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Appropriating hipster lingo from the jazz world, a group of performers collectively known as the Rat Pack captured the country’s imagination four decades ago. “You dig?” was the rhetorical question that punctuated their conversations. At the nucleus of “the Clan,” as it was also called, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis, Jr. collaborated on Ocean’s 11 in 1960.

A remake of the classic caper movie — about World War II buddies who reunite for a daring casino robbery — opens December 7 with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle and a retooling of the title into Ocean’s Eleven. Yet even this star-studded cast, directed by Traffic’s Steven Soderbergh, might find it difficult to match the crazy charisma of the original.

The Rat Pack was graced by personal and cinematic cool. As they liked to say, life was “a ring-a-ding-ding.” In the winter of 1959-’60, Las Vegas was the stomping ground for this popular clique with a rather unforgiving motto: “If you’re in, you’re very, very in. And if you’re out, you’re dead, Daddio.”

The Clan would spend several hours shooting by day. But, after sundown every night, they were drinking, singing, dancing, telling jokes and engineering high jinks until dawn in two wildly improvisational shows at the Copa Room of the Sands Hotel. Those bashes are fondly remembered in a memoir by Rat Pack “mascot” Shirley MacLaine, who sparkles during an uncredited cameo in the earlier film: “It was fun and totally madcap,” she writes. “There was an energy that has never been duplicated since.”

Someone aptly called Ocean’s 11 “a 10-million-dollar home movie.” Oscar-winning director Lewis Milestone, whose credits included All Quiet on the Western Front, was up against a force of nature in Vegas. “The spontaneous humor on the stage and on the set was unparalleled,” MacLaine writes. “The director never knew what was going to happen or how a scene would be played on a given day.”

The plot centers on a crime planned by Danny Ocean, played by Sinatra, who recruits his old 82nd Airborne Division pals now scattered throughout the country. The New Year’s Eve heist calls for a midnight power blackout, allowing the suave antiheroes to simultaneously hit five Sin City gambling Meccas with military precision.

Once courageous in battle, these men have never quite readjusted to civilian life and sign on with Danny in hopes of solving their problems. Diagnosed with a terminal case of “the Big Casino,” as he puts it, ex-con Tony (Richard Conte) needs the promised million-dollar share to support his young son. Vince (Buddy Lester) wants the money so his wife can stop working in a burlesque house. Jimmy (Lawford) hopes to end a dependency on his wealthy socialite mother, played by real-life wealthy socialite Ilka Chase.

Music by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen — absent in the 2001 version — spices up the proceedings. Davis periodically belts out a mystifying theme song, “E-O-Eleven.” Martin, as a lounge singer, does a nice “Ain’t Love a Kick in the Head.”

The Ocean’s 11 subplots all serve the story. Danny still loves his estranged wife (Angie Dickinson, in the babe role now assigned to Julia Roberts). Jimmy’s oft-married mother is engaged to Duke (Cesar Romero), a man with underworld connections.

With the kind of ambiguous ending that’s always been rare in Hollywood, the original screenplay offered smart, albeit now outdated dialogue that is not likely to be repeated in the remake’s contemporary setting.

The Rat Pack seduced the nation in ways that helped shape American history. They campaigned so tirelessly for presidential candidate John F. Kennedy — Lawford’s brother-in-law — that the group began calling itself “the Jack Pack.” The bond between Camelot and the Clan was shattered in 1962, however, when Kennedy distanced himself because of Sinatra’s Mafia ties. Ol’ Blue Eyes blamed Lawford, who then became an outcast, Daddio.

They continued shooting movies that were increasingly forgettable, until the Rat Pack craze was eclipsed by the onset of a counterculture with its own rules for being cool. For a while, though, the high-living entertainers had themselves a ring-a-ding-ding time.

Short Takes: J. Hoberman makes the distinction between disaster movies and “Movies and the Disaster” in a lecture about post-9/11 filmmaking on Friday at Middlebury College. Martin Scorsese called the Village Voice film critic “one of the most intelligent and thought-provoking critics in the United States.” He’s published seven books on film, including one on Dennis Hopper... Richard Leacock is an 80-year-old camera man and director who figured prominently in the pioneering days of documentary film during the late 1930s. He’s arguably best known for collaborating with D.A. Pennebaker on Don’t Look Back, the bittersweet 1967 Dylan travelogue, and on Monterey Pop, the seminal 1968 rock doc. He’ll give a free public talk at Burlington College on Tuesday.

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Susan Green


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