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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, 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 clich-ridden package about the heist of an armored van." The film's reputation today is much better thanks to its recent 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) andThey Came to Rob Las Vegas in addition to a Goya Award nomination for Best Screenplay for Scent of a Crime (1988).Producer: Nat Wachsberger
Director: Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi
Screenplay: Lluis Josep Comeron, Jo Eisinger, Jorge Illa, Antonio Isasi-Isasmendi (screenplay); Joe Eisinger (dialogue); Andre Lay (novel)
Cinematography: Juan Gelpi
Art Direction: Antonio Cortes, Juan Alberto Soler
Music: Georges Garvarentz
Film Editing: Elena Jaumandreu, Emilio Rodriguez
Cast: Gary Lockwood (Tony Ferris), Elke Sommer (Ann Bennett), Lee J. Cobb (Steve Skorsky), Jean Servais (Gino), Georges Geret (Leroy), Jack Palance (Douglas), Fabrizio Capucci (Cooper), Roger Hanin (The Boss), Gustavo Re (Salvatore), Daniel Martin (Merino).
by Jeff Stafford
The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film, edited by Phil Hardy (The Overlook Press)