(This post is part of the Frank Sinatra Centennial Blogathon hosted by The Vintage Cameo and Movie Classics)
Indeed, Ocean's 11 isn't just a Frank Sinatra movie. It is literally a Rat Pack movie. In addition to Frank Sinatra, the film also stars Dean Martin; Sammy Davis, Jr.; Peter Lawford; and Joey Bishop. The film also features a Who's Who of Fifties actors, including Richard Conte, Angie Dickinson, Norman Fell, Buddy Lester, Cesar Romero, Henry Silva, Akim Tamiroff, and Harry Wilson. As if that wasn't enough, Shirley MacLaine, George Raft, and Red Skelton (as himself) have cameos. The film's premise is deceptively simple. Eleven World War II 82nd Airborne veterans plot to rob the Sahara, the Riviera, Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn, the Sands, and the Flamingo casinos in Las Vegas all on New Year's Eve.
While Ocean's 11 starred Frank Sinatra (who played Danny Ocean, the "Ocean" of the title), the film did not originate with him. Instead the genesis for the idea could be traced to a gas station attendant who told director Gilbert Kay about a group of GIs who performed smuggling jobs for the U.S. Army at the end of World War II. Gilbert Kay thought that a film in which such a squadron reunited to perform a heist, perhaps in Las Vegas, could make a good basis for a film. In 1955 he told Peter Lawford about the idea. Mr. Lawford liked the idea, but unfortunately Gilbert Kay also wanted to direct the film. As Gilbert Kay was best known for directing B-movies and television shows, Peter Lawford turned him down.
Gilbert Kay tried to sell his idea to others with no success. By 1959 he still had found no buyers for the idea, so he sold the idea to Peter Lawford. The original story by Jack Golden Russell (allegedly the gas station attendant of Gilbert Kay's story) was co-wirtten by George Clayton Johnson, who would later write for The Twilight Zone as well as co-write the science fiction novel Logan's Run. The screenplay was written by Harry Brown (who had written or co-written such films as Sands of Iwo Jima and A Place in the Sun) and Charles Lederer (who had written or co-written such films as The Front Page and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).
Peter Lawford had pictured William Holden in the lead role of Danny Ocean. As it turned out, Peter Lawford told Frank Sinatra about the project. Frank Sinatra had wanted to make a film with his circle of friends (called the Summit or the Clan, but not yet the Rat Pack) and was immediately intrigued at the idea of Ocean's 11. He bought it from Peter Lawford and his wife for $20,000 and 16% of the gross receipts. To direct the film Frank Sinatra chose Lewis Milestone, who had directed such classics as All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, Of Mice and Men, and A Walk in the Sun. As to the cast, it was largely filled by what would later become known as the Rat Pack.
Ocean's 11 was shot largely on location in Las Vegas. Scenes were shot in each of the casinos (the Flamingo, the Sands, Desert Inn, the Riviera, and the Sahara). Shooting took place from January 26 to February 16 1960, so the casinos had to be persuaded to keep their Christmas decorations up well past the date that they would usually be taken down. While much of Ocean's 11 was shot in Las Vegas, a good deal of it was shot in California as well. The opening scene in a barber shop was shot in Beverly Hills. The scene in the home of Spyros Acebos (played by Akim Tamiroff) were also shot in Beverly Hills. In fact, it was the home of Hollywood agent Kurt Frings. Other scenes were shot at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, as well as Warner Brothers' soundstages in Burbank.
Ocean's 11 premiered on August 10 1960, fittingly enough in Las Vegas. Surprisingly for a film that is now regarded by many as a classic, it received mixed reviews. Variety liked the film, commenting "Labouring under the handicaps of a contrived script, an uncertain approach and personalities in essence playing themselves, the production never quite makes its point, but romps along merrily unconcerned that it doesn't." Bosley Crowther at The New York Times wasn't quite as impressed, remarking, "Young people are likely to find this more appropriate and bewitching than do their elders. The latter are likely to feel less gleeful in the presence of heroes who rob and steal." A common criticism of Ocean's 11 upon its debut was that the film does not condemn the protagonists for their actions and in the end they are not truly punished for their crimes.
While critics had mixed feelings about Ocean's 11 upon its initial release, audiences were much more receptive to the movie. The film grossed $5,500,000 at the box office and was the 8th highest grossing film of 1960. The film has continued to be popular since its release, to the point that there can be no doubt that it numbers among Frank Sinatra's most popular films.
Of course, while Frank Sinatra is the star of Ocean's 11, the movie was very much a team effort. Arguably it is Dean Martin as Sam Harmon and Sammy Davis, Jr. as Josh Howard who steal the show. Indeed, they are the only members of the Rat Pack who actually get to sing in the movie. Dean Martin sings the classic "Ain't That a Kick in the Head", while Sammy Davis sings "Eee-O-11". Other members of the cast also gave impressive performances, including Peter Lawford as rich mama's boy Jimmy Foster and Cesar Romero as not quite so reformed mobster Duke Santos.
The success of Ocean's 11 would have a lasting impact. While it was far from the first caper movie (The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi, and The Lavender Hill Mob, among others, pre-date it), Ocean's 11 would spur a cycle towards light hearted caper films that included Topkapi, Gambit, How to Steal a Million, and yet others that lasted for much of the Sixties.
While Frank Sinatra would appear with members of the Rat Pack in other films (most notably Sergeants 3 and Robin and the 7 Hoods), Ocean's 11 remained the only film in which the entirety of the Rat Pack appeared in significant roles. It also remained by far the most successful. Today it remains one of Frank Sinatra's most popular films and one of his highest grossing films as well. While critics may have have given the film mixed reviews upon its release, it has remained a favourite with audiences ever since.