Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Retro Review: THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS (1968)

(Spain/France/West Germany/Italy - 1968)

Directed by Antonio Isasi. Written by Antonio Isasi, Lluis Josep Comeron, Jorge Illa and Jo Eisinger. Cast: Gary Lockwood, Elke Sommer, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Palance, Roger Hanin, Jean Servais, Georges Genet, Gustavo Re, Daniel Martin, Gerard Tichy, Maurizio Arena, Armand Mestral, Fabrizio Capucci, Enrique Avala, Ruben Rojo, George Rigaud, Fernando Hilbeck, Luis Barboo, Lorenzo Robledo. (R, 129 mins)

"America's free-living and free-wheeling pleasure capital and the men who came to strip it raw!"

One of the great hyperbolic tag lines of its era, and it's only fitting for one of the most memorable movie titles of its day. Even if you've never seen it, that tag line tells you almost all you need to know about THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS. A late-night TV staple well into the 1980s, the film fell into obscurity for a couple of decade before Warner Archive resurrected it for a widescreen DVD release in 2010, THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS is one of many international Europe-set capers of the 1960s (along with SEVEN THIEVES, TOPKAPI, GAMBIT, KALEIDOSCOPE, GRAND SLAM, THE BIGGEST BUNDLE OF THEM ALL, and THE ITALIAN JOB to name a few) but unique in that the Spanish-French-West German-Italian co-production is required to fool the audience into thinking it's taking place in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Some great second unit Vegas location work helps, but all of the interiors and any scenes involving the actors were shot in Spain and other than the four English-speaking leads, the supporting cast is made up of a bewildering mix of actors from four different countries playing Americans but all speaking their own language and letting the dubbing team figure it out later. The effect is jarring at times, especially since the dubbing isn't all that great (if you watch enough Eurotrash movies, you'll recognize the familiar voices of dubbing fixtures like Ed Mannix and Nick Alexander), and the Euro-lounge score by Georges Garvarentz and the haunting, wordless, giallo-like vocals of the ubiquitous Edda dell'Orso almost immediately blow the movie's cover, eliminating any illusion that this is an American film, but Spanish director/co-writer Antonio Isasi (SUMMERTIME KILLER) busts his ass assembling it all together in the most seamless way possible.

Fresh off of his turn as doomed astronaut Frank Poole in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Gary Lockwood stars as Tony Ferris, a San Francisco hippie who shaves his sideburns and gets a haircut to become a Vegas blackjack dealer after turning down an offer to go in on an armored car heist with his older brother Gino (RIFIFI's Jean Servais), a mobster who's just escaped from prison. It was a smart move, since Gino and all of his cohorts end up being gunned down by the cops. At the casino, Tony has a table scam going with girlfriend Ann Bennett (Elke Sommer), who's also the mistress of her married boss Steve Skorsky (Lee J. Cobb), the owner of the security company whose armored car Gino tried to jack. It isn't long before Ann is an accomplice in Tony's labyrinthine plot to avenge Gino's death by staging an elaborate heist of a Skorsky truck ostensibly filled with casino cash that's en route from Vegas to L.A. Complicating matters is Douglas (Jack Palance), a pissed-off Treasury agent who's working undercover as an insurance investigator in a sting on Skorsky, who's been using his trucks to transport gold for the west coast branch of the Cosa Nostra. Douglas knows what Skorsky's up to, but hasn't been able to prove it, and when a surveillance team follows a decoy truck employed by Tony, Skorsky is convinced his own employees are ripping him off. The distraction allows Tony and his crew to stash the real truck--which they don't know is filled with Mafia gold--in an underground bunker they've dug in the desert, with Skorsky's employees and one of Douglas' undercover agents (Ruben Rojo), barricading themselves inside, refusing to open the door as Tony and his increasingly mutinous crew try to find a way in.

Isasi juggles multiple storylines where all parties eventually converge for a shootout in the scorching desert, with additional conflicts stemming from two of Tony's men--Merino (Daniel Martin) and Cooper (Fabrizio Capucci)--actively revolting and trying to cut him out of his own plan, and an increasingly irritable Skorsky getting it from all sides, with his scheming mistress, an incredulous Douglas and an unhappy mob boss (Roger Hanin) all breathing down his neck. Cobb and Palance have some amusing back-and-forth ballbusting throughout, and while he never became a big star, Lockwood is more than capable of holding his own as a lead here. The film has some interesting subtext with its juxtapositioning of Tony's hippie, free love lifestyle clashing with the more old-school Gino, almost like Isasi has one foot in the counterculture and another in the more refined elegance of the classic caper film. The casting of Servais is no accident, with his starring in Jules Dassin's highly-revered 1954 heist classic RIFIFI, but the "young generation" point may be a little too oversold, as Servais, 27 years older than Lockwood and looking it, seems more like his disapproving father than his protective older brother. Tony warns Gino that he's out of touch and out of his element, and that he and his aging gangster pals aren't equipped to deal with today's computers and the technological know-how required to rob a high-tech armored truck (high-tech by 1968 standards--it even has a Skype-like video feed to stay in constant contact with Skorsky's headquarters, but looks like Isasi rented a huge RV and put some steel siding on it), and sure enough, they're immediately killed for their efforts.

Despite its counterculture elements in the early scenes, THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS didn't exactly become the EASY RIDER of Euroheist movies, but it was a moderate success for Warner Bros. in US theaters in 1969 and was cycled through the regional drive-in circuit for a number of years. It made its TV debut in prime-time on NBC on Saturday, July 16, 1977, going against THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE on ABC and the Bob Barker-hosted Miss Universe pageant on CBS, with the R-rated, 129-minute film hacked down by at least 30 minutes to fit in a two-hour time slot with commercials, which likely made an occasionally confusing film completely incoherent. Since its very welcome DVD release seven years ago, uncut and with Juan Gelpi's outstanding cinematography in the desert sequences restored to its widescreen glory (Isasi shot these scenes in the same stretch of desert in Almeria, Spain where Tuco sends Blondie on his agonizing march in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY), THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS has been in semi-regular rotation on Turner Classic Movies and remains an instantly recognized cult item even by movie buffs who haven't seen it, and one of the best examples of the 1960s Euroheist caper thriller.

THEY CAME TO ROB LAS VEGAS opening in Toledo, OH on April 16, 1969

airing in prime time on NBC on Saturday, July 16, 1977

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