Sin on Celluloid

Vegas gives filmmakers a place for their tired, their poor, their huddled tourists yearning to drink free. Here’s what we get in return.

vegasillustrationbyjessesutherlandweb.jpgThe canon of Vegas movies generally goes something like this: Casino, Casino, Casino, Ocean’s 11, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Casino, Ocean’s 11 remake, Casino, The Hangover, sometimes The Cooler for the artier crowd, Showgirls (goddamn right, Showgirls) and then Casino.

They are all, to lesser and greater extents, fine movies. But there hasn’t been a hungover Sunday where you’ve failed to watch the entirety of Casino after stumbling onto it.

Right now, we have two new Vegas flicks in theaters: The Hangover Part III and Now You See Me. While neither is likely to enter into the canon discussion (certainly not over a classic like Showgirls), both movies slide into the well-worn trope of Las Vegas as wish-fulfilling fantasy factory. It’s one of two modes that Vegas gets to play onscreen: Dream maker or love taker. Call it the Benatar Effect.

It’s not new, either. Most Vegas-centric films exploit these two central conceits. Even the lesser-known in the catalog. Take They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968). It’s a movie that was ahead of its time, in the sense that even during the late ’60s, it captured utterly the aesthetic of cheaply and inattentively made ’70s fare. Which is probably unfair—it’s a fun movie that you should see if for nothing else than the period B-roll in the location shots. 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Gary Lockwood stars as a scheming thief who assembles a team to steal the weekly take from a casino—armored car and all. To do it, he enlists the aid of a lost-soul, inveterate gambler, Elke Sommer, who works for the armored car company and is tangled in a love affair with its owner. Vegas, you see, exacts cosmic retribution on the wicked, as the mob, the cops and the company close in on the crew. In Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959), Mamie Van Doren takes the place of armored car heist-muse, and just like her counterpart Sommer, she’s condemned by her own weaknesses to exist in Vegas, attached to men who elevate her circumstances from “terrible” to “horrific” by the time of the bloody climax.

If this is all starting to sound like screenwriters are using Vegas as a metaphorical repository for doomed souls, that’s because they are. And that subtext gets turned into actual text in the 2009 indie flick Saint John of Las Vegas, wherein Steve Buscemi (John Alighieri) is a stand-in for Dante (Alighieri) as he’s led by Romany Malco (Virgil), who serves as this version’s, er, Virgil, as they descend through the rings of hell into Las Vegas, where they eventually meet with evil junkyard overlord Lucypher.

But then there’s the likes of My Friend Irma Goes West, a Martin & Lewis vehicle from 1950 that tracks Steve (Dean Martin) and Seymour’s (Jerry Lewis) journey to stardom in Los Angeles, when it turns out the producer who signed them to a movie contract was actually an escaped loon. So they crash in Vegas where Steve gets a gig singing in a showroom, the mob gets involved, a girlfriend gets kidnapped and at the end of the day, Seymour winds up signed to a big-time movie deal as Steve settles into wedded bliss.

They’re all well worth it if you’re trying to expand your Vegas flick repertoire. But it’s the central conceit of Vegas in film: It can be a supernatural wonderland (Ocean’s 11, Meet Me in Las Vegas). Or it can be a nightmarish hellscape that’s either a waystation for the wretched (Leaving Las Vegas, The Cooler), or a place where the demonic dole out torment to the damned (Showgirls, Very Bad Things).

Other cities get to just be settings. Sleepless in Seattle could have been Sleepless in San Jose. Philadelphia could have been Boston. There are even examples that don’t involve Tom Hanks, but the point is that Vegas is always forced to be a very specific stand-in for certain metaphors.

Only Casino and Fear and Loathing try to do it different. They use Vegas as allegory for the failure of the American Dream. It’s a trickier proposition than painting the town as a two-dimensional horror show or garden of delights, and it’s probably telling that of all the flicks, only Casino really managed to pull it off convincingly. (Fear and Loathing is a fine movie, but the heightened realities on the screen undercut the precise and biting social commentary. It works more seamlessly on the page.)

Which is probably why Casino still stands as the first among peers in the Vegas-movie canon. That and the fact that there’s an 85 percent chance of finding it on AMC right now. But it would be nice if, for once, Vegas on the screen were a place where people just lived, without the burden of commenting on the human condition by virtue of geography.

A Vegas Vintage point

Are you tired of looking at the steak (Casino) and parsley (Showgirls) on your plate full of Vegas movies, and would just like to taste a buttery, delicious baked potato? Hang on, before we go get dinner, here’s a selection of offbeat and little-known movies that feature our city—frequently with fantastic, vintage location footage.

• My Friend Irma Goes West (1950). Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis.

• Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956). Dan Dailey, Cyd Charise. Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. turn up in this pre-Ocean’s 11 ode to magic and gambling.

• Guns, Girls and Gangsters (1959). Mamie Van Doren, Lee Van Cleef.

• Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). Dean Martin, Kim Novak. Though none of Kiss Me, Stupid is set in Vegas, Dean Martin plays a lecherous Vegas lounge singer (sound familiar?) whose Karmen Ghia breaks down in Climax, Nevada. It’s a subtly smutty turn from the magnificently brilliant Billy Wilder.

• They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968). Gary Lockwood, Elke Sommer.

• 10 Violent Women (1982). Sherri Vernon, Dixie Lauren. Lots of quality period footage of the town from local legend Ted V. Mikels.

• Heat (1986). Burt Reynolds, Howard Hesseman. Soon to be remade as a probably terrible Jason Statham movie.

• Saint John of Las Vegas (2009). Steve Buscemi, Romany Malco.

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