By Drew Taylor | The Playlist May 22, 2013 at 2:00PM
Las Vegas is one of those distinctly American creations: it was designed and built by a gangster, in the middle of a deathly desert, as a utopian celebration for bad behavior, gilded excessive-ness, criminal activity and off-color kitsch. It's a place where you can stay in intricately themed hotel/casinos based upon the pyramids of Egypt, Arthurian castles, New York City, Paris, Amazonian rain forests, Roman coliseums and Robert Louis Stevenson's novel "Treasure Island," but you'd be hard-pressed to find a museum or library to whet your cultural appetite. And yet there's something hypnotically attractive about this place – we keep returning to it, again and again, both in real life and in the movies. This week's "Hangover, Part III" climaxes (as it were) in Vegas, high atop Caesar's Palace, and in keeping with this we decided to celebrate the bad taste and blinding neon lights of Vegas by showcasing ten of the very best Las Vegas movies.
It's a swinging good time in 1960s original, Rat Pack-led "Ocean's 11," a movie that might not be great but is at least enough of a curiosity to watch once. Frank Sinatra plays Danny Ocean, who recruits, in the words of the movie's mostly silent trailer "11 ex-paratroopers from his old outfit" (yes, they were World War II veterans-turned-conmen – greatest generation my ass) to rob five Las Vegas casinos, most of which don't even exist anymore (Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, and the Flamingo), in one night. The movie does have some nice flourishes – the fact that it's set on New Year's Eve is kind of a nifty touch, clearly at a time before fireworks and lavish water fountains were a daily occurrence in Sin City – and the opening animated title sequence, designed by Saul Bass and appropriating a kind electric readout, is an art deco dazzler. Unfortunately, at 127 minutes it's overlong by at least a half hour, the film is oddly moralistic (keep in mind this was 1960) and oftentimes it seems like the movie's stars (which included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Richard Conte, Joey Bishop, Henry Silva, and Cesar Romero), infatuated with the movie's location more than the movie's script, look like they're ready to bolt the second somebody yells "cut." Quite frankly a movie tracing the off-camera exploits of the cast as they cavorted around Las Vegas is probably ten times the movie the actual "Ocean's 11" ended up being. As a time capsule capturing Las Vegas at that particular time, it's indispensable, as an actual movie, it's less so.
It's hard to be both an Elvis fanatic and a movie lover, since most of his movies were fucking terrible (although it is worth noting that "Girls Girls Girls" has that "Walls Have Ears" sequence where he does the whole song with a full-on erection). That being said, "Viva Las Vegas" (advertised as "the swingin'est, singin'est, grooviest, lovin'est entertainment sensation it has ever been your luck to enjoy") is one of the more watchable Elvis vehicles, for a number of reasons. Firstly, there's Elvis' inherent connection with Las Vegas (both are emblematic of American kitsch and, of course, Elvis played Vegas frequently). Then there's Ann-Margret as Elvis' love interest, who is absolutely wonderful (the pair started a real-life affair during production). Also, this movie is really weird even by Elvis Presley movie standards (he's a race-car driver who suffers engine trouble and loses his money resulting in him having to work as a waiter…), clocking in at 85 minutes with songs around every corner and an extended race sequence climax that has some pretty impressive stunts (seriously). As a chronicle of Las Vegas, you kind of get a sense of the city, but it's so goddamn obscured by the movie's never-ending stream of goofy nonsense that it's hard to really lock down. Still, the most virtuoso stroke of genius of "Viva Las Vegas" is the performance of the titular song, done in one stunning take that borders on mesmerizing (love Elvis' bare chest). Encore!
What makes "Bugsy" one of the truly great Las Vegas movies is that it gets to explore how the city was founded. Of course, like all things Vegas, it was created in the seediest possible way – by a visionary, murderous, love-struck gangster named Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty), who looked at a barren desert and saw an oasis of opportunity. (He's kind of like the evil Walt Disney in that way. Well. More evil.) In a lot of ways, "Bugsy" is a story of the American dream – of upward mobility. He's a mob enforcer who goes to California, falls in love with a starlet (played by Beatty's real-life honey Annette Bening) and becomes obsessed with the idea of building a casino in the middle of the desert (it would become the Flamingo – a casino still standing today, now with a monorail station in the back). Directed by Barry Levinson (whose "Rain Man" featured a memorable sequence set in Las Vegas) from a crackling script by James Toback, "Bugsy" is one of those big historical epics where movie stars get to dress up like gangsters (Harvey Keitel plays Mickey Cohen and calls Bugsy a "fruitcake;" Ben Kingsley is Meyer Lansky) and the whole movie trembles with a kind of lumbering importance, even while Bugsy explains his plan to Lansky while wearing a giant floppy chef's hat. While mostly forgotten now, "Bugsy" was a big time Oscar contender the same year as "Silence of the Lambs" and was nominated in almost every major category. Sadly, like in Vegas, sometimes you lose big (it did grab two technical awards, but those are kind of like free martinis in this extended Oscars-as-Las-Vegas metaphor).
As cheesy and convoluted as "Honeymoon in Vegas" can be, it's also incredibly charming, zippy, and outrageously funny. A weird mash-up of "Vertigo," "Indecent Proposal" and the Hawaiian episode of "The Brady Bunch," it concerns a man (Nic Cage) who promised his mother, on her deathbed, that he wouldn't get married. He goes back on that promise, of course, after his longtime girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker, at her most unbelievably adorable) pressures him, so they hop on a flight to Las Vegas. It's there that a professional gambler (James Caan) notices Parker's striking resemblance to his ex-wife and rigs a card game so that Cage loses big. He then arranges for Parker to spend the weekend with him (with the promise of no sex), flying her down to Hawaii for a romantic getaway. (Cage, of course, hurriedly follows.) In Vegas, Caan proposes to her and they fly back to Vegas, which gives way to the movie's most iconic sequence: one in which Cage jumps out of an airplane with the "Flying Elvises," skydiving Elvis impersonators (complete with light-up jumpsuits). So, yeah, it's pretty wacky, but it mostly works. It's got an unstoppable energy and smart direction by Andrew Bergman (who also wrote the script, he would have less success when he returned to Vegas – more on that later), who captures Las Vegas as it began its transition, in the early nineties, to a kind of Disney World with hookers and gambling (with just enough sleaze at the periphery). Also, for you trivia buffs out there – you know who plays one of the young Elvis impersonators? None other than future pop superstar Bruno Mars! Are you all shook up now?
Maybe the single greatest Las Vegas movie ever and certainly the most epic (everything about it is huge – it's got 45 minutes of voice over alone), Martin Scorsese tackled the mob in grand, almost overwhelming fashion, which is perfect considering how excessive Las Vegas is. Everything about "Casino" is as gilded and overstuffed as the town itself, which probably explains why the movie was "too much" for a lot of people (he had to make cuts to avoid an NC-17 for violence). Based on the life of Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, a shady casino figure and Jewish mobster, played in the movie by Robert De Niro, "Casino" charts, with journalistic detail, what it's like to be one of these operatives in Las Vegas at a very specific time (Las Vegas in the tumultuous, mob-controlled 70s). For all of its ambitious sprawl, "Casino" often exhibits a singular, laser-like focus. Many of the dozens of characters are based on real-life figures, including De Niro's wife, played by Sharon Stone (who was nominated for the Oscar) and his gangster friend, played by Joe Pesci (real-life Vegas personalities like Frankie Avalon, Dick Smothers, and Don Rickles all appear, sometimes playing themselves). At 178 minutes, it might be slightly too much of a good thing (the soundtrack was a double-album for crying out loud), but it's a titanic accomplishment and one of Scorsese's best and most frequently overlooked films.