Sure, you’ve seen “The Hangover” and “Casino.” Now catch these lesser-known Vegas screen gems
Las Vegas’ reputation has always preceded it — largely due to decades of starring roles on film and television. You can barely flip through channels without running across “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Viva Las Vegas,” “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” various “Ocean’s 11s”…
But that’s only a fraction of the movies set in Vegas: There are more than 200. Actors from Roy Rogers to Dennis Hopper to Gwyneth Paltrow have starred in Vegas-based flicks, and directors such as Billy Wilder and Tim Burton have been seduced — or horrified — by its glitter. Here are our recommendations for some of Las Vegas’ less-seen films. We’re not promising every one’s a “Casino,” but none of them is a “The Las Vegas Hillbillys” or “Leprechaun 3.”
Best degenerate gambler
Somewhere between film noir chiaroscuro and Lifetime Movie of the Week is “The Lady Gambles” (1949), one of the first films shot in Las Vegas. We open at rock-bottom, as a peroxided Barbara Stanwyck gets roughed up by guys in fedoras after blowing on a pair of crooked dice in a back-alley craps game. (Literally: in an alley, next to the trash cans.) Hubby Robert Preston tells the doctor his wife’s tale of woe, beginning with “Have you ever been to … Las Vegas?” as the screen gives way to a series of loving close-ups of defunct neon. The trouble began when Stanwyck accompanied Preston on a junket to Vegas and, like so many bored business-trippers’ wives, hit the casinos. Soon she’s dipping into the expense account, then working as a craps shill, going into and out of rehab, piling on and hocking jewelry, fronting for gangsters at the Gaming Commission … like you do. The trademark Barbara Stanwyck imperiousness is submerged in her role as a guilt-ridden housewife, but it’s still a powerful presence and strong performance.
Bonus cameo: Look for a young ’n’ handsome Tony Curtis in a tiny bit as a bellhop.
You think Sinatra/Clooney pulled together an eccentric crew for a ballsy casino robbery? They have nothing on the protagonists of “Hell’s Angels ’69” (1969). Two wealthy brothers decide to rob Caesars Palace for kicks. And, for even bigger kicks, they decide to infiltrate the Angels and use the gang as cover/patsy for their heist. It all goes off pretty smoothly, gliding through the then-new Caesars from porte-cochère to poolside, from the crystal casino to the kind of ice buckets they had in the suites. But, as you can imagine, the bikers are not pleased about being played for suckers — and since these are the actual Oakland Hell’s Angels playing themselves, there will be comeuppance. There’s also some glorious footage of their Harleys riding in procession down the Strip — when Circus Circus had fountains out front and the Bellagio was still the Dunes.
Trivia: Among the Angels playing themselves are “Maximum Leader” Sonny Barger and Terry the Tramp, both of whom already had literary starring turns in Hunter S. Thompson’s first book, “Hell’s Angels.”
A part of Las Vegas’ nuclear history not in the Atomic Testing Museum is “The Amazing Colossal Man” (1957). While attempting to rescue a fellow soldier, Lt. Col. Glenn Manning is caught in an atomic blast. Mutations ensue and our hero becomes, well, colossal. The larger he grows, the less blood his brain gets (or so says the Brylcreem-haired scientist) and the nuttier he becomes. Soon, an incoherent 60-foot bald guy in a diaper is “moving toward the resort hotel section,” as they used to call the Strip. He lets the Dunes alone, respecting the giant genie, but spooks a lady bathing in her seventh-floor room at the Riviera. He pulls off the Royal Nevada’s crown, yanks off the Silver Slipper’s shoe and rips up the Tropicana’s palm trees, finally karate-chopping the sign of the Sands 39 years before Sheldon Adelson did. The Amazing Colossal Man’s Vegas blowout ends with a shot from a three-quart hypodermic needle and a fall from the Hoover Dam. Top that, “Hangover 3”!
Trivia: Director Burt I. Gordon liked to go big. He also made “Earth vs. the Spider,” about giant spiders, “Empire of the Ants” about giant ants, “Beginning of the End” about giant grasshoppers and “The Food of the Gods,” among other humongo-centric flicks.
Best lounge act
Before Howard Hughes bought up Las Vegas, his RKO studios put out his fantasy version in “The Las Vegas Story” (1952). The B-movie features Hughes’ favorite stars, Jane Russell and Victor Mature — two thick-haired, sleepy-eyed, big-chested slabs of cheesecake and beefcake. Mature is a private eye on the trail of shady businessman Vincent Price, who happens to be married to Russell, who happens to be Mature’s former flame. It all centers on the Last Chance Casino, where Hoagy Carmichael heads the house band. While Price gets tangled up with some diamond-necklace shenanigans, his voluptuous wife does what any vintage Hollywood dame does: puts on her sequins and sings in the lounge. Russell’s laid-back, slightly bemused glamour plays well off Carmichael’s deadpan timing and the pair shine when duetting on his “My Resistance is Low,” with smoothly relaxed vocals and subtle chemistry.
Runner up: The Tommy Dorsey Band is prominent in “Las Vegas Nights.” Getting less screentime is their singer, Frank Sinatra, in his screen debut, crooning his first hit, “I’ll Never Smile Again.”
Best film noir
Biblical figure Charlton Heston is cast against type as a small-time hood in “Dark City” (1950). He helps fleece a rube, the rube commits suicide and, this being the genre it is, he falls in love with the victim’s widow while being pursued by the victim’s murderous brother. He tries to extricate himself from an obviously untenable situation by fleeing to Las Vegas. There, he hangs out in some glorious mid-century casinos, both the stone-walled lodge and sleek, semi-deco varieties, playing the tables and listening to Lizbeth Scott sing torch songs. A guilt-stricken Heston is pursued down a Strip that is mostly rural with the occasional pool of neon; on better nights he dolly-shots past the Apache and the Eldorado Club downtown. Although it is a little weird seeing Moses wreathed in a cloud of smoke, clutching a fistful of chips and shouting “Let it ride!”
Trivia: Also in shady supporting roles are Jack Webb and Harry Morgan, who would go on to co-star on the other side of the law in TV’s “Dragnet.”
[HEAR MORE: Meet the cast of “Stealing Las Vegas,” a film by the UNLV Film Department, on "KNPR's State of Nevada".]
Best road trip stop
“Saint John of Las Vegas” (2009) is all about getting to Las Vegas. And staying away from Las Vegas. Loosely based on Dante’s “Inferno,” it follows former degenerate gambler, Steve Buscemi, who has cleaned up his act and gone into insurance. Well, he’s still buying lottery tickets by the fistful, but … Regardless, douchebag boss Peter Dinklage (giving another brilliant supporting performance) sends him to investigate a fraudulent claim and Buscemi is off on a road trip to Sin City, led by recalcitrant co-investigator Virgil. On the way, they run into a wheelchair-bound stripper, an accident-prone carny and a posse of nudist survivalists. Cut throughout the story is an alternately jittery and flamboyant Buscemi delivering an endless monologue on the joys and evils, changes and sameness of Vegas to a bewildered convenience-store clerk.
Runner-up: “Roadside Prophets” (1992) follows the unlikely duo of X’s John Doe and the Beastie Boys’ Ad Rock on a motorcycle journey with existential overtones. (Is there any other kind?) The two roll past the Strip lights and crash at a skanky Naked City motel. On the way to Vegas, there are run-ins with Timothy Leary, David Carradine and an especially deranged John Cusack.
Best showgirls … erm, showgirl
Oh, they’re all heading for L.A., but they get stuck here. In “The Grasshopper” (1969), a gorgeous and naïve Jacqueline Bisset goes astray in Sin City. The idealistic Canadian teen follows her boyfriend to L.A., but soon gets bored with the square life. With no real skills except looking like Jacqueline Bisset, she hustles her way into a job as a Las Vegas showgirl. Soon she’s parading around topless in a blue wig and feathers, partying with high rollers, dating comics and businessmen and former NFL players. The last is played by Jim Brown, who proposes marriage while they ride the Circus Circus merry-go-round. The plot goes on in a melodramatic “Valley of the Dolls” vein — Bissett changing hairdos and mod outfits every five minutes — culminating in our heroine hiring a plane to skywrite “Fuck you” over the city that brought her down.
Runner-up: Veteran of trash epics “The Lonely Lady” and “Santa Claus Versus the Martians,” Pia Zadora stars in “Nevada Heat” (1982) as a lounge entertainer on the run from the mob. The entire film takes place in the Riviera — a no-brainer, since producer and Zadora sugar hubby Meshulam Riklis was majority owner of the casino at the time.
Best high-roller experience
One gets the feeling that “Lookin’ to Get Out” (1982) was largely an excuse for a vacation in Vegas. Penniless penny-ante gamblers Jon Voight and Burt Young are on the run from bad gambling debts. They drop the right names and are swept off to the “Dr. Zhivago suite” at the newly rebuilt MGM Grand, complete with chrome-and-crystal chandelier, satin-upholstered conversation pit, sunken marble tub and “a mirror so you could watch yourself sleep!” If this isn’t luxury enough, hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold Ann-Margret is on the way. Next comes dinner and a show, specifically “Nudes on Ice.” There’s plenty of authentic footage from the VIP seats, replete with topless death spirals and thonged showgirls in Geisha wigs, even Siegfried & Roy in their tight-pants prime. Among the other high-roller perks: Signing $10,000 markers without any I.D., just telling the guy in the cage, “I’m with Jerry Feldman, a good friend of Bernie Gold.” It’s all luxury cars and lobster tails until a free-for-all brawl in the poker room but, hey, no one’s a whale forever.
Bonus cameo: A very young, very blonde, very awkward Angelina Jolie pops up at the end.
Best auto fetish
Hey, someone stole Luke Skywalker’s bitchin’ sports car! The one he slaved away in auto shop to build! He even missed the prom! So goes the storyline of “Corvette Summer” (1978). Mark Hamill hears the ‘Vette is in Vegas and goes in search of his beloved ride, learning life lessons along the way, the kind you can only learn in Las Vegas, like how to hustle a luxury suite and fight off a chain-wielding thug. He searches Glitter Gulch and the Riviera parking lot, Industrial Road and the Neon Graveyard, but he cannot capture the elusive vehicle. On the way, he does gigs as a gas station attendant, car washer and valet parker but, more importantly, he meets up with aspiring hooker Annie Potts and moves into her pimped-out custom van. Let’s just say he loses more than his car …
Runner up :“Grand Theft Auto” (1977). No, not the notoriously violent video game, but Ron Howard’s “Citizen Kane,” which he wrote, directed and starred in. Opie Cunningham takes off with a millionaire’s daughter (and vintage Rolls) and heads for Vegas. A $25,000 bounty on the fresh-faced couple inspired a legion of assorted gangsters, mercenaries, housewives and weirdos to chase them all the way to their 24-hour wedding chapel.
Best Fremont Street fantasy
An exercise in style over substance — and over budget, Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart” (1982) follows an estranged Las Vegas couple one Independence Day weekend. Most of the film is set on Fremont Street, where the pair meet up, miss each other, make mistakes and wander brooding below the neon. However, it’s not really Fremont. (Although Harry Dean Stanton may actually live in a bachelor pad across the street from the El Cortez.) Coppola exercised his control-freakdom by rebuilding downtown on a soundstage, the better for fireworks and sunsets and big musical numbers. The visuals flow from meticulous recreation to XX all within the same pan shot, but a haunting all-Tom Waits soundtrack grounds the tale and plays as much a role as any of the actors.
Runner-up: Slow is the motion of overblown Bollywood crossover “Kites: The Remix” (2009), from the leading man and leading lady cementing their devotion to each other by dancing the funky chicken in the rain on Fremont to the crashing of dozens of cop cars. The Plaza is central to the plot, so there are plenty of dolly shots through street of light to get there — in slo-mo, of course.