Ever since the city of Las Vegas sprung up from the Mojave Desert sands like wildflowers after a spring shower, filmmakers have recognized the locale as picture perfect.
The first movie filmed here was the comedy Las Vegas Nights (1941), and over nearly eight decades afterward, Hollywood kept on setting scenes in Sin City.
You have to Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956), which told the tale of a simple rancher who realizes holding his lady love’s hand at the roulette table provides surefire good luck. Elvis Presley put on quite the show in Viva Las Vegas (1964), serving up his musical stylings and scandalous dance moves on the silver screen. And in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), suave secret agent and super-spy James Bond throws them bones at the craps table while wooing the buxom brunette Plenty O’Toole.
There’s simply no place on Earth quite like it, an adult fantasyland where traditional vices like gambling, drinking, and dancing with the opposite sex are not only accepted but encouraged. The flashing neon lights beckoning from sundown to sunup, the palatial casinos standing like sentries along The Strip and Fremont Street, and the unmistakable air of anticipation as gamblers look to court Lady Luck combine to make Las Vegas the perfect place to film a flick.
I’m no film buff, not in the scholarly sense anyhow, but I am a Las Vegas local who loves his hometown dearly. Accordingly, I’ve developed a passion for movies which feature Sin City’s signature casinos as an essential part of the plot.
Wikipedia lists more than 100 films that depict scenes shot in Las Vegas, and naturally, the vast majority of those showcase the inside of a casino. I’ve watched practically all of them too, and over the years a few have held up to become all-time favorites.
Without further ado, I present my personal list of the best films that have scenes set inside Las Vegas casinos. That doesn’t mean they’re the best movies ever made – although in one case, it might just be – this list simply focuses on my favorites (in no particular order).
1 – Ocean’s 11 (1960) and (2001)
The original Oceans 11 was released way back in 1960, and at the time, the concept was nothing short of revolutionary.
Rather than focus on a single A-list star or even a pairing between two well-known actors, Oceans 11 assembled an ensemble cast for the ages.
None other than Frank Sinatra himself played the lead character Danny Ocean, a World War II veteran who wants to pull off the biggest heist in history. After gathering a team of associates – including fellow real-life Rat Pack members like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford – Ocean’s gang of 11 thieves target five casinos simultaneously in one of the boldest robberies ever conceived.
The boys spend plenty of time strolling through their five targets, the Sahara, the Riviera, the Desert Inn, the Sands, and the Flamingo. These casinos are a pure shot of Las Vegas vintage in all its glory, and perhaps the fact that only the Flamingo still stands tickles my nostalgia bone to some degree.
Whatever it is about the original Ocean’s 11 though, there’s just no other film out there that manages to capture the essence of old Las Vegas in all its glory.
So you can imagine my surprise when the Hollywood hitmakers announced that Ocean’s 11 would be remade in 2001. I had my reservations, of course, as trying to fix what ain’t broke almost always spells disaster.
But when I sat down to watch the modern version, now titled Ocean’s Eleven to avoid confusion, I was beyond pleasantly surprised.
By casting the new millennium’s undisputed “star of stars,” George Clooney, to play the iconic role of Danny Ocean, director Steven Soderbergh did right by the original. Clooney is an electric presence onscreen, and that mischievous twinkle in his eye makes him a dead ringer for Sinatra in his prime.
The 2001 remake rounded out the ensemble cast in similarly fine fashion, inviting Clooney’s real-life pals Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Casey Affleck to join the late Bernie Mac in attempting to take down Las Vegas’ holy shrines for the score of a lifetime.
The casino hit list has been pared to three, with the Bellagio, the Mirage, and the MGM Grand standing in for Sin City’s fallen angels, and I’ll be the first to point out that these corporate megaresorts can’t hold a candle to classics like the Sands and the Desert Inn.
Even so, both Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s Eleven have a permanent spot saved on my DVR list, as they each manage to showcase the evolution of Las Vegas in their own unique way.
2 – Rain Man (1988)
The bulk of Rain Man takes place on the road, but for a few glorious minutes, the table game pit within Caesars Palace becomes the stuff of legend.
Tom Cruise lends his star power to the part of Charlie Babbit, a flashy foreign car dealer who cares only about his own bottom line. But when Charlie discovers that he has an older brother named Raymond, and learns that the autistic man might just inherit the family fortune, the situation takes both brothers on a journey that changes their lives for the better.
Initially, Charlie is looking only to bilk his mentally challenged brother out of their father’s seven-figure estate. As they spend day and night together, however, Charlie develops a genuine love for the brother he never knew he had.
Eventually, the two take to the road for a cross-country trip, and along the way, Charlie realizes that Raymond is actually a savant. While he lacks the coping mechanisms and social norms that most of us take for granted, Raymond is capable of astounding mathematical calculations. After noticing that Raymond can count any amount of objects instantaneously – and struggling to repay $80,000 in unexpected debts – Charlie takes a detour to Las Vegas in hopes of cashing in on his brother’s hidden talents.
What follows is one of the most incredible montage scenes in all of movie history, let alone Las Vegas-centric films. Having taught Raymond how to play blackjack, the perfect venue for a natural blackjack card-counting genius, Charlie sets the scene in motion by confidently telling his brother “let’s play some cards.”
We’ve included this video so you can see how Raymond fares against the hapless Caesars Palace blackjack dealers.
And if you’re like me, you’ll rewind and rewatch it again several times order simply to savor all of the little details that make this performance so memorable.
3 – The Godfather (1972)
Perhaps the greatest work of art in the entire history of moviemaking, The Godfather is obviously not a Las Vegas movie per se.
The tale of an organized crime family called the Corleones is defined by dramatic performances from Marlon Brando as patriarch Vito Corleone and Al Pacino as his son Michael. There’s no need to delve into the mafioso details of The Godfather though, as anybody who clicked through a blog post about movies has to have seen the flick several times over.
Simply put, they don’t make ‘em like Francis Ford Coppola’s gangster epic anymore.
My focus in covering The Godfather here, however, is the brief detour from New York City’s underworld to Las Vegas, a town where the mob was making tremendous inroads at the time. When the Corleone family’s black sheep and Michael’s older brother Fredo is dispatched to Sin City to secure connections with the casino industry, The Godfather briefly opens a window into a Las Vegas that viewers won’t soon forget.
The scene, in the video below, opens with a rousing musical track set to drive-by visuals of old Las Vegas legends like the Sands and the Desert Inn. From there, the audience is invited behind the scenes to see how the power players who built this town handled their business.
This one’s not the most casino or gambling heavy entry on this page, but no list of my favorite films would be complete with The Godfather.
4 – Casino (1995)
Shifting gears from backroom drama, Casino is a tour de force that encapsulates every conceivable aspect of the industry from which the film takes its title.
De Niro stars as Sam “Ace” Rothstein, a sports handicapper for the mob who is based on the real-life gangster Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal. Appointed by his bosses to run the Tangiers casino, which is “played” by the Riviera, Rothstein ruthlessly oversees a full-scale renovation of the joint into Sin City’s premier destination for gamblers and wise guys.
Joined by Joe Pesci as a madman of a right-hand man, and constantly bedeviled by the woman of his dreams (Sharon Stone), De Niro’s depiction of Rothstein alternates between terrifying and tragic.
The beauty of Casino is how director Martin Scorsese manages to capture every aspect of a thriving casino enterprise. Rothstein cuts no corners, taking ownership of everything from how the cocktails are poured, maintaining decorum at the poker tables, supervising the nightly profit count process, and even doling out harsh punishment to cheaters dumb enough to try and scam the mob.
If you’ve never been inside of a Las Vegas casino in your life, sitting down to watch Casino will leave you feeling a legitimate local.
5 – The Hangover (2009)
What can I say about The Hangover and its uncanny ability to capture the look and feel of modern Las Vegas?
Aside from the comedic hijinks that will leave you rolling with laughter, even on repeat viewings, The Hangover takes a sense of pride in taking the audience on a full tour of the town. From the rooftop banishment atop Caesars Palace for a groom who wants to reach his wedding, to the amazingly well-done tribute to Rain Man and its blackjack scene, The Hangover has a special place in the hearts of every Las Vegas local.
6 – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
This one might not be for everybody, so if the heavy drug use and debauchery that made author Hunter S. Thompson infamous aren’t up your alley, feel free to skip Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
On the other hand, if you love Las Vegas for the city’s ability to get weird, this flick is for you.
Johnny Depp seems to transform into Thompson, the late pioneer of “gonzo” journalism and one of the most influential nonfiction writers of the 20th century. Everything about his performance is award-winning stuff, but it’s the backdrop of old-school Las Vegas that keeps me coming back to rewatch Fear and Loathing.
Don’t take my word for it though, get a load of Depp and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) struggling to “maintain” as they wander through the Circus Circus casino after dropping acid.
I love Las Vegas, and I adore quality filmmaking, so it’s no surprise to learn that seeing Sin City on the silver screen still delights me to this day. I could watch dozens of movies about my hometown, and indeed, I have over the years. And although they all have something to offer, even the box office bombs, the six flicks listed above will always hold a special place in my heart.