When it comes to Las Vegas, we’ve certainly heard it all – from the Strip to “Vegas Baby”, to “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. And because of the numerous movies set in this gamblers’ paradise, we’ve probably seen it all as well. Because of the movie industry, this Nevada city has become ingrained in our psyche and if we haven’t already been there, a visit to Sin City is probably on many of our bucket lists.
It’s hard to believe that just over a century ago, although being developed thanks to the railroad, the whole Vegas area was mainly a barren wilderness that in a few short years bloomed from a desert to a luxury strip throughout the 20th century. Due to its location as a stopover, Vegas was always a great spot for a good time, but after many ups and downs, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 50s it came into its own as the hottest gambling, boozing, and general carousing hotspot in the world.
Today, we’re going to have a look at some of the top 10 best list of movies that were set in Las Vegas. So without further ado, let’s dive right into it!
#1 Bugsy (1991)
Although made in 1991, this film is set in the 1940s when the Vegas Strip was beginning to take off. Directed by Barry Levinson and starring Warren Beatty as Bugsy and Annette Bening as his moll, the movie tells the tale of how real-life gangster Ben Bugsy Siegel built the Flamingo Hotel and Casino which opened as the first luxury hotel in Vegas in 1946. Of course, being a mobster and all that, Bugsy was murdered in 1947 and didn’t quite get to enjoy the lucrative fruits of his labor. No gangsters, no Vegas Strip? You decide.
#2 Ocean’s Eleven (1960)
This movie is a superb showcase of the Rat Pack aka Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Junior who were no strangers to Vegas themselves. Indeed, as we say nowadays, these suave performers were well and truly working from home. The plot centers around 11 WWII pals who plan to rob 5 Vegas casinos in one night. Though the standards and attitudes may seem a tad dated today, this movie really captures the elegant essence of Sin City in its heyday, with The Sands Hotel, The Desert Inn and The Flamingo all featuring in their original glory. I bet they wouldn’t have tried such cheeky shenanigans if Bugsy were still in town.
#3 Viva Las Vegas (1964)
The Mob, the Rat Pack, and now the King. Elvis and Vegas surely go together like blue suede and shoes. Along with his co-star, the equally charismatic Ann-Margret, we are treated to everything which spotlights Vegas in the good old days including stomping musical scores, glamorous showgirls and casinos, with the odd quickie nuptials thrown in. Elvis’s character, a race car driver called Lucky Jackson, gets a job in the city in order to get the dosh together for new car parts. After meeting Rusty Martin (Ann-Margret) he revs more than a few engines.
#4 Diamonds Are Forever (1971)
This 007 flick features Sean Connery in his sixth appearance as James Bond, who in this instance is in Las Vegas investigating a diamond smuggling racket. The movie was filmed in several local casinos and hotels including Dunes Hotel, The Riviera, Tropicana Las Vegas, International Hotel (now the Westgate), Las Vegas Hilton, and Circus Circus Las Vegas. The iconic car chase is set in the heart of the neon-lit Strip where Mr. Bond, driving a Ford Mustang Mach 1 and accompanied by Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), treats us to more spins than a loose slot machine on speed.
#5 The Godfather (1972)
A truly epic blockbuster that chronicles the lives of the fictitious mobster Corleone Family who, like any self-respecting gangsters, eventually set up shop in Vegas. The film, though not quite the Brady Bunch, does have a slight element of Michael, Michael, Michael in it, but it’s Fredo, the middle son, who gets to go to Las Vegas to take care of business. Unfortunately, once settled in, Fredo (John Cazale) makes a bit of a mess of things, so little brother, Michael (Al Pacino) has him whacked in The Godfather: Part II (1974). Perhaps Michael should have learned to chill out more by watching a couple of movies that do wonders for your mental health. Vegas locations in the movie include The Tropicana and The Riviera.
#6 Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1988)
Although not initially a box office success Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has now become a card-carrying member of the cult status club. The movie takes place in 1971 and stars Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. The pair literally trip across the Nevada desert – on drugs, before reaching Las Vegas where they continue to imbibe all kinds of illegal substances, resulting in a series of hallucinatory misadventures. The movie, which is inspired by a true story, highlights the grim underbelly of Sin City. Vegas locations include The Stardust Hotel and Casino and The Riviera.
#7 Rain Man (1988)
Another Barry Levinson blockbuster, Rain Man tells the story of how the self-centered Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) endeavors to get his hands on an inheritance willed to his older autistic and savant brother, Raymond (Dustman Hoffman). Although essentially a road movie, the duo eventually arrives in Las Vegas where they plan on scoring some handy cash by counting cards playing blackjack. This feat is due to Raymond having an incredible memory. By the end of the trip, the money-grabbing Charlie, has learned to love and accept Raymond for who he is. Caesars Palace was used as the location for the main Vegas scenes here, and The Emperor’s Suite is still known as the “Rain Man Suite.”
#8 Casino (1995)
Directed by Martin Scorsese, this belting crime drama is set in the 1970s and explores mob rule in Vegas, including vicious conflicts that arise between the wise guys. The cast includes Robert De Niro as Sam ‘Ace’ Rothstein, Sharon Stone as his unhinged wife, Ginger, Joe Pesci, and James Woods. This fact-based movie is set in the fictional Tangiers casino and was shot in various locations in and around Sin City such as The Riviera Casino and The Las Vegas McCarran International Airport. This epic movie is a true feast of glamour, gore, and gambling. Aw, Bugsy would be so proud.
#9 Pay It Forward (2000)
Now for something a bit different – a feel-good movie set in Las Vegas (who knew?) that doesn’t use sharks and shysters as a hook. Instead, the story focuses on a preteen boy, Trevor (Haley Joel Osment), who wants to make the world a better place by encouraging people to do random acts of kindness. This movie makes the top X list because it shows that outside of all the fun and frolics citizens of Vegas actually have real lives. Centennial High School is among the Vegas locations where the movie was shot. Other stars include Kevin Spacey (teacher) and Helen Hunt plays Trevor’s alcoholic mother.
#10 The Hangover (2009)
This boys-will-be-boys raunchy comedy involves four friends who hit the Strip for a bachelor party only to wake up the next day clueless about what happened the night before, with one friend (the groom-to-be) missing. Their mission is to piece together what happened on their night of gambling, boozing and general carousing and to find their pal. The movie stars Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis and Bradley Cooper. Caesars Palace is well showcased in the movie with The Wild West Casino also featuring.
Bugsy Siegal may indeed have a lot to answer for and there’s no doubt that his brainchild of developing the Gambling Strip in the desert may have been paved with nefarious intentions. That said, he, his cohorts and the Vegas Strip along with the movie industry have kept us enthralled and entertained for years. Viva – long may it last.