With the release of Ocean’s 8 looming over the horizon, the prospect of seeing the original Ocean’s Eleven held as much appeal as being dragged to an antique show in the middle of a desert. However, much to my surprise, the Rat Pack’s crime caper was an amusing gem of a film.
The title eleven is a group of Second World War 82nd Airborne veterans, led by charming tomcat Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra). Their motive for robbing five Las Vegas Casinos on New Year’s Eve is wryly surmised in one scene by Ocean when he says, “Why waste those cute little tricks that the Army taught us just because it’s sort of peaceful now.”
If you did not already guess, the film is littered with these cute interjections, to use an old-fashioned phrase, they’re kind of swell. At the same time, the screenplay is surprisingly biting in its comedic riffs that if it was a person, it would be a vampire. From sharp dress downs delivered by the majority of the female characters to various phone pranks that would make a schoolboy blush, Ocean’s Eleven works on the level of a boisterous reunion.
In fact, in one scene, Ocean turns to an associate, puts his hand on his shoulder and says, “You know something, I think the only reason I got into this caper is so I could see you again.” Despite the film containing a melange of sparkling interaction and amusing asides, the screenplay only aspires to Count Chocula in terms of depth.
The existential strife of ageing and post-war blues is never really addressed or factored into the motives for the heist and the screenplay needlessly vocalises sentiment. One particular egregious scene has a character describing Danny Ocean’s entire emotional state in the aftermath of a death in the midst of the heist. To compound matters, Sinetra never convincingly portrays the weight of a burdened general who is utterly dismayed at the sudden loss of one of his former comrades. Most problematic are the heists feeling as light as a visit to a massage parlour.
Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 remake picks up the slack in this regard with fun and cinematically engaging musical montages that enforce the tension of the heist as well serve as comical deadpan stand-ins for the dialogue scenes.
Though the original 1960s film does have some inspired sequences. In particular, a protracted panning shot elegantly conveys a sudden revelation of failure as each member of the pack sequentially express their shock (via facial expressions) at their entire looted money being cremated with their dead friend.
The sequence ends with all the characters in the frame as though it’s a glorious and iconic group shot. However, with the knowledge that has been imparted, the moment instead looks like we have witnessed the end of an emotionally taxing game of Chinese Whispers.