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Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Filmmakers' Jackpot (originally published 7/04)

You can hardly blame filmmakers for being endlessly fascinated with Las Vegas as a setting for their movies. There's an unreal quality about this glittering oasis that lends itself perfectly to the playing out of fictional stories. Even for a resort, the place just doesn't look real. Bright as noon in the dead of night, an ocean of neon in the midst of a desert, this absurd locality only makes sense as the landscape of our dreams -- or our nightmares -- which is exactly how filmmakers love to use it. Lately it seems to be the small screen that has renewed its fascination with Las Vegas with a vengeance, from "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" to Fox's "Casino" to NBC's "Las Vegas" to the Discovery Channel's "American Casino." For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers brought Vegas to the screen, look for these titles on home video.

"The Las Vegas Story" (1952). Jane Russell and Vincent Price play Linda and Lloyd Rollins, a married couple spending a few days in Vegas. The plot thickens when it transpires that Lloyd is gambling, and losing, with embezzled money. It thickens even further when Linda encounters Dave Andrews (Victor Mature), a Vegas cop with whom she had been romantically involved years ago when she was a singer at a casino called the Last Chance.

"Meet Me in Las Vegas" (1956). You name it, MGM made a musical about it. Las Vegas is certainly no exception. Dan Dailey plays a gambling-obsessed cowboy who strikes it rich at the gaming tables with a little help from a dancer, played by Cyd Charisse. It seems that whenever he holds her hand while betting, he can't lose. Part of the fun is the many celebrity cameos, from Sinatra hitting the jackpot to Peter Lorre at the blackjack table, snarling, "Hit me, you creep!"

"Diamonds Are Forever" (1971). What a concept: James Bond in Las Vegas. Bond's old nemesis Blofeld is involved in diamond smuggling, but not for anything as mundane as fencing the ice for profit. He's using it to build an orbiting laser with which to take over the world. Meanwhile, Bond (played by Sean Connery for the last time until "Never Say Never Again" in 1983) does Vegas as only he can, alternating gambling with high speed car chases.

"The Night Stalker" (1971). When Las Vegas showgirls start turning up dead, their bodies drained of blood, reporter Karl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) suspects supernatural foul play. This clever blend of a horror plot with comic characterization, written by fantasy master Richard Matheson, takes advantage of the inherent creepiness of Las Vegas to make it the setting for a modern-day vampire story. The success of this TV movie spawned a sequel ("The Night Strangler") and a TV series ("Kolchak").

"The Gambler" (1974). James Caan stars as a college professor whose obsession with gambling drags him inexorably down into the gutter. He wins big in Vegas, but for a compulsive gambler winnings are always transient because there's always another bet to be made. Debt, on the other hand, can be very permanent indeed, as Caan's character learns when his family writes him off and the loan shark's agent comes to collect.

"One From the Heart" (1982). This is Francis Ford Coppola at his most stylistically florid, creating his own Las Vegas on a sound stage with the help of his talented production designer Dean Tavoularis. Who but Coppola, I ask you, would have the guts to assume that he could create a counterfeit Vegas that would improve on the real thing? There's a story in there somewhere about a couple who cheat on each other and then reunite, but it's almost incidental. The intense, ravishing visuals are the real stars of the picture.

By the way, lest you think that TV's fascination with Vegas is on the wane, be advised that the upcoming season will feature "Dr. Vegas," with Rob Lowe as a Vegas physician and "Father of the Pride," an animated show about Siegfried and Roy's lions. As long as we are beguiled by glitter and neon and the spectacle of fortunes won and lost between sunset and dawn, our storytellers will continue to weave dreams for us out of Las Vegas's endless ribbon of neon enchantment.

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