Every month, we spotlight a quintessential Las Vegas movie
Not a single frame of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 musical romance “One From the Heart” was shot in Las Vegas, and yet it may be the Vegas-est movie ever made. Coppola’s follow-up to “Apocalypse Now” is one of the most famous box-office flops of all time, rejected by audiences and derided by critics at the time of its release, after being tossed around among several major studios. It’s a heavily stylized fantasia that plays more like a dream than a love story about actual people, but its deliberate artificiality makes it the perfect cinematic representation of Las Vegas.
Coppola filmed the entire movie on the soundstages of his American Zoetrope Studios, constructing a Las Vegas that is part recreation, part fantasy. Coppola’s Vegas consists of a handful of locations that seem to exist directly adjacent to each other, making the geography as woozy as the romance.
Most of the action takes place on Fremont Street, with recognizable hotel-casinos like the Mint, the El Cortez, and the Fremont. The miniaturized versions of these landmarks crowd together on a street with no beginning and no end, terminating in an obvious matte painting of the Plaza.
Coppola doesn’t intend for any of this to look realistic, and the same goes for the broadly defined dynamic between travel agent Frannie (Teri Garr) and mechanic Hank (Frederic Forrest), who are on the cusp of celebrating their fifth anniversary as the movie begins. They buy each other presents that symbolize their differing outlooks on the future: Frannie purchases plane tickets for them to travel to Bora Bora, while Hank presents her with the deed to their modest house. She wants adventure, while he wants to settle down.
It’s too much for them to handle, so they split up, going their separate ways into the Vegas night. Quickly, they each pair up with new romantic prospects, both examples of Vegas archetypes. Frannie meets suave lounge singer and pianist Ray (Raul Julia), who’s eager to escape with her to Bora Bora. Hank meets acrobat Leila (Nastassja Kinski), who seems to be in need of rescuing. They dance around the possibilities of new love, sometimes literally, as Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle sing smoky jazz songs that express the characters’ inner feelings.
The drama plays out against the backdrop of Coppola’s hyperreal Vegas, where casino-hotel neon signs are visible from every window, their light the only illumination anyone needs. Hank works in a sort of precursor to the Neon Boneyard, where old signs from places like the Algiers and the Boulder Club emerge from the desert like ancient rock formations.
This Vegas has a primal quality, pulling in people like Frannie and Hank, just as they’re pulled toward each other. Coppola transports the audience there between the opening and closing of the curtain that begins and ends the movie. He creates a sense of longing for this alluring, mythical city—even for viewers who already live here.
“One From the Heart” is available for digital rental at Amazon and other outlets.