Atlantic City

Dir: Louis Malle, 1980. Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid. Mystery/Thriller.

With Atlantic City the then 67-year-old Burt Lancaster gave the performance of his five decade long film career. And what an incredible career it was. As Lou, an over-the-hill, broken down loverboy who dreams of one big score and still fancies himself a player, telling tales of one-time peripheral ties to the mob, Lancaster is able to use the physical and emotional gifts that have defined him his whole career. Like many of his characters, Lou is all buff and gusto on the outside, while sensitive and gooey on the inside.

Lou spends his days running numbers and looking after his sugar-mama Grace (Kate Reid), a decrepit ex-mob moll who came to Atlantic City during WWII for a Betty Grable look-a-like contest. The highlight of his life is lusting after his younger neighbor, Sally, a casino waitress and wanna-be blackjack dealer (an outstanding Susan Sarandon). Lou peeps at her through the windows as she gets topless and erotic with a lemon, rubbing it on herself to get rid of the restaurant's clam smell. When Sally’s lout ex-husband stashes a huge bag of cocaine in his pad and then gets killed by mobsters, Lou is able to woo Sally and become the true gangster he always fantasized about being. Meanwhile the city of Atlantic City in the background represents the foreground - it’s an aging, crumbling dinosaur being torn down by developers and being rebuilt with slick new buildings.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jul 5, 2010 12:51pm

Elmer Gantry

Dir: Richard Brooks, 1960. Starring: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones, Arthur Kennedy. Classics.

Based on Sinclair Lewis’s controversial, apparently dangerous 1927 novel of the same name, Elmer Gantry opens with a note from the producers warning that children should not see this film. Why all the hubbub? It’s a film about religion. More specifically it’s about a drunken, womanizing, two-bit salesman (Burt Lancaster) who hooks up with a true believer, a lady minister (Jean Simmons), and they become a big-time preaching duo. But things get ugly when his lusty old ways come back to haunt him, the con gets ugly. Yes, keep the children away.

Lewis’s massive book was apparently banned in some parts of the country (can you guess which?) for questioning the true faith of those who are worshipped for their religious zealism. Based somewhat on the famous Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, apparently the film version is only a small fraction of the book. I would guess that, though controversial in its own right, the film's “controversial” aspects may have been watered down - 1960’s Hollywood was still in the last days of control by the Hayes Office which had the power to censor material it found offensive, luckily for art’s sake that power was ebbing.

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Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Apr 13, 2011 2:32pm

Sweet Smell of Success

Dir: Alexander Mackendrick, 1957. Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison. Film Noir.

I tend to sum up Sweet Smell of Success by saying that it’s sort of the alpha male version of All About Eve. It’s a movie about men and envy and wanting to be numero uno at all costs. But really the star and thematic center of the film is New York. It’s sharply written and gorgeously photographed as a city full of shysters, whores, crooked cops, and naïve cigarette girls, with the city’s truly powerful people wielding their influence like back alley thugs. For all the neon-lit corruption it makes the New York of the late-1950s look like a terribly exciting place to be. It’s an after-dark town with a hot Jazz score soundtracking a desperate populace thieving, scheming, and hustling—the quintessential Dark City that Noir dreams are made of. As the terrifyingly important J.J. Hunsucker, New York’s most powerful gossip columnist (played by the imposing Burt Lancaster), says with true affection, “I love this dirty town.”

Hunsucker’s column attracts 60 million daily readers and he relishes his ability to make or break anyone he chooses. He’s a sociopath in a nice suit who strikes fear into the hearts of the major players in the worlds of entertainment and politics. Tony Curtis is Sidney Falco, a hungry press agent desperate for a piece of the Hunsucker pie. His world is a 24-7 confidence game where he feeds the dupes on his payroll line after line about how they’re next in line to get mentioned in Hunsucker’s column. But J.J. likes making Sidney squirm for his supper—he cuts him out of the loop entirely so that Sidney will do just about anything to get back in J.J.’s favor.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Dec 8, 2009 5:21pm
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