Las Vegas has been appearing in movies since at least the early 1940s, and the town’s onscreen image has evolved as the city itself has transformed and expanded. In picking the 20 essential Las Vegas movies, I looked at films primarily set in and/or about Las Vegas, not just movies with one memorable Vegas sequence (which leaves out Swingers or the recent Gloria Bell). With the Las Vegas Film Festival coming up (April 28-May 5), here are iconic Vegas that, whether great, good, or bad, help paint a vibrant picture of our city on the big screen.
Like most movies starring singing cowboy Roy Rogers, Helldorado is shamelessly cheesy, with a plot designed primarily to showcase Rogers crooning and riding, joined as always by his trusty horse Trigger (who gets second billing). But it’s also a fascinating document of a Las Vegas that was still part of the Old West. Set during the annual Helldorado Days, the movie stars Rogers as a Nevada Ranger on the trail of some money-launderers, with Rogers’ frequent co-star Dale Evans as a sassy socialite who fancies herself an amateur detective. The movie’s Vegas has flashy casinos bordering open landscape, in a city where many of the roads are still dirt. The Helldorado parade (and the associated beard-growing competition) gets as much screen time as the villains’ dastardly plan, and that balance seems about right.
Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956)
Cyd Charisse stars as an imperious ballerina performing at the Sands in this charming MGM musical, which combines plenty of Vegas atmosphere (including performances by Lena Horne and Frankie Laine and an uncredited Frank Sinatra cameo) with old-fashioned Hollywood song-and-dance numbers. Charisse’s Marie Corvier forms an unlikely pair with Dan Dailey’s aw-shucks rancher Chuck Rodwell, who experiences uncanny luck at the tables whenever he holds Marie’s hand. The sleepy plot provides lots of time for musical showcases, including some stunning footwork from Charisse. Along with learning to appreciate Chuck’s charms, the somewhat snobbish Marie also learns to appreciate performing for Vegas crowds, and the movie effectively sells both Vegas glamour (dig those gorgeous outfits) and the Vegas showbiz work ethic.
Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
The truth is that the 2001 remake of this Rat Pack heist movie is much better, but no other film offers the same distillation of the time when Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. dominated Las Vegas. The movie’s first half is extremely slow-moving, and even once the group of former military buddies embark on their plan to steal from five Vegas casinos, the story isn’t particularly suspenseful or lively. But the hangout vibe is excellent, and seeing these guys (also including Rat Pack members Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop) in their element, full of style and swagger (and, it must be said, more than a little chauvinism), makes it clear why they ruled the Strip. Plus, the exquisitely downbeat ending nearly makes up for all the preceding bluster.
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
The title song of this Elvis Presley musical has had a more lasting impact than the movie it came from, thanks to dozens of cover versions and an adoption as the official song of the city. But Viva Las Vegas remains a defining moment for Vegas onscreen, establishing so many of the persistent, indelible elements of the city’s image, from Elvis to showgirls to quickie weddings to, uh, helicopter tours of Hoover Dam. The movie belongs to Ann-Margret as Flamingo pool manager Rusty Martin as much as it belongs to Presley as racecar driver Lucky Jackson, and their real-life competition for screen time gets the best out of both performers. Presley isn’t much of an actor, and the story is pretty undercooked, but there’s infectious fun in the musical set pieces, and a giddy enthusiasm for everything Vegas that still does wonders for the city.
The Only Game in Town (1970)
A critical and commercial failure at the time of its release, the final film from legendary director George Stevens (Shane, Giant) has actually aged well, and its oddball pairing of Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty works in its favor for a story of unbalanced (but undeniable) romance. Adapted by Frank D. Gilroy from his stage play, the movie mostly takes place in the small apartment of Las Vegas showgirl Fran (Taylor), and was shot primarily in Paris, on Taylor’s insistence. But whenever Fran and pianist (and gambling addict) Joe (Beatty) leave the apartment, they head into real Vegas locations (including the old Vegas Village general store), showing the everyday side of working-class Strip entertainers. A sort of gentler, melancholy version of the histrionic Leaving Las Vegas, Game captures the feel of the Vegas grind alongside an engaging (if sometimes stilted) romance.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
Often cited as one of the worst James Bond movies, Diamonds Are Forever is not exactly a great showcase for the iconic secret agent. It’s full of flat, belabored humor, the plot is confusing and sluggish, and star Sean Connery (returning to the role after one film away) seems bored with the whole project. But Diamonds is a great showcase for Las Vegas, which is the setting for the majority of the movie and shines in all its gaudy, neon-drenched 1970s glory. The eight featured Vegas hotels are as much the stars of the movie as Connery is, especially the International (now the Westgate), turned into the fictional Whyte House, run by the movie’s campy Howard Hughes analogue. With its car chases around downtown and guest appearances by Circus-Circus performers, Diamonds proved that Vegas could be the ideal setting for a major action-adventure blockbuster.
One From the Heart (1982)
Francis Ford Coppola’s elaborate Las Vegas-set musical, shot entirely on sound stages at his American Zoetrope Studios, is one of the most notorious box-office failures of all time, but it’s the kind of boondoggle that’s perfect for Vegas: an ambitious, ego-driven piece of artistic kitsch. And while Coppola didn’t shoot a single frame on location, his version of the city is possibly the Vegas-est Vegas can be, with the deliberately artificial casino facades placed right next to the equally artificial sets of the characters’ living and working spaces. Coppola repurposes and heightens genuine Vegas landmarks to provide a hallucinatory world for his almost abstract love story about a travel agent (Teri Garr) and a mechanic (Frederic Forrest) who break up and explore other lovers over the course of a woozy 48 hours, only to be inexorably drawn back to each other.
Honeymoon in Vegas (1992)
Everyone remembers the jumpsuited skydivers known as the Flying Elvises from this goofy Nicolas Cage/Sarah Jessica Parker rom-com, but much of the story embraces Vegas silliness, from the lavishly appointed Ali Baba Suite at Bally’s where New Yorkers Jack (Cage) and Betsy (Parker) stay in anticipation of their wedding, to the fawning VIP host who caters to the whims of shady businessman Tommy Korman (James Caan), to the parade of Elvis impersonators (including a very young Bruno Mars). The story about Tommy forcing Betsy to spend a weekend with him to pay off Jack’s gambling debts is a bit icky, but writer-director Andrew Bergman keeps the tone light even when Cage is delivering one of his signature unhinged rants.
Leprechaun 3 (1995)
There are plenty of low-budget, direct-to-video horror movies set in Las Vegas, but only one of them stars Warwick Davis as a homicidal, rhyming leprechaun. The third movie in the surprisingly long-running Leprechaun series finds the evil imp in Vegas, where he ends up at the Lucky Shamrock casino, chasing down people who’ve taken coins from his pot of gold. The plot and characters are entirely ridiculous, of course, but there are some fun Vegas-related bits (at one point the leprechaun turns some poor guy into a human slot machine), and the city turns out to be a perfect setting for the demented creature, who gets as much joy from cheating and deceiving people as he does from committing horrible and/or ironic acts of violence.
Is Showgirls one of the worst movies ever made? Is it so bad it’s good, or is it actually secretly brilliant? Paul Verhoeven’s stripper saga is all of those things and more, depending on who you ask, but regardless of your perspective, the movie is never not entertaining. Joe Eszterhas’ screenplay is full of quotably ridiculous dialogue, and the performances are perversely dedicated, especially Elizabeth Berkley in the role that both defined and essentially ended her career. Berkley’s Nomi Malone is a ruthless social climber who uses her sexuality to get what she wants, both at the Cheetahs gentlemen’s club and in the Stardust’s lavish topless show Goddess. Showgirls presents Las Vegas as a corrupt cesspool, but also as a place where people with genuine artistic ambitions come to make it big. In its strange way, it’s a tribute to the town’s own ruthless ambitions.
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Nicolas Cage’s Oscar-winning performance as suicidal alcoholic Ben Sanderson is so broad that it frequently veers into camp, but it’s balanced with remarkable effectiveness by Elisabeth Shue as Sera, the lonely prostitute with whom Ben forms an immediate connection. Las Vegas is a key component of Ben’s plan to drink himself to death, and the town itself is portrayed as a somewhat toxic environment. But it’s also a place where people like Ben and Sera come to escape, even if their demons follow them wherever they go. Working from John O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel, writer-director Mike Figgis captures the self-destructive melodrama of someone who’s determined to end his life no matter who he hurts along the way. The movie is as overwrought and ungainly as Ben himself, and just as consumed by tragedy.
While it’s often overshadowed by director Martin Scorsese’s previous collaboration with crime writer Nicholas Pileggi, 1990’s Goodfellas, Casino is every bit the masterful crime epic its predecessor is, another complex examination of loyalty and betrayal among gangsters, in this case the criminal organization that unofficially ran multiple Las Vegas casinos in the 1970s and early ’80s. Robert De Niro gives possibly his last great performance as Lefty Rosenthal stand-in Sam “Ace” Rothstein, and Joe Pesci is delightfully unhinged as Rothstein’s best friend and worst enemy Nicky Santoro. Although it’s fictionalized, the movie is still a fascinatingly detailed look into how the mob controlled Vegas for years, and the difficult, sometimes violent way the city and the industry evolved, led by these bold visionaries who also happened to be vicious criminals.
The Winner (1996)
Cult filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid and Nancy) has disowned his adaptation of Wendy Riss’ play A Darker Purpose, but the movie retains plenty of his off-kilter sensibility, and it works as a sort of Vegas flipside to Repo Man’s quasi-mystical LA. Vincent D’Onofrio plays an almost otherworldly gambler who appears unable to lose, and who is targeted by gangsters, opportunists and his own sleazy brother as a result. The plot doesn’t make much sense, but Frank Whaley, Rebecca De Mornay, and Billy Bob Thornton all give entertaining performances as the strange characters trying to take advantage of the protagonist. Cox makes great use of both Vegas landmarks (the opening is set at the Pioneer Saloon, and there’s a sex scene atop a piano at the Liberace Museum) and the booming, constantly-under-construction Vegas suburbs of the time, which of course conceal rot and betrayal just underneath.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Hunter S. Thompson’s Las Vegas is not a pleasant place, and Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Thompson’s seminal novel captures the kaleidoscopic nightmare experienced by Thompson stand-in Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp, in what may be his definitive role) and his lawyer/accomplice Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) as they navigate the garish horrors they perceive in the Vegas of 1971. The characters’ drug-fueled journey produces a movie that itself feels like a drug trip, which means it can be exhausting and repetitive, but can also provide unexpected revelations. Using Vegas as a stand-in for America’s worst excesses may have become a cliché, but Fear and Loathing embraces its inherent contradictions, allowing its self-destructive characters to take advantage of depravity while also recoiling from it in horror.
Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
Ocean’s Thirteen (2007)
The bookends of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy make Las Vegas look almost impossibly cool, a high-end playground for the crew of suave thieves led by George Clooney’s Danny Ocean. The plots are convoluted, but the characters are impeccably crafted, and the visual style is dazzling. Far superior to its Rat Pack source material, Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven is a lively, funny, and massively entertaining heist movie bursting with great performances, centered on the buddy-comedy chemistry between Clooney and Brad Pitt. Ocean’s Thirteen is even more of a love letter to Vegas, made at a time when construction on the Strip was booming and new mega-resorts were opening every other month. Both movies capture the energy, glamour and luxury of a Vegas era that came crashing down shortly after.
The Hangover (2009)
Todd Phillips’ raunchy comedy has come to define the hedonistic image of modern Las Vegas, the place where “what happens here, stays here,” and people are free to indulge their darkest desires. The story of three friends trying to piece together their harrowing bachelor party night (in order to locate their missing fourth friend, who’s due to get married) is still consistently funny, with justifiably star-making performances from Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis (and an ultra-luxurious Caesars Palace suite). The movie portrays Vegas as a dangerous adult playground where anything goes, which is equally enticing and terrifying. It’s a place where the characters discover their true selves and actually grow up a bit, although not so much that they can’t repeat the same mistakes in the two (mostly terrible) sequels.
Electrick Children (2012)
Las Vegas native Rebecca Thomas makes the city into an ethereal promised land in her debut feature, a dreamlike fable about a sheltered Utah teenager (Julia Garner) who runs away from a religious compound to seek out the man she believes impregnated her via a holy cassette tape. Garner’s Rachel is a combination of naive and determined, completely ignorant about how babies are conceived but also willing to risk everything to find the father of her child. Garner is fantastic as the open, tender Rachel, who views every new place she visits with wide-eyed wonder. Thomas finds that wonder away from the Strip, in places like Downtown’s Artifice and the Alamo, and at the suburban Desert Breeze Skate Park. The movie builds a sweet teenage romance alongside a sense of the mystical and unknowable.
Fateful Findings (2013)
Las Vegan Neil Breen has become a fixture of the bad-movie circuit thanks in large part to this anti-masterpiece, a stunningly narcissistic piece of outsider art in which Breen stars as a messianic hacker/psychic who is irresistible to women and is the only person who can expose government and corporate corruption to the world. Breen is a terrible filmmaker but also a fascinating figure, a sort of self-made only-in-Vegas character whose unearned confidence in himself takes the place of talent or training. Breen shoots all his self-financed movies in nondescript office buildings and courtyards and in the open desert, although his penchant for stock footage also occasionally includes images of the Strip. Fateful Findings is the purest representation of his baffling, abrasive style, and a reminder that Vegas is still one of the top places for self-indulgent weirdos.
A team-up of some of the most talented local filmmakers of the last few years, Dealer is an omnibus film made by five directors and/or directing teams (Lundon Boyd, Jeremy Cloe, Mike and Jerry Thompson, Ryan and Cody LeBeouf, Adam Zielinski), tied together by Boyd’s character Kelly, a hapless casino card dealer who’s forced into running errands for a mysterious crime boss. Each segment has its own tone, from surreal to sweet to suspenseful, and each highlights a different side of Vegas, from the LeBeoufs’ kaleidoscopic journey through the halls of the Artisan to Cloe’s suburban hangout comedy to the Thompsons’ caper on the waters of Lake Mead. It’s a showcase for homegrown talent that proves its creators are all ready for bigger things.