Vegas goes dark
Film noir set in Sin City explores the shadows beyond the neon — and offers a historic glimpse into a long-lost Vegas
Whether they’re exploring gambling addiction or plumbing the minds of sadistic killers, the best Las Vegas noir films reveal a decidedly different side of Las Vegas — one in which the fog of desperation engulfs men and women who sell their souls. Sometimes they sell their souls for money, sometimes for love (or what they think is love). Other noir protagonists see Las Vegas as the last hope before the darkness triumphs. Whatever the case, film noir has long had a fascination with the extreme behaviors that Las Vegas seems to squeeze out of people. My 10 favorite noir films are among the genre’s darkest, but they also preserve a visual record of a long-gone Las Vegas.
10. Johnny Cool, 1963United Artists, 103 minutes
The plot of this film is simple enough: Johnny Cool, played by Henry Silva, is sent to the United States by an exiled gangster living in Italy. Johnny Cool’s mission: a bloody vendetta against the men who tried to take his boss down. Along the way, Cool picks up Darien “Dare” Guinness (a pre-Bewitched Elizabeth Montgomery), a free-spirited divorcée who abets Cool’s crime spree.
The film succeeds artistically with the use of stark black and white imagery. And it’s a historic gem as well. From images of the Las Vegas Strip to Fremont Street to inside the casinos, Johnny Cool provides viewers with a snapshot of what the town looked like in the early 1960s. But what really sets Johnny Cool apart is the dark image it portrayed of the town’s operators. In the 1950s, film studios came to Las Vegas and most left with glorified song and dance routines, from Girl Rush to Viva Las Vegas. Johnny Cool would be the first Vegas movie in more than a decade to put a noir edge to the town.
9. In Cold Blood, 1968Columbia, 134 minutes
Based on Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel about the November 15, 1959 murders of a Kansas family, In Cold Blood is a noir in which artful flashbacks add grim shadows to an already dark story about these infamously brutal homicides.
Six weeks after the murders in Kansas, the killers were arrested in Las Vegas. (Another Nevada connection: One of the killers was born near Elko, and lived in Reno as well as in Las Vegas.) This film takes advantage of that and captures some wonderful images of the city: The police follow the murderers on the Strip, to the Union Pacific Depot and finally to Fremont Street. It also features shots of the old city police department, from the jail cells to the interrogation room. And, if you look closely, you’ll find former Clark County Commissioner Darwin Lamb in several scenes. Lamb, who appeared in several Las Vegas films, plays one of the officers who arrested the two men.
8. Highway Dragnet, 1954Allied Artists, 70 minutes
Highway Dragnet opens with a down-and-out former fashion model who’s seen better days — at least according to Richard Conte’s character, Jim Henry. Just out of the Marines, Conte’s character is on his way to California. He stops first in Las Vegas to meet a fellow Marine staying at the Sunset Hotel. Henry insults the blonde, they fight, kiss and make up. After partying with his Marine pal until dawn, Conte hitchhikes his way out of town. Back in Las Vegas, the blonde is found murdered. Las Vegas police Lieutenant Joe White Eagle puts out an all-points bulletin for Conte. Confronted by the police, Conte flees — and the noir escape thriller action is on.
Famed B-movie producer Roger Corman’s first film, Highway Dragnet was hyped to be about a “THREE-STATE ALARM FOR A THRILL-KILLER Along the Roaring Crime Route from Las Vegas!” Overheated teaser aside, it has some fine Las Vegas footage, including opening with a nighttime shot of Las Vegas looking west from Second and Fremont, with the Golden Nugget on the left and the Hotel Apache on the right.
7. Invisible Wall, 194720th Century Fox, 72 minutes
A week after being discharged from the army, Harry Lane, a World War II veteran, goes back to his old job making payoffs for a Los Angeles bookmaker. His first assignment: Take $20,000 to a winner at the Flamingo in Las Vegas. His boss adds, “Now, at the Flamingo, you can do anything you want, but if you do any gambling, use your own money.” Too bad Harry Lane has a gambling problem. By the end of the film, Lane is connected to two homicides and in love with the wife of one of the dead men.
What makes this film especially interesting is it was filmed at the Flamingo while Bugsy Siegel was alive. He allowed the film to be shot on location with the stipulation that the film was titled Flamingo. The producer finished the on-location shooting May 27, 1947. Six weeks later, Siegel was killed.
The film is filled with interior and exterior shots of the Flamingo, as well as Las Vegas. At one point, our hero tries to stay away from the gambling tables by going horseback riding in the nearby desert. Another bonus: Well-respected Las Vegas gaming executive Carl Cohen makes an appearance. Cohen at one time owned part of the Sands Hotel, before it was sold to Howard Hughes. He became famous as the guy who punched Frank Sinatra in the nose, knocking off the caps on his front teeth.
6. Las Vegas Shakedown, 1955Allied Artists, 79 minutes
The noir-tinged Las Vegas Shakedown stars Dennis O’Keefe as Joe Barnes, who runs “a clean operation” in his casino. Thomas Gomez plays Al “Gimpy” Sirago, who plans to kill Barnes out of revenge — Barnes sent him to prison with his testimony. Now free, Sirago and a couple of his hoods arrive in Las Vegas with plans to take over the resort and murder Barnes. Elements of the story are loosely based on real-life Bill Moore, one of the owners of the Last Frontier. Moore testified before the Kefauver hearings, providing the Senate subcommittee with the financial dealings of his casino operations.
One of the highlights of the 1955 Las Vegas Shakedown is the visual record of Las Vegas. Images of the original Mirage Motel with the above-ground pool with windows, the Thunderbird Downs race track, the Union Pacific rail yards near Charleston Boulevard, and the interior and exterior images of the Hotel El Rancho Vegas are well-preserved for posterity.
5. The Las Vegas Story, 1952RKO, 88 minutes
Howard Hughes’ 1952 film The Las Vegas Story is misnamed, as it’s simply a story that happens to take place in Las Vegas and, for that matter, could have occurred in Morocco 10 years earlier. Lloyd Rollins (Vincent Price) is in deep financial trouble and thinks he can beat the odds in Las Vegas by winning the money back at craps. He puts up his wife Linda’s (Jane Russell) diamonds for credit. When the diamonds disappear and a casino owner is found murdered, Las Vegas police detective Victor Mature (who happens to be an old flame of Linda’s) goes after Price.
Any similarity between the Las Vegas Story and Casablanca is not an accident — but Russell and Mature are no Bergman and Bogart. Still, several factors make the film worth viewing, including the images of Las Vegas in 1951; one highlight is a beautiful night shot of a train coming into the Union Pacific depot, where the Plaza is now located. In addition to the sign, you get treated to more views inside and out of the depot, including a view of Fremont Street looking east from the roof of the railroad station.
There was plenty of drama behind the scenes of this movie as well. Paul Jarrico, the screenwriter who wrote the initial version of The Las Vegas Story, was fired by RKO owner Hughes. The billionaire thought the writer leaned too far left, especially since Jarrico refused to testify before the House Committee on un-American Activities. Hughes also yanked Jarrico’s name off the credits.
4. Split Second, 1953 RKO, 85 minutes
This film noir crosses a classic crime situation — escaped convicts taking hostages — with the ultimate element of suspense: an atomic bomb set to go off. Stephen McNally plays Sam Hurley, one of two killers who escapes from the Nevada State Penitentiary in Carson City. The sadistic Hurley and his gut-shot pal head south on U.S. 95, killing and kidnapping along the way. Meanwhile, Larry Fleming (Keith Andes), a reporter for the Las Vegas Globe newspaper, is on assignment at Mercury to cover the detonation of an atomic bomb the next morning. At the last minute, he’s reassigned to cover the escape of the two killers. On the road, he meets up with stranded dancer Dottie Vale (Jan Sterling). Next thing you know, the two are kidnapped by the killers headed south on 95, with other hostages already in tow. Hurley takes the hostages to New Hope City, which happens to be dangerously close to Ground Zero. When two more people show up at the ghost town, nine people’s lives now hang in the balance as the atomic countdown begins to what the studio promised to be “the most sensational climax ever filmed,” thanks to a generous dose of government footage from the “Nevada Proving Grounds.”
3. The Lady Gambles, 1949Universal-International, 99 minutes
Easily described as the Lost Weekend of noir gambling films, The Lady Gambles gives us a glimpse of what gambling in Las Vegas was like in the late 1940s. The movie opens in a dark Chicago alley with Barbara Stanwyck being beaten up in an alley for her role in a crooked crap game. And, again, the story rolls out in a series of flashbacks, courtesy of Stanwyck’s film husband, Robert Preston, who describes Las Vegas thus: “... a cockeyed oasis. It’s a wide-open, 24-hour-a-day carnival that lives off three things — quick marriages, quick divorces, quick money, won and lost. ... It’s fun for most people, but for some people, it’s a trap. It grabs down deep and won’t let go.”
Preston’s character gets assigned to write a travel story about Las Vegas and Hoover Dam. He’s joined by his wife, who decides she’s going to pen an expose on gambling. But she gets in too deep, becoming a gambling addict, giving up everything, including her husband. Her hair turns blonde and she winds up in New Orleans with a dice cheater named Frenchy. In the end, the film had everything the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce didn’t want movie audiences to see, including the clubs along Fremont Street looking like something on Skid Row. Another note: An actor named Anthony Curtis has a small speaking part as a bellboy at the Hotel Pelican. He would change his name to Tony Curtis and became a major star.
2. Dark City, 1950Paramount, 98 minutes
A rigged poker game sets off a series of murders in Dark City — but it’s the strong acting and moody cinematography that set this 1950 film apart. In his starring-role film debut, Charlton Heston plays Danny Haley, a World War II veteran just out of the service. (He’s no star-spangled hero, though: While in the Army overseas, he killed a man he found in bed with his new English bride.) Heston lures a sucker into a rigged poker game with his group of low-life hustlers. The victim loses his own money, as well as that of his company, and kills himself. The story takes off when the man’s psychotic brother, bent on revenge, begins stalking and killing each of the crooked gamblers, and Haley is next on the list.
Ironic but true: Dark City was produced by Hal B. Wallis, who would later produce many Elvis Presley films, including Viva Las Vegas. New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praised Heston’s acting, declaring him a “new star,” but bashed Dark City for its “low and lurid level of crime.” Heston himself would remember Dark City as “definitely not an A picture, but a pretty good B.”
1. 711 Ocean Drive, 1950Columbia, 102 minutes
Like any good film noir, 711 Ocean Drive starts with a flashback. Lt. Pete Wright of the Los Angeles Gangster Squad is on his way to Las Vegas to arrest Mal Granger (Edmond O’Brien) on a murder charge. As the flashback begins, Lt. Wright tells how Granger let the dark side take command of his soul. A humble telephone repairman with a passion for horse betting, Granger is tapped by gangster Vince Walters to use his electronic savvy to expand Walters’ illicit racing wire. When Walters is murdered, Granger takes over the operation and partners with an East Coast syndicate. Granger grows the illegal business until his greed, lust and a hunger for power lead to a series of double-crossings, swindles and murders that get Lt. Wright on his trail. A climactic foot-chase scene filmed in the tunnels of Boulder Dam makes for a noir-worthy finale.
It’s also one of the few scenes in this film that was actually shot in Southern Nevada. The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce, worried about the script’s violence and darkness, tried to stop Producer Frank Seltzer from shooting the film here; the chamber even tried to enlist the feds to stop him from shooting at Boulder Dam. The chamber lost the dam battle, but did kick Seltzer’s crew off the Strip and Fremont Street. (Still, the Fremont Street scene made it into the movie). “If we can’t shoot in Las Vegas,” Seltzer said, “we will build Las Vegas in a Hollywood studio.” They did, and, after opening July 1, 1950 in New York City, 711 Ocean Drive began a successful run across the country and around the world.
Las Vegas films have come a long way from the days when an image-conscious chamber of commerce could bar a Hollywood studio from filming in town. These days, the Legislature kicks in millions of dollars to encourage film companies to come to Nevada, with no script strings attached. That openness has brought audiences countless dark, provocative, creative and funny Vegas movies. (Let’s just pretend that Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 never happened.)