: "In the end, it is just an amoral tale told for laughs."
I think the reviewer who wrote the line thought that it was a scathing rebuke of the film. But when I read the line, my thought was, "Yeah? So?" Because an amoral tale simply told for laughs sounds like a quite wonderful way to spend an evening. We don’t usually come to stories and other works of art hoping for a deeply profound life-changing exploration of a erudite philosophical question.
We just want something that makes us laugh and feel entertained. And there is nothing wrong with that.