Looking back at Diamonds Are Forever and Ocean's Eleven, two over-the-top Vegas caper flicks
It would be tough to be cooler in Las Vegas than Danny Ocean or James Bond. The suave, tuxedoed men saunter into Vegas like they own the town, and in their films set in Las Vegas, they pretty much do. We just hit milestone anniversaries for both the 1971 James Bond adventure Diamonds Are Forever and Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 version of Ocean’s Eleven, and both films remain essential components of the pop-culture image of Las Vegas.
Which is about all they have in common. The quality of the movies themselves is far from equal. Diamonds Are Forever is not a great (or even good) James Bond movie, although for an hour or so it comes close. Ocean’s Eleven is one of the all-time great Vegas movies — and simply a fantastic movie on its own, an improvement in nearly every way over the 1960 Rat Pack original. There’s plenty of camp value in Diamonds Are Forever, but Ocean’s Eleven offers the pleasure of watching a master filmmaker at the top of his craft.
By 1971, Sean Connery was doubly over playing James Bond, having returned to the role following George Lazenby’s exit, lured in by a major payday, but already on his way out again. The script doesn’t do him many favors, with an underwhelming, convoluted plot focused on stolen diamonds that pivots into a late-breaking showdown with longtime Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Charles Gray).
There’s about half an hour of set-up (including a clumsy, obvious fake-out death for Blofeld) before Bond gets to Vegas, as he first catches up with a shipment of stolen diamonds in Amsterdam. There, he meets Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), his surprisingly proactive love interest. She’s part of the smuggling operation, but her heart isn’t really in it, especially once she succumbs to Bond’s masculine wiles. The two of them head to Vegas separately, with Bond arriving via an amusingly bizarre funeral home in the middle of the desert, where the diamonds have been transported from Europe via corpse. Things get even more ridiculous from there, and Diamonds Are Forever represents Connery’s Bond at his goofiest. Bond and Tiffany eventually wind up at the excessively lavish Whyte House, a hotel-casino owned by the reclusive, Howard Hughes-style tycoon Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean).
The International (now the Westgate) stands in for the Whyte House, and one of the movie’s most memorable sequences features Bond riding on top of the hotel’s exterior elevator, before rappelling along the outside of the hotel, with a full view of the Vegas skyline behind him. The Downtown car chase is an even better showcase for the neon lights of Vegas, and director Guy Hamilton makes sure that Bond drives past each glowing sign at least twice as he attempts to evade his pursuers. The movie falls apart as soon as it leaves Vegas, but for a while, the coolness of the city and the secret agent are in perfect harmony: When Bond walks onto a casino floor to gamble, he’s impeccably decked out in a tuxedo while surrounded by schlubs in casual wear.
Thirty years later, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) carries that same air of sophistication as he walks into the Bellagio, also wearing a tuxedo amid the slovenly rubes. In Ocean’s Eleven, Danny, fresh out of prison, hooks back up with his former partner in crime Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) and hatches a scheme to rob $160 million from three Las Vegas casinos. The heist plan is every bit as convoluted as the plot of Diamonds Are Forever—probably more so—but its incomprehensible intricacies are part of its charm. Danny and Rusty put together a crew of 11 veteran criminals to pull off the job, and despite the large cast, Soderbergh and screenwriter Ted Griffin give every character the chance to shine. Better yet, the filmmaking is as slick and dazzling as Danny’s heist plan, full of glamour and delightful misdirection. Danny’s ex-wife Tess (Julia Roberts) gets about as much character development as a Bond girl, but Soderbergh and Roberts make her believably alluring and cultured.
If Diamonds Are Forever treats Vegas as a weird funhouse detour for Bond, Ocean’s Eleven affords the city more respect, so much so that parts of it could double as a tourism ad. Vegas celebrities like Wayne Newton and Siegfried & Roy even have cameos as themselves.
The movie’s most iconic scene is the post-heist montage of the characters standing at the Bellagio fountains, departing one by one to head back where they came from, as Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” plays on the soundtrack. It’s the kind of magical ending that anyone would want for their own Vegas trip with friends — even if they weren’t leaving with $160 million.