Show me a man without a dream.
And I’ll show you a man that’s dead.
So sings Josh Howard, portrayed by Sammy Davis Jr., in the original 1960 Ocean’s 11, the Rat Pack heist movie which inspired the Ocean’s trilogy from the first decade of this millennium. The song is titled “Eee-O-11,” referring to the craps phrase Yo-11, which gamblers use to place bets. “Yo-11” is used as not to be confused with “7.” The house pays 15-1 odds if a bet is made that the dice will come up 11 on a particular roll. The song is about taking chances and the possible rewards which could follow. So are heist movies.
The other main song in the movie is song by lounge singer Sam Harmon (Dean Martin). “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head” was written shortly before the movie was made and is, I think, about how love can blindside a person. The writer of the song seems to be saying that, while the experience is nice, he’s not sure he’s ready for what comes along with it. The message is subtly snarky.
How lucky can one guy be?
I kissed her and she kissed me
Like the fella once said
“Ain’t that a kick in the head?”
The first verse makes it sound like the “kick in the head” is rather a nice thing. But tell me, who really enjoys being kicked in the head? These lines near the end of the song suggest the writer’s uneasiness with the whole matter:
She’s tellin’ me we’ll be wed
She’s picked out a king-size bed
I couldn’t feel any better or I’d be sick
Sam not only sings about the anxiety love can sometimes cause; he is also anxious about the heist, and tries to talk the group out of it. Sometimes the potential payoff just isn’t worth the risk. They are no longer the young men who fought together as paratroopers in World War II – not as agile and sharp as they used to be. But after Danny and the gang insist they are up to it, Sam gives in. He will not allow his buddies to do this alone. After all, Sam is the one who knows Las Vegas, and it would be foolish to let them do it without him.
A heist of the size they are attempting—five casinos at the same time—requires quite a group. But when you expand the list of main characters in a movie, it becomes hard to follow. Ocean’s 11 does do a good job of centering on a few main instigators, so it is enjoyable to watch for the first time. But the complexity also makes it fun to view over and over, as more and more details become clearer with each viewing. And part of the fun for the original audience in 1960 must have been recognizing the A-list actors in the film. (Shirley MacLaine’s line to Dean Martin, “I don’t fit into your picture, huh?” is classic.) Not to mention all the lesser-known character actors in the film. If you are at all acquainted with mid-twentieth century entertainment, you will be constantly thinking, “Hey, I know that guy from somewhere!”
It might be helpful at this point to list some of the main characters in the film, including those who comprise the “11” (numbered below).
Spyros Acebos (Akim Tamiroff) – Acebos is the one who planned the heist. He is actually not part of the “11.” He apparently has ties to organized crime, but wants unknowns who can infiltrate Vegas. Danny constantly plays pranks on him.
1. Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) – Finds and organizes war buddies for the job.
2. Sam Harmon (Dean Martin) – Danny’s closest friend who has returned from Hawaii. Danny saved his life in the war. When he finds out Danny and his wife Bea are having marital trouble, he tries to get them back together.
3. Josh Howard (Sammy Davis, Jr.) – A Distinguished Service Medal winner in the war and talented baseball pitcher, he is unable to land any other job but being a garbage truck driver.
4. Jimmy Foster (Peter Lawford) – Danny’s main partner in crime.
5. Anthony “Tony” Bergdorf (Richard Conte) – The ace electrician. In prison at the beginning of the film, he is given amnesty in exchange for his testimony. His wife Gracie has left him because of his crimes.
6. Mushy O’Connors (Joey Bishop) – Former prizefighter.
7. Roger Corneal (Henry Silva) – Helps track down Tony Bergdorf to convince him to take part in the heist.
8. Vincent Massler (Buddy Lester) – His wife, “Honeyface,” is an exotic dancer. He joins the group so she can give up her job.
9. Curly Stephans (Richard Benedict) – Picks up Sam at the airport.
10. Peter Rheimer (Norman Fell) – An inside man at one of the casinos.
11. Louis Jackson (Clem Harvey) – Cowboy from Salt Lake City
All of these guys must be organized, and everything fall exactly into place, for the job to be pulled off. Everything goes off without a hitch. But then the unexpected happens. Tony, after fulfilling his part of rigging the money cages to open, and putting his bag full of cash in the designated area, stumbles and falls in the street, dying of a heart attack. Tony had only agreed to taking the job after he had found out he was dying. He wanted to be able to provide a college education for his son, but now it was too late.
Everything was still in place as it needed to be, but Tony’s death would stir things up. The remaining ten still could have gotten away with the cash easily after things quieted down, if it weren’t for Duke Santos (Cesar Romero), who pieces everything together. Duke is engaged to Jimmy’s mother, and finds out a group of army buddies are in town. He threatens to go to the police if they don’t give him half of the loot. The gang plans a double-cross by placing the money in Tony’s coffin, planning to recover it when the body is shipped out of town. However, the mortician convinces Gracie to have the body cremated. The ending of the movie is classic, as we see the ten in the sanctuary react as they are told Tony is being cremated. They walk out of the mortuary with dejected looks on their faces as a reprise of “Eee-O-11” is sung with these added words:
Once I had me a dream.But that dream got kicked in the head.Dream dead.
They had all made the big gamble and lost. Only the widow and her son gained anything in the end, as someone thought to set aside $10,000 for them. And she wasn’t even looking for it.
Life is a high-stakes game. In this particular movie, those who tried to cheat the system failed. It does not always end this way. Sometimes the wicked prosper. (Psalm 73:3) It is not wrong to dream, but sometimes when we try to fulfill our dreams in even legitimate ways we are kicked in the head. While often those who cheat seem to get ahead with nothing kicking them. But there is a certain satisfaction is doing what we know is right, even if everyone around us seems to be rigging the system. In the end, there is a God who will set things right.