in the western desert. A railroad pitstop on the way to Los Angeles. Dream project of an outlaw entrepreneur. Las Vegas mixes an unholy trinity of the American Dream: legalized vice, celebrity, and criminality. Land of opportunity, yes, but the opportunity for shortcuts to the Dream.
Seduced by Hollywood and the West, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel directs the making of a colossal casino-hotel. Unfortunately, he has a runaway budget. His production company gets nervous. Has he been pouring millions of dollars down a sinkhole named Virginia Hill? Messages sent from the Chief Financial Officer, Meyer Lansky, seem to have no effect. Siegel calms the company’s fears.
Opening night, the dream implodes. Torrential rains keep customers away. Early grosses are below expectation. Worse, unaccounted moneys prompt Lansky to “fire” the director. It would seem Las Vegas will die in the desert or, at best, flourish modestly, killed by bad luck and an impatient production company.
A decade later, though, the Flamingo, Sands, Sahara, Desert Inn, and Riviera prosper along the famous Strip. They draw good entertainers and high rollers, and occasionally the entertainers and gamblers are one and the same. The Rat Pack becomes a phenomenon. The spotlight shines on Vegas. Presidential candidates attend the shows, probably meet showgirls, and certainly to drink with the Pack. In effect, the town’s ready to take over America. The United States is about to become the United States of Entertainment.
At this point, the Rat Pack’s doppelganger (eleven men, army buddies) appears and concocts a plan to burst the burgeoning bubble of Vegas values. They get together for a final mission. They have saved the world from Hitler. Now they must strike at the heart of Vegas to save America.
A midnight raid. New Year’s Eve. A New Decade for America. Las Vegas must die and allow America to heal the abscess on its Dream, a growth abetted by criminality and celebrity. The five casinos will be robbed simultaneously. The men will have only five minutes after the power lines have been dynamited.
Despite the raid’s success—they get millions—the eleven cannot leave town. One of them dies in the street. A mobster figures out who’s pulled the job—his son-in-law, no less. It’s as if the Eleven cannot will themselves to leave Vegas and essentially put the dagger in Vegas’s heart. Instead of walking out with the money, they watch it burn in a crematorium with their dead comrade’s body and the American Dream.
Vegas won because the ex-soldiers couldn’t leave with the dough. Wasn’t the G.I. Bill good enough for them? Indeed, Vegas would prefer the money burn than see anyone leave with pockets lined with winnings.
Why couldn’t the eleven men succeed? What force deprived them absolute success? What sway did Las Vegas have?
We see their line file forlornly down the sidewalk. Appearing in the background is the Sahara’s marquee with the names of the Rat Pack’s elite five. We realize that they can’t immolate their own animus. The Las Vegas Dream cannot orchestrate its own destruction. The eleven were doomed to fail. Yes, they flirted with success. They engaged in a fantasy of destruction.
But the wrong men, ultimately, had taken on this important mission.
The Sixties are remembered as the time of protest, marches, antiwar chants, and drugs. But don’t be fooled. A more powerful force is gaining momentum. The last chance for Vegas’s destruction is almost past. An outsider, someone oblivious to what Vegas is beginning to mean for America, must be called in to do the job.
Ernst Stavro Blofeld. CEO of SPECTRE: Special Executive for Counter Terrorism, Extortion, and Revenge.
Several times presumed dead, once in an explosion inside a fake volcano, another time drowned in a mud bath, he only lives thrice and he comes to town with a clever plan. First, he substitutes himself for the reclusive billionaire owner of several casinos. Second, he has developed an organization that can handle a large-sized project. He comes to Las Vegas to finance the perfect machine, a laser-firing satellite that will destroy the Pentagon, the Kremlin, and, most likely, Las Vegas itself.
Blofeld himself disdains gambling and women; in fact, there’s a bit of swish in his gait. Like Bugsy, Ernst has a dream. He’s directing the operation personally because former SPECTRE operatives—Dr. No, Donald Grant and Rosa Klebb, Emilio Largo—failed him a few years before. He has a secret laboratory in the desert. His men are smuggling in diamonds from all over the world. He successfully tests the satellite laser against the Red Chinese Army.
It would take such a superweapon to destroy Las Vegas. The town has continued to grow. Forget about robbing the casinos—which of them would even feel the pain?
However, Blofeld’s nemesis, James Bond, rumbles into town. He has already saved the Western world and the British film industry. Now he must save the land of celebrity and entertainment.
A significant episode marks his quest to revenge himself on his wife’s killer. Following the leads to Blofeld, he must impersonate a diamond smuggler. He kills the smuggler in Amsterdam and plants his own identification on him. Femme fatale Tiffany Case pulls the identification and remarks, “You’ve killed James Bond.” Her exclamation signifies that Bond is now well known, a not-so-secret agent, in fact—a celebrity agent.
Disinterested in the regular, touristy Las Vegas diversions (save for the bodily satisfactions of Plenty O’Toole and Miss Case), Bond drives Blofeld from his Vegas lair atop one of the casinos. America is again safe for entertainment. No Communist or Blofeld-type can stop our country now.
The only thing that can stop Vegas, in fact, is Vegas. A Vegas that might self-destruct because it has become too successful.
Five or six years later, the successors of Siegel and Lansky move into town. Casinos grow. The money pours in. Now the mob wants a bigger share. It sends in Ace Rothstein to run their casino. This good Jewish boy earns the mob’s trust by being able to call the point spread of any football game, college or professional. Ace struggles to keep the cheaters out and to look the other way when the mob skims from the top of the profits. To insure their investment, the mob sends Nicky to watch over Ace.
There’s no honor among thieves. Not even in Vegas. Nicky steals from the mobsters already stealing from the casino profits. He muscles in on other operations, squeezes heads in vises until eyeballs pop, cheats on his wife with Ace’s wife, Ginger, and the tensions and casualties mount. The FBI trails and bugs Ace and Nicky; Ginger takes off with all of Ace’s cash. Vegas seems to be suffering a nervous breakdown, maybe ready to shoot itself.
Yet even the mob realizes when things are going bad. A good thing has been ruined. They’ve cheated themselves with their own greed. Or was there simply too much money to be had in Vegas? Maybe Vegas was really killing the gangsters and not itself. In any case, a purge worthy of Stalin ensues. Ace is blown up in his car. He survives by a whisker and promptly returns to obscurity. Nicky is beaten so brutally you nearly feel pity for a character without pity. Others die. Even Ginger is given some straight smack that juices her forever.
After the bloodbath, nearly feeding on the blood frenzy, Las Vegas grows even bigger in the eighties and nineties. It is itself becoming a Disney World of acceptable vice. Future attempts to destroy it, like the sequel to the Rat Pack’s attempt, merely dissolve into the fuzziness of the entertainment thing. Indeed, the city becomes the preferred place to die (and receive Academy Awards for performing the “dying act”).
Las Vegas imbibes quantities of poison, like Rasputin, and does not suffer from upset stomach. Not so the American soul.
The American Dream has gone into its dying act.
Long Live Las Vegas.
Robert Castle has been to Vegas once and liked the gambling and free drinks but felt there were too many families and kids. He teaches history, film, and sociology at a small academy outside Trenton, New Jersey. His work regularly appears in Bright Lights Film Journal and 24 Frames Per Second. A previous piece on Stone’s JFK appeared earlier on Metaphilm. He has a recurring feature in Unlikely Stories called “A Sardine on Vacation.”