Remakes rarely improve upon the original film, but 'Ocean's Eleven' is one of the few exceptions that prove the rule. The 1960 Rat Pack heist flick feels downright anemic compared to Steven Soderbergh's super-slick 2001 update, despite the talents of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and all their cool-as-cucumber cronies. Plodding and over-long, director Lewis Milestone's caper lacks the sly wit, mischievous twinkle, and ultra-sleek veneer that makes the Clooney-Pitt version such a kick. Even a hefty dose of nostalgia for the quaint atmosphere of a bygone Las Vegas and palpable sentiment for the legendary cast (almost all of whom are now deceased) can't inject this fitfully entertaining film with the shot of adrenaline (or Benzedrine?) it craves.
'Ocean's Eleven' was a huge hit when it was first released, largely because of the aura and élan of its good-old-boy cast. Sinatra and his buddies were always fodder for the tabloids, and their Vegas nightclub exploits became the stuff of showbiz legend. 'Ocean's Eleven,' the quintessential concept movie, was tailor-made for their respective talents and required the Rat Pack members only to play themselves – or more accurately, their image. Personality reigns supreme in this style-over-substance film, but unfortunately the cast's calculated cool often comes off as aloofness or ennui. Attitudes have certainly changed in the intervening half-century since 'Ocean's Eleven' first premiered, and what was hip and trendy then is often just plain dull now.
The guts of the story will certainly be familiar to anyone who has seen the remake. Danny Ocean (Sinatra) hatches a scheme to knock over the top five casinos on the Vegas Strip and hopefully reel in a multi-million-dollar take. The ambitious plan, which features a synchronized power outage just after midnight on New Year's Eve, requires considerable assistance from a posse of unsuspicious henchmen, so Danny enlists the services of 10 of his army buddies from the 82nd Airborne Division, all of whom descend on Sin City to put the wheels in motion. Running the gamut from a spoiled playboy (Peter Lawford) to a garbage collector (Davis), the merry band of amateur thieves feel they've got a foolproof plot, but complications inevitably arise, putting their fantasies of life on easy street in jeopardy.
'Ocean's Eleven' would have worked well as a taut, 90-minute buddy/heist flick, but saddled with a languorous 127-minute running time, the film often meanders, lacking the snappy dialogue and laser focus this type of entertainment requires. Almost an hour ticks by before Danny even divulges his plan, during which time we must endure an endless stream of bland character introductions and idle chitchat, including the pointless, throwaway subplot of Ocean's troubled marriage to Beatrice (Angie Dickinson), an angle Soderbergh expanded upon to much greater effect and impact in the remake. The robbery itself is depicted with a decent dose of flair, but the aftermath once again sputters, wasting way too much celluloid on the double-dealing of opportunist Duke Santos (Cesar Romero), who thinks he may have cracked the case. The film's clever denouement almost salvages what transpired before, but by then almost any self-respecting viewer is just ready for the whole dang thing to be over.
In addition to Sinatra, Martin, Davis, and Lawford, the cast includes Richard Conte, Joey Bishop, Henry Silva, Akim Tamiroff, and cameos by Red Skelton, George Raft, and, in an unbilled, unfunny bit, Shirley MacLaine as a drunken floozie. All of the performers grab our attention for a time, but strangely can't keep it, which may be the fault of an uneven script that awkwardly alternates between forced comedy and stilted drama. (And why is it that Martin and Davis repeatedly sing during the picture, but Sinatra stays mum? What's up with that?) Though it's obvious those involved are having a ball (and most likely are just a bit juiced), somehow their jocularity isn't contagious anymore. Sure, it's fun to see shots of Las Vegas looking like a one-horse town instead of the glitzy metropolis of today, and the camaraderie between the guys evokes a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era, and, oh yes, Nelson Riddle's score still sounds great, but those tangential elements only modestly perk up the picture. In the end, 'Ocean's Eleven' is a movie about an inside job filled with inside jokes that aren't very funny outside the rarefied realm of the Rat Pack.
Though it pains me to say so, even 'Ocean's Twelve' and 'Ocean's Thirteen' eclipse this inert and at times excruciating 'Eleven.'
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Though it's a 50th anniversary edition, Warner Home Video didn't dress up the 'Ocean's Eleven' release. Instead of lavishing its signature digibook packaging on the film, the classic caper comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case. After the WHV logo, the static menu with soundtrack accompaniment immediately pops up on the 50GB dual-layer disc.
'Ocean's Eleven' arrives on Blu-ray sporting a pleasing 1080p/VC-1 transfer that possesses good clarity, vivid color, and fine contrast. Some heavy-ish grain is evident in the opening title sequence, but the levels calm down once the narrative begins, and the image sports a well-modulated, film-like look for the duration of the running time. Warner technicians have carefully scrubbed the print clean, so the movie visually defies its advanced age, and the result is a smooth viewing experience from start to finish. Though the overall palette often appears flat, colorful accents, such as Ilka Chase's red dress, yellow taxicabs, and green painted walls, jazz up the picture and keep the eye engaged. Fleshtones are a bit spotty – Martin's omnipresent tan can look a little orangey, especially in close-up – but black levels are strong and shadow delineation is quite good. Fine details and textures, from Sinatra's orange angora sweater to a mosaic painting and decorative bowling ball, are exceptionally well rendered, and close-ups are crisp and vibrant. Once again, Warner does a classic movie proud, staying true to the original source while supplying a first-rate high-def product.
The 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track gets the job done just fine, but don't expect any aural bells and whistles to distinguish this mono recording. Any age-related defects, such as pops, crackles, and hiss, have been eliminated, leaving us with clean, well-modulated audio. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, and the various musical numbers, especially Martin's 'Ain't That a Kick in the Head,' enjoy good fidelity and tonal depth. Dynamic range remains solid throughout, though highs and lows are rarely tested. All in all, this is a quality rendering that should please the film's fans, but won't tax your sound system.
Warner always tacks on some supplements onto its classic releases, and though 'Ocean's Eleven' isn't loaded with extras, a few curios – all of which have been ported over from the 2001 DVD release – enhance the disc.
I didn't like the original Rat Pack version of 'Ocean's Eleven' years ago, and even the audio and video enhancements of Blu-ray can't boost my low estimation of this creaky, dull caper. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the rest of their cronies have lost much of their cool, and can no longer compete with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and their raucous posse of thieves. Good audio and video, and a few interesting supplements dress up this 50th anniversary release, but after seeing the film, you'll come to realize there's very little celebrate. If you seek some innocuous nostalgia, you might get a mild kick out of the on-screen antics of the all-star cast, but with such a great remake so readily available, there's really no reason to revisit this humdrum relic.