Las Vegas has long featured in our national consciousness, but most people will be surprised to learn that the city has a strong literary tradition, bolstered by the excellent writing program at UNLV. Las Vegas also boasts the famous Black Mountain Institute, a literary and humanist think tank attached to UNLV which has been home to at least two Nobel Prize winners—Wole Soyinka and Derek Walcott—and which was once, I believe, funded by a casino intent on intellectualizing the city.
There are many novels set in Las Vegas: Charles Brock’s Beautiful Children, Stephen King’s The Stand, Tim Power’s Last Call, and Joe McGinniss Jr.’s The Delivery Man, to name just a few. But I came to realize that these books—as well as my own understanding of Las Vegas as a writer and thinker—have been profoundly shaped by film and television. With that in mind, I hope you enjoy this roundup of movie scenes that I have found most shocking or memorable or beautiful or insightful or just plain funny.
Chained for Life (1951)
I discovered this movie while researching this piece and had to include it. A Siamese twin kills the husband who left her. The courts’ biggest dilemma comes with the possibility of her being convicted for murder: How can they punish her sister, who had nothing to do with the crime? Starring real-life conjoined twins the Hilton sisters, this movie doesn’t technically qualify to be in this sequence because it wasn’t shot in Las Vegas. But, since my Vegas novel features conjoined twins, when I stumbled on this, I had to include it.
Very Bad Things (1998)
The original The Hangover: Five men go to Vegas for their friend’s bachelor’s party. Things get out of control, and one of the men, while having sex with a prostitute in the bathroom, accidentally impales her head on a towel hook. Naturally, everyone freaks out—except one. In the creepiest comedic scene ever, Christian Slater, with an unnaturally calm voice, convinces the other men to carve up the prostitute and bury her in the desert. It is genuinely scary when everyone just goes along with it.
The torture scene in this gangster movie is disturbing even for the strongest of hearts. It’s most affecting because of the matter-of-fact way it is performed, and because Joe Pesci, with his odd, childlike voice, is the main torturer. He puts a man’s head in a vice and tightens it while we watch, until an eye pops out and the man gives them the information they need—only to get his throat cut in the end.
Source: And the Winner Is…
Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
The most honest and heartbreaking love scene in any movie is when the alcoholic drinking himself to death (played by Nicolas Cage) moves in with the hooker (Elisabeth Shue). Both these lonely outcasts would rather be together than alone. The scene is anchored by this unforgettable sentence, spoken by Cage: “I’m not here to force my twisted soul into your life. I’m in love with you.”
Viva Las Vegas (1964)
This was the first Elvis Presley movie I saw. It came to Nigeria in the ’70s, riding on a wave of Elvis love from my parents’ generation. It contains one of the hottest scenes in a movie that doesn’t involve actual sex. Ann Margret, Elvis’ love interest in the movie, is dancing in a pair of tights on the auditorium stage of UNLV with some students she’s teaching to dance. Elvis arrives, and she coaxes him up to sing and then joins him in a dance. It has all the sexy of restraint and all the smut of class. Love it.
The Hangover (2009)
After a blowout bachelor’s party in grand Vegas tradition, four friends wake up to a trashed room, a tiger, a baby, and an inexplicable face tattoo. That opening scene has to be one of the most memorable in recent movies. It is in fact, the opening scene to beat.
Source: illest_infamous dream
I have to end on this movie. The high water mark scene is where Hunter is writing in his room on a beat-up red typewriter. Not so much writing as conducting a strange aria, with a voiceover that’s melancholic and prophetic and yet hopeful. To capture the essence of a nation in words of biting clarity, to sing the very soul of a people—epic and small at the same time—that’s the hope of every writer, and this is achieved in this short scene. I’m nothing like Hunter S. Thompson as a man, yet we share the same dystopic yet beautiful hope for the future. It’s telling we both had to go to Vegas to see that.