The title suggests something nearly epic in its scope; a history of the gambling capital of the world, an iconic mix of organised crime and flaking glamour, bright lights and corruption - the 'Casino' of its day. The subsequent film is much more modest - a tale of petty opportunism and every day failure that, frankly, could be set almost anywhere in the world. Whatever Happy's opening voice-over tries to convince us of, this isn't the Las Vegas Story, or the Clark County one. Never mind - 'The Philadelphia Story' and 'The Palm Beach Story' had similarly grandiose titles with almost as little to back them up, although even their stories of marital strife weren't quite as modest as this one.
It's a trifle about a woman with a past, caught between a seemingly solid husband beginning to crack under financial difficulties and a bitter ex who refuses to forgive her for walking out on him. The catalyst for the plot is her diamond necklace, under observation by an insurance agent and desired by the new owner of the bar she used to work in - subtly named 'The Last Chance'. A later Russell film, 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', would inform us that 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' - here, they're her worst enemy, coming between her and all the men in her life. Jewellery was often used as a symbol of women's superficial allure and grasping nature in good old misogynistic Hollywood, but here it's the men who care about the ice. Russell suffers their loss with no great complaint.
For the most part, 'The Las Vegas Story' is no great shakes. Victor Mature gives a real teak-and-leather performance as the male lead; he looks a little like Jerry Orbach, but he has all the charisma of a side of sweaty beef, and hangs like a dead weight in all the scenes he's in, particularly those with Jane Russell. We can understand why she left him - he's an unappealing prospect. There's no real Vegas atmosphere to the film - although the hotel bathroom set is wonderful in its tacky opulence. Most of the direction is perfunctory, and the script isn't sharp enough - it clearly aspires to hard-boiled banter but doesn't give the actors anything to work with, and a subplot about underage newlyweds is truly trite, an example of Old Hollywood storytelling at its worst. Despite the script, Vincent Price is pretty good, segueing from cheerful husband to cold, desperate gambler effortlessly, but he seems to get lost halfway through the film.
Shining out amongst all this mediocrity is Jane Russell, probably the most wasted film actress of her time. She displayed natural charisma in front of the camera in her very first film, 'The Outlaw', and she visibly grew in confidence as an actress over her next few films, but she never really got to work in great films - with the arguable exception of 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'. Here, she's sublime, despite working with third-rate material. Whilst the script leaves Mature somewhat stranded, unable to connect up the various lurches in disposition his character is required to make (he suddenly warms up to Russell again for no explicable reason), Russell handles these unlikely transitions much better, making them seem all of a piece. It's an effortless performance, a demonstration of pure film-star class, but just as in 'His Kind of Woman' she's neglected at the climax, left standing by as the men slug it out.
Fortunately, that climax is the salvation of the film. The preceding hour and ten minutes lack either suspense or the kind of brooding menace the Noirish plot seems to require. Once the fleeing villain drives his car into an abandoned Airforce base, however, the direction picks up considerably. The helicopter/car chase is really well done, with impressive stunt flying as the helicopter flies through an open hangar, Bond-style (it's so good they repeat the trick a minute later). Even better is the final foot chase around the deserted buildings, with brilliantly atmospheric use of the howling wind. Tellingly, this is all achieved wordlessly, and seems to come from some infinitely superior thriller (the purely visual storytelling is reminiscent of Hitchcock). Here, the film actually touches greatness, if only for a few minutes.
The other pleasures are incidental. Like many films of the period, it includes a couple of musical numbers, totally unnecessary but here rather well done (the first, as a piano tune triggers a memory in Russell of her time as a singer, actually has more emotional impact than any of the dialogue scenes). The murder mystery isn't that mysterious, but the solution is pleasingly unconventional (it's the opportunistic robbery that is always disproved early on in other whodunits), and the film wrong-foots the audience by not discounting Russell as a suspect.
Even among the relatively few films that Russell made, this is minor; nevertheless, it does confirm that she was a capable actress, not the inflatable doll some critics would like us to remember her as - and is worth seeing for that reason.
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