Eye For Film >> Movies >> Atlantic City (1980) Film Review
Some of the finest movies about America have been made by foreign directors and Louis Malle’s reissued classic is up there with Paris, Texas and Midnight Cowboy when it comes to casting a quirky, jaundiced eye over an iconic film landscape. Of course, it helps when you’ve got a genuine Hollywood legend, triumphantly discovering his second wind as an actor, as your leading man. And, notwithstanding a fantastic early turn from Susan Sarandon, this is still very definitely Burt Lancaster’s show.
He plays Lou Pascal, a man who has lived his entire life in the titular city, the gambling capital of the US east coast. Once an associate of the city’s more notorious mobsters, he now lives a quiet, impoverished life in a crumbling apartment block, reminiscing about the good old days with his cronies, running a small-time numbers game and performing dog-walking and other menial duties for his bedridden neighbour Grace (Kate Reid), a gang boss’s widow.
He also spends a considerable amount of time spying on another neighbour, Sally Matthews (Sarandon), a young girl who has escaped the drudgery of rural Canada to try her luck in the big city, working in an oyster bar and training to be a croupier. The film’s celebrated (and controversial) opening sequence shows her moisturising her breasts with lemon juice while opera plays on her cheap radio – and Lou looks on, his face a study in silent longing.
It encapsulates two of the film’s key themes – the desire to rise above the drudgery of everyday life, and the many ways in which passion (and love) can exhibit itself. As the story unfolds, Lou and Sally are drawn ever closer, but the complex nature of their relationship, and the subtle handling of it by Malle and Guare (author of Six Degrees Of Separation), means that you’re never sure whether happiness or tragedy will lie at the end.
A catalyst in bringing them together is Sally’s feckless husband Dave (Robert Joy). The kind of guy who’d need to take a course to qualify as a waste of space, we first encounter him stealing a package of drugs from one of the Philadelphia mafia’s pick-up points. He then hitchhikes to Atlantic City with Sally’s hippy sister Chrissie, the woman he left her for. Sally’s understandably put out when they turn up, demanding crash space and (in Dave’s case) stealing her wallet to finance his attempts to wheedle his way into the local underworld.
This brings him into Lou’s orbit and he agrees to be Dave’s front man in a deal to sell the drugs to a local gambler. But as romance begins to blossom, the past threatens to scupper things.
It all builds to a tense climax – but this isn’t really a plot-driven gangster thriller. It’s much more a study of an unusual (and somewhat perverse) relationship between two complex and not always sympathetic characters. Lou takes an amoral delight in getting back to some ‘proper’ criminal activity and Sally shows a degree of manipulation in using a clearly infatuated older man to pursue a fairly tawdry and limited ambition.
When the harsh realities of their situation intrude, Sally is confronted with the darks side of her dream – and Lou realises he can’t protect her.
Malle revels in the intricacies of all this, drawing superb performances from all the players. Sarandon is a beguiling mix of innocence and toughness and Lancaster brings all his charisma and dignity to bear on a role that is in many ways an older version of the handsome but doomed noir heroes he made his name portraying. As always, the director isn’t shy of exploring the darker areas of passion and sexuality, but unlike some of his other work (the ludicrous Damage, for instance) this doesn’t swamp the film. His other key preoccupations – loyalty, betrayal, living with the reality of a life unfulfilled - are subtly examined too. And he conjures up an evocative picture of the city itself; a cold, grey, windswept landscape far removed from its rival Las Vegas in setting but with the same undercurrent of greed and desperation.
It doesn’t quite have the kinetic energy of Scorsese’s Mean Streets or the epic scope of Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America. But it ranks with Lacombe Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants as Malle’s finest work and is one of the best ‘expat takes’ on the gangster mythology at the heart of American culture. And Lancaster’s performance is perhaps the perfect blend of his classic Hollywood tough guy persona and the more challenging roles he undertook for European directors in the twilight of a truly great career. For all these reasons, this is a film that’s definitely ripe for rediscovery.Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2008