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Viewer Guide: “Ocean’s 11” and “Made in Belfast”

July 13, 2022 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | OCEAN’S 11

Ocean’s 11 (1960).

This week’s double feature begins with Oceans 11, the original comic crime caper directed by Lewis Milestone. 

By the time of Oceans 11’s release in 1960, Frank Sinatra was very much the embodiment of his nickname, “The Chairman of the Board,” the true kingpin of mid-century American entertainment. Sinatra had also become official ringleader of “the Ratpack,” a kind of floating celebrity frat party said to have originated with Humphrey Bogart but which by the late 50s had become completely associated with Sinatra and his “posse”: Dean Martin, Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., and let’s not forget Joey Bishop as its core members. Always interested in new projects that might employ the talents of “the pack,” Sinatra became intrigued with a Las Vegas casino heist story that Peter Lawford had optioned, seeing it as the perfect opportunity to make a movie with his pals as well as to gather the gang together to perform some of their wildly popular impromptu concert shows on the Vegas strip. And thus, Oceans 11 was born. 

Sinatra stars as Danny Ocean, a dapper man about town living a playboy life that resembles that of, well, Frank Sinatra. Along with his cohort Jimmy Foster, played by Peter Lawford, Danny organizes a reunion of eleven old army buddies for one more top secret mission: to “liberate” millions of dollars from five major casinos along the Las Vegas strip. “Oceans 11” begin to assemble from far and wide, but the toughest old pal for Danny to get back into the fold is his estranged wife Bea, played by Angie Dickinson. Another fly in the ointment is Danny’s mother, whose new fiancé Duke Santos, played by Cesar Romero, is a reformed mobster who starts to suspect that something fishy might be going on. Rounding out the large cast are cameo appearances by George Raft, Red Skelton and occasional Ratpack mascot, Shirley MacLaine. 

Upon hearing the basic plotline for the first time from Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra reportedly quipped, “Forget the movie, let’s pull the job!” And in the final shot of the movie, the casino marquee with the names of Sinatra and his co-stars is the Sands Hotel, where the Ratpack’s nighttime concerts during production allegedly generated an 18,000 name waiting list for an 800 seat theater. Veteran director Lewis Milestone—once known as the American Eisenstein for his work on films such as the 1930 anti-war classic All Quiet on the Western Front—was just returning to Hollywood after years on the blacklist, yet working with Sinatra was far from the Vegas lark he had been expecting. The star had a very clear idea of what he wanted the film to look like, and Milestone was reduced to yelling “action” and “cut.” 

Of course, in 2001 director Steve Soderbergh famously helmed a hugely successful contemporary reboot of the film starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts, which launched an entire Oceans franchise that has now grown to include Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, as well as the all-female Ocean’s 8, just released in 2018. 

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | MADE IN BELFAST

Made in Belfast (2013).

This week’s double feature continues with Made in Belfast, a 2013 Irish comedy-drama written and directed by Paul Kennedy.  

Ciarán McMenamin stars as Jack Kelly, a successful Irish writer living and working in Paris in self-imposed exile; a native of Belfast, Jack hasn’t made a visit home in eight years. One of the main reasons for this long sojourn is his estrangement from his abusive alcoholic father; another is that Jack’s best-selling debut novel was a thinly veiled roman a clef that exposed some volatile secrets among his Belfast friends, which ultimately contributed to a divorce, making him a persona non grata with his old mates. And then there’s also the matter of his broken engagement to Alice, played by Shauna Macdonald, which Jack abruptly terminated without any explanation. But when Jack’s younger brother Petesy calls to let him know their father is dying from cancer, Jack realizes he can no longer avoid the unresolved issues of his Belfast life, and finally journeys home to face up to his problematic past. 

Made in Belfast marks the feature film directing debut of writer-director Paul Kennedy, who also co-stars in the film as Matty. Kennedy’s acting resume includes such Irish films as Five Minutes of Heaven, 50 Dead Men Walking and Cherrybomb. 

As mentioned in passing by the film’s characters, the city of Belfast has definitely come a long way since its volatile years as the epicenter of the Northern Ireland unionist-loyalist conflict, more commonly known as “The Troubles.” Spanning from the late 1960s to the late 90s, the era also provided the backdrop for director Kenneth Branagh’s 2021 autobiographical film, Belfast 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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