1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me
Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996)
As anticipation of the Martians’ arrival builds across the nation, recovering alcoholic Barbara Land (Annette Bening) stands up at an AA meeting in a sleepy Vegas church and launches into an optimistic speech about the future of the human race. Yet to her mind it’s not God that promises salvation but the varicose aliens themselves: “The Martians heard our karmic cry for help,” she explains to a receptive audience. “I think they’ve come to save us!” (Needless to say, the Martians have other ideas.)
2. Thou shalt not worship false idols
Leprechaun 3 (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1995)
He’s no Jehovah, but the titular star of this über-camp threequel undoubtedly possesses a totemic power that seduces many he encounters—not least the wild-eyed old vagrant who sells him to a pawn shop in the opening scene. “He’s a good luck charm,” the man insists as he tries to fob the leprechaun off on the pawnbroker. Many others will fall under the imp’s spell before someone finally does the right thing and incinerates him.
3. Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Journalist and mescaline enthusiast Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) – an avatar for Hunter S. Thompson – takes many things in this movie, and the Lord’s name in vain sure is one of them. Over the course of the film, he exhausts his stock of expletives in his disjointed attempts to articulate the wretchedness of the world he sees around him. By the time he hallucinates a much older version of himself at a ’60s hippie party, all he can manage is an incredulous “Holy fuck… Mother of God.”
4. Remember the Sabbath day
Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982)
Those who’ve sat through Godfrey Reggio’s portentous “docu-poem” about how our planet’s going to hell tend to remember the time-lapse sequences of people and cars whizzing around big cities. But it’s a near-static portrait shot of six Vegas waitresses standing in front of the six letters spelling “CASINO” that’s the most arresting. The underlying message is clear: as the rest of Vegas parties non-stop, the laborers who keep the city ticking work non-stop, Sundays included. A neat reminder of the gloom beneath the glamor.
5. Honor thy father and thy mother
Casino (Martin Scorsese, 1995)
In a film that features many nasty people and a whole lot of broken commandments, a scene in which hapless underboss Artie Piscano (Vinny Vella) cusses in front of his mom (Scorsese’s mother in a cameo appearance) may appear rather tame. But judging by the privileged place mothers hold in Scorsese’s films—who can forget Joe Pesci’s dog-obsessed old lady in GoodFellas?—there’s little doubt that the director disapproves of Piscano’s chorus of “fuck”s. Sure enough, the character gets his comeuppance soon after.
6. Thou shalt not kill
Very Bad Things (Peter Berg, 1998)
When it comes to violations of the Sixth Commandment, Vegas movies spoil us for choice. But surely one of the most sordid—if least known—homicides on celluloid comes early on in Peter Berg’s blacker-than-night comedy, famously described by Roger Ebert as “not a bad movie—just a reprehensible one.” Kyle (Jon Favreau) hosts a stag party that turns very bad indeed when a friend accidentally puts a towel hook through a hooker’s head. The ensuing plot takes the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” mantra to the limit.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery
Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991)
The Flamingo, the oldest resort on the Strip still in operation today, was named after a different kind of bird: Hollywood starlet Virginia Hill, on account of her slender legs. In this unabashedly romantic biopic of mobster Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty), Hill’s lover and the Flamingo’s owner, the actress tempts him away from an otherwise happy marriage and into a morass of jealousy and financial misadventures. The movie, set in the ’40s, shows us a Vegas yet to be colonized by gamblers and neon, some of its most memorable scenes framed against the vast Nevada desert.
8. Thou shalt not steal
Ocean's 11 (Lewis Milestone, 1960)
Forget George Clooney and Don Cheadle—the original Ocean’s 11 remains the definitive imprint of Vegas on celluloid, the movie where Sin City glamor meets Rat Pack notoriety. It also features perhaps the greatest violation of the Eighth Commandment in cinema: a surgically precise heist on five Vegas casinos (including the Flamingo). Their massive criminality notwithstanding, we cheer the eleven on—in this morally relative world, the casinos are the greatest sinners. As the maxim of heist movies has it: Thou shalt not steal, except from evil corporations.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness
Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme, 1980)
Milkman Melvin Dummar (Paul Le Mat) picks up a grizzled hitchhiker (a wonderful Jason Robards) in the Nevada desert and shows him kindness. Said hitchhiker turns out to be business magnate Howard Hughes, and repays Dummar with a $156 million bequest in his will. In the real-life case that inspired this gem of a movie, the will was ruled to be a forgery and Dummar a liar; yet Melvin and Howard commendably refuses to condemn its protagonist, giving his story its full attention even as it refrains from endorsing it.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife
Indecent Proposal (Adrian Lyne, 1993)
When troubled couple David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana (Demi Moore) head to Vegas to shore up their finances and end up losing big, creepy billionaire John Gage (Robert Redford) steps in with an offer: $1 million for a night with Diana. The title’s an understatement—Outrageous Proposal would be nearer the mark, though Diana eventually consents. Suffice to say that things go downhill from there in this taut drama from that ’90s master of the sexy thriller, Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Lolita).
They call it Sin City for a reason—a city run on the ideology of pleasure-seeking consumerism is never going to please God. For as long as Vegas has stood for glitz, glamor and glory at the poker table, it's also attracted muggers, mobsters and mescaline addicts. By representing the American Dream in its seediest form, the city serves as a sort of dark counterpart to Hollywood. Little surprise, then, that the movies return to it time and again. Read on as we delve into the sins of Las Vegas's cinema.