Fifty years ago this month, one month after John F. Kennedy's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention, Warner Bros. opened the crime caper Ocean's 11 to mixed reviews, strong box office, and the film's immediate installation in a special corner of American mythology. It is a cult film in the sense of being a film about a cult—the Rat Pack, most popularly remembered as a clique around Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and especially Frank Sinatra. The Rat Pack, at once institutional and ambient, is universally familiar, with every halfway-conscious consumer of pop holding at least a hazy essence of the idea. In this case, the haze issues from the cigarette smoke of self-made playboys performing a boozy masculinity. In its idea of cool, Ocean's 11, like JFK, promised a New Frontier. This attitude can be alluring, and it can certainly get tiresome, but in any case it was ours.
To get the ring-a-ding-ding of the idea, we need to travel back to the mid-1950s and to 232 South Mapleton Dr. in Los Angeles, where Humphrey Bogart was slow to get around to decorating his living room. During his 50s, Bogart and Lauren Bacall, his fourth and best wife, held court in Holmby Hills, a neighborhood tucked between the Bel Air and Los Angeles country clubs. * Unless they were throwing a great big do, they hosted their guests in a cozy library—the Butternut Room—featuring well-stocked bookcases and a better-stocked bar. Spencer Tracy (or whoever) would drop in, have a laugh, and eat late dinner off of folding tables. Regular visitors considered themselves show-business outsiders—a curious claim to be made by a group including Hollywood's biggest movie star, its sharpest agent (Swifty Lazar), and the proprietor of its most prominent canteen (Michael Romanoff). But many narratives appoint rogues as their central heroes, and it is easy to claim not to care what people think of you when many people think you're the tops.
One spring day in 1955, a segment of Bogart's clique assembled in the Butternut Room in preparation for a group trip to Las Vegas. Noël Coward was debuting a show at the Desert Inn and it seemed like it would be fun to get in on the action. Frank Sinatra, fresh from a comeback and settling lavishly into his grandiosity, chartered a bus and plane and booked a double file of adjoining rooms at the Sands. In the accepted legend—promulgated, in part, by Bogart hagiographer Nathaniel Benchley—Sinatra required that each of the group members wear a coded armband to different occasions (cocktails, lunch, dinner) and held a master key allowing him to roust any laggards or hungover shirkers from their jolly duties. Someone placed a room service order for 300 Bloody Marys; some popped Benzedrine to maintain the pace. Four days into this, Bacall entered a suite, surveyed the worn eyeballs of her companions, and said, "You all look like a goddamn rat pack." Thus did a circle of drinking buddies receive a catchy name to market their hell-raising for the press.
Early notice of the Holmsby Hills Rat Pack came in the New York Herald Tribune, which reported the election of officers at a meeting at Romanoff's. These were Sinatra (pack master), Judy Garland (first vice-president), her husband Sid Luft (cage master), Lazar (recording secretary and treasurer), and Benchley (historian). Bacall was den mother; Bogart, rat in charge of public relations. (It is unclear whether the other members—Romanoff, David Niven, and composer Jimmy Van Heusen—rejected such titles or did not merit them.) Speaking partly with sure sincerity and wholly with an eye on burnishing his image, Bogart told columnist Joe Hyams that the organization's sole purposes were "The relief of boredom and the perpetuation of independence. We admire ourselves and don't care for anyone else."
When Bogart died of esophageal cancer on January 14, 1957, Sinatra was so distraught that he cancelled two shows at the Copa. Then he got back to the business of trying to hook up with the man's widow, unbecoming behavior that nonetheless befitted America's new top man's man. Sinatra was top tough guy with the difference of being as sensitive as his songs allowed. His innovation was to exploit the "perpetuation of independence" part of the Rat Pack ethos for its full potential. The headquarters of his Rat Pack was his own person, but since that person did so much to settle Las Vegas as both an entertainment oasis and a state of mind, the Strip was its spiritual home. What happened in Vegas stayed with his image wherever he went: Silky libertinism, macho autonomy, the celebration of celebration itself as a fundamental right.
As Danny Ocean, Sinatra exists as the chief idol of American masculinity. Dean, Sammy, Peter Lawford, along with the character actors beneath them, are smoothly entertaining in their worship of him, while Joey Bishop toils away in embarrassing scenes as the lieutenant of the spluttering boss way back behind the grand plan. The plot finds Ocean and his crowd of former paratroopers—veterans of the 82nd Airborne—executing a scheme to knock over five Vegas casinos on one New Year's Eve. Some of them need the money, and some just want more of it. Lawford's Jimmy Foster—the movie's most fully drawn character—is the son of an indulgent mother who has married well five times over. He could sponge off her comfortably forever, but he's committed, somewhat glumly, to assuring his self-sufficiency.
Like many totemic movies, Ocean's 11 falls well short of greatness. It settles for pretty-goodness, with certain limits. The Saul Bass title sequence sets the jazziness; the theme sung by Sammy lends soul; uncredited script work by Billy Wilder provides verbal wit; the shots of the guys huddling and strolling are formalist and architectural (surely among the elements that enticed Steven Soderbergh to froth up his deconstructed remake and its sequels); the playboy spirit of JFK hangs everywhere. Chief among the problems is the film's determined slackness, self-indulging languor, and in-joke lounge-act bantering. It is said that the actors, too cavalier to bother memorizing their lines, read much of their dialogue off of cue cards, and it shows. Aspiring to be a film about simply hanging out with the Rat Pack, it succeeds a bit too well.
The characters are not just pals but comrades. Not for nothing, director Lewis Milestone was also the man behind All Quiet on the Western Front, Mutiny on the Bounty, and workaday battle movies including Pork Chop Hill and Halls of Montezuma, and this tale of the new West combines a war film and a variety show. When the critic Bosley Crowther groused at the movie's "nonchalant and flippant attitude toward crime," he was rejecting (or ignoring) the implicit and fanciful idea that the crooks' status as veterans freed them from society's strictures. In this scheme, robbery was somehow patriotic, and anyway loyalty to the boys' club superseded all. The key part of the code lay in the Rat Pack motto coined by Bogart: "Never rat on a rat." To live outside the law you must be honest, the movie says, and to be a proper outsider, you need to join a club.
Correction, Aug. 20, 2010: This article originally spelled Holmby Hills incorrectly. (Return to the corrected sentence.)