Las Vegas aka Sin City, the gambling mecca of the world, might be a symbol of capitalism at its worse but it makes an irresistible location for a movie with its dazzling neon lights and nightlife diversions from extravagant musical revues to strip clubs to glittering casinos. The intoxicating atmosphere has been featured prominently before in musicals like Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) as well as comedies (Honeymoon in Vegas , Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas ) and dramas (Leaving Las Vegas , Casino [1995). But I especially enjoy the crime caper films set in Sin City such as Ocean’s 11 (1960) and the remakes it inspired years later starting with Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven (2001). To this list, I have to add an often overlooked but superior genre entry from 1968 – They Came to Rob Las Vegas.
Released the same year as Bullitt, The Sicilian Clan and The Thomas Crown Affair, They Came to Rob Las Vegas (1968) is a stylish, tautly directed heist film that was overlooked at the time of its release. Looking more like a glorified B-movie in comparison to a big studio release like The Thomas Crown Affair, the film, directed by Spanish filmmaker Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi, is, in essence, a film noir, played out under the blazing sun of the Nevada desert (it was actually shot near Almeria, Spain, the site of numerous spaghetti westerns) and against the neon lights of America’s number one gambling destination.
They Came to Rob Las Vegas is also distinguished by its cold, nihilistic approach to the heist genre which views all of the players – the plotting criminals, mafia businessmen and law enforcers – with a dispassionate eye as the hijacking of an armored van goes awry and things fall apart on an epic scale.
The opening of They Came to Rob Las Vegas, in which Jean Servais (the mastermind behind the heist in Jules Dassin’s fatalistic Rififi, 1955) escapes from prison and is pursued through the swamp, serves as a homage to that earlier noir touchstone. But Servais’s role as Gino Ferris, the older brother of Las Vegas blackjack dealer Tony (Gary Lockwood), is brief. After reuniting with Tony, Gino proposes a raid on an armored van which is transporting the winnings from a casino owned by corrupt entrepreneur Steve Skorsky (Lee J. Cobb). The younger brother refuses to participate but when Gino is killed in the attack on the van, Tony opts for revenge, using advanced technology to commit the perfect crime with the help of a team of highly trained experts. It also helps that Tony’s mistress Ann (Elke Sommer) works as a personal secretary to Skorsky and is an unsuspected inside informer…at first.
Gary Lockwood’s minimalistic, low-key performance is one of the film’s strengths. He projects a cool, calculating demeanor not unlike Steve McQueen in his best anti-hero roles and it makes for a striking contrast with the supporting cast and their wildly varied acting styles from Jack Palance’s volatile U.S. Treasury agent to Lee J. Cobb’s bombastic racketeer to Elke Sommer’s inscrutable sex siren to Lockwood’s partners-in-crime who come off like dangerous, thrill-crazed hippies.
Equally engaging is Georges Garvarentz’s eclectic music score which injects a sense of excitement and glamour into the proceedings and the evocative widescreen color cinematography of Juan Gelpi. As so aptly noted in Phil Hardy’s The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film, “Isasi managed to incorporate into his vigorous action picture all the main themes later taken up by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Hollywood movie Zabriskie Point (1970): the disturbing effects of dependency on technology, the depersonalized city, the vastness and hostility of the landscape, the rebelliousness of the central characters which drives them into outlaw status.”
Unfortunately, most mainstream critics ignored They Came to Rob Las Vegas in 1968 and the few that did review it treated it as a standard B-movie crime drama. Howard Thompson of The New York Times, in one of the more negative reviews, wrote, “This dull exercise in crime may not be the worst picture of the new year, but it will do. There is not a single element to recommend, with the possible exception of some flashy but familiar interiors of various gambling casinos, and even this postcard glitter, in medium-good color, seems as contrived as the rest of this drab and cliché-ridden package about the heist of an armored van.”
The film’s reputation today is much better thanks to its re-release on DVD through the Warner Archives Collection. Adrian Turner of TimeOut Film Guide stated, “….it’s a thriller equivalent to Leone’s westerns, reworking old formulas and paying tribute to them at the same time. But the parallel with Leone goes only so far: Isasi, rather than swirl his camera about, adopts the static, Zen-like posture of Ozu. Not flawless by any means, but well worth a look.”
Antonio Isasi, the director of They Came to Rob Las Vegas, is relatively unknown in the U.S. Yet, in Spain, he is a highly successful and popular filmmaker and the recipient of numerous film awards including the Cinema Writers Circle Awards winner for Best Director on That Man in Istanbul (1965), Summertime Killer (1972) and They Came to Rob Las Vegas in addition to a Goya Award nomination for Best Screenplay for Scent of a Crime (1988).
They Came to Rob Las Vegas was released on DVD by the Warner Archives Collection in November 2010 but contains no supplemental material. It is definitely deserving of an upgrade to Blu-ray.
*This is a revised and updated version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
Other links of interest: