The Fun Capital: Las Vegas on Film

Filmmakers have been heading back to the city of sin for almost a century now. Over those decades, Las Vegas has been the backdrop for every genre, serving as the perfect foundation for everything from broad comedy to heart-breaking drama. There’s something inherently cinematic about a city wherein fortunes can be won or lost in a matter of seconds and someone can marry a perfect stranger to an Elvis Presley tune. It’s a place wherein dreams, broken and fulfilled, feel tangible, and that raw emotion makes it the ideal setting for a screenwriter. Vegas is almost a character in the movies that choose to cast it, and here are some of the best to do so.

The Early Years

It didn’t take long for filmmakers to get to the city in the Nevada desert. After all, Las Vegas was only incorporated in 1911, and the first casino to be built on what is now known as the strip wasn’t erected until 1931. Only five years later, the first film set in Las Vegas was released in the form of Frank McDonald’s Boulder Dam, although it’s not exactly about the flash and sizzle that would come to identify the world-famous city. It’s the story of a man on the run who ends up working on the titular dam. There are no poker rooms to be found.

It wouldn’t be long for Vegas movies to get a little flashier. Frank Sinatra made his film debut in 1941’s Las Vegas Nights, and films like Moon Over Las Vegas and The Las Vegas Story made their settings clear, but it wouldn’t be until the 1960s when a pair of films would really shape the reputation of not just the filmic version of the city but the actual place itself.

The Breakthrough

In the ‘60s, Las Vegas became the place where the cool cats hung out, an image shaped by the some of the coolest people of the era: the Rat Pack in 1960’s Ocean’s Eleven and the King himself in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas. Of course, the former stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop and Angie Dickinson in a story of Las Vegas casino heists that would help shape the subgenre of the “Vegas Crime Movie”. Greeted with largely mixed reviews at the time, the impact of Ocean’s Eleven wasn’t immediate but it did create an association with Vegas and the cool kids. That’s where you went if you wanted to see people like Sinatra, Martin, and Davis, or if you thought you were cool enough to be them yourself.

An even bigger cultural wave came in 1964 with arguably Elvis Presley’s best film. The slogan for Viva Las Vegas says it all regarding the reputation of the city on film at the time: “It’s that “go-go” guy and that “bye-bye” gal in the fun capital of the world!” Who wouldn’t want to party with Elvis and Ann-Margret in the desert? It was one of the biggest films of 1964. Major ‘70s films would take side trips to Vegas, including everything from the Bond adventure Diamonds Are Forever to The Godfather to Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet.

The ’80s and ‘90s would reveal that Las Vegas could serve different functions for filmmakers. While its larger-than-life attributes made it a great curtain for comedy, screenwriters started to delve more into the dark side of a city built on gambling away everything. A daring few even used the heightened emotional stakes of Vegas to amplify thrillers that might have felt more routine anywhere else. And some of the best filmmakers began to dig into the history of this city with so many shallow graves over the horizon. It led to what is essentially three variations on Las Vegas: silly, serious, and informative.

Here are some of the best of each:

The Goofy Comedy

Most people who board a plane, train, or bus to Las Vegas are hoping for a good time, and the city’s reputation as the party capital of the country has been greatly amplified by the way it’s been captured in hit comedies. There was a long stretch in the ‘90s and ‘00s in which it felt like every studio needed a Vegas comedy, whether it was Nicolas Cage & Sarah Jessica Parker in 1992’s Honeymoon in Vegas, the rebooting of the Ocean’s series in 2001, Ashton Kutcher & Cameron Diaz in What Happens in Vegas or films that just somehow found their way to Vegas like Miss Congeniality 2, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, or Beavis and Butt-head Do America. What would a trip to Vegas be like without someone doing an impression of Vince Vaughn from Swingers?

Of course, one of the biggest comedies of all time became a phenomenon by leaning into the dangerous side of what happens in Vegas. When a bachelor party ended up with the groom-to-be going MIA, comedy history was made in 2009’s The Hangover, starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis. The tale of three average dudes trying to reconstruct a very un-average night, it made almost half a billion dollars worldwide, led to two sequels, and countless Halloween costumes. To close the circle, there’s even a slot machine.

Trying to get a little of the royal flush that the producers of The Hangover were lucky enough to be dealt led to a wave of Vegas comedies in the 2010s, including Get Him to the Greek, Last Vegas, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. The Vegas comedy burned itself out pretty quickly and the shift in comedic taste led to less scripts about “men behaving badly” in the city of sin being drafted, but we’ll always have Mike Tyson and his tiger.

The Cautionary Tale

The house always wins, of course, and there’s a whole genre of Vegas movies built around people learning this lesson the hard way. Some of them merely use the city’s bright lights as a backdrop for thrillers like Indecent Proposal, but others are intrinsically connected to the industries of Las Vegas like Showgirls and 21.

For nearly as long as there have been roulette wheels in Vegas, there have been movies about men who fall victims to their vices and addictions there. Some of the best include the James Caan vehicle The Gambler, Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut Hard Eight, and the Oscar nominee The Cooler, in which William H. Macy delivers one of the best performances of his career.

Perhaps the most famous drama about the trouble of living in Las Vegas is a film about how hard it is to say goodbye to it in Paul Haggis’s Leaving Las Vegas, which landed star Elisabeth Shue an Oscar nomination and won a statue for Nicolas Cage as an alcoholic who plans to drink himself to death. Also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, Leaving Las Vegas is more about alcohol than gambling but it’s a film that understands the quicksand nature of a city that so easily caters to the inner demons of its residents.

The History Lesson

Two of the most remarkable films set in Las Vegas offer detailed insight into the history of the city. After winning Best Picture for another film that eventually finds its way to Vegas (Rain Man), Barry Levinson directed James Toback’s script for Bugsy, about the life of Bugsy Siegel, a gangster who essentially helped found the city. Staring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, and many more, the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director.

Later that decade, Martin Scorsese would set up a production at the Riviera in Vegas and emerge from the desert with one of his best films, 1995’s Casino. Based on the nonfiction book by GoodFellas co-scribe Nicholas Pileggi, Casino stars Robert De Niro as Ace Rothstein, the man who oversees hotel operations at the Tangiers Casino in Vegas. Let’s just say Ace got into some trouble. Scorsese’s epic, co-starring Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone, was unfairly compared to his previous Pileggi collaboration but it’s grown in esteem over the nearly three decades since its release.

The One That Does All Three

Of course, there’s one movie that does all three—comedy, cautionary tale, and history lesson. Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 novel of the same name, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a breathless, rampaging piece of filmmaking, a movie that captures Thompson’s (Johnny Depp) journey to Las Vegas with Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) and a trunk full of drugs. Terry Gilliam’s film explodes across the screen, recreating the hectic, surreal nature of an unforgettable trip to Vegas in a way that nobody else could. It has it all. Kind of like Vegas itself.


Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico

Writer and expert

Brian Tallerico is a Chicago-based film and television critic who has been working in the industry for two decades. He's the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association, Editor of RogerEbert.com, and a freelancer for Vulture, Rolling Stone, The Playlist, and The New York Times.