Atlantic City

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

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.

Starting out first as a circus acrobat, Lancaster was able to use those physical gifts in a number of ways. He emerged as a star in the 1940s Noir scene (along with a notable group of others including Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark, and Robert Mitchum). In the 1950s Lancaster was able to move between the more physical action movies (His Majesty O’Keefe), Westerns (Gunfight At The O.K. Corral), and relevant social dramas (From Here To Eternity, The Rose Tattoo). Even as a big movie star he always had the guts to take on challenging, unlikely, and unlikable roles, playing twice his age in the adaptation of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba and playing the creepy JJ Hunsecker in the brilliant Sweet Smell Of Success. Early in his career he was one of the first actors to start up his own production company, winning an Oscar for producing Marty.

The 1960s are when Lancaster really peaked. He started the decade with his giant performance in Elmer Gantry, winning an Oscar for his performance as a hustler turned minister. It’s a complicated role in a now underrated and still relevant film. He would take on many interesting roles, leads and supporting, in a number of important films: Birdman Of Alcatraz, The Swimmer, Seven Days In May, and The Train. He would go abroad and work with exciting European directors like Luchino Visconti (The Leopard) and later Bernardo Bertolucci (1900).

Atlantic City would team Lancaster with another major Euro director, Louis Malle, making his second American film (after Pretty Baby). Malle had emerged during the French New-Wave of the late 1950s with the Noirish Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Elevator To The Gallows) and then the international sensation The Lovers, both starring Truffaut’s "it-girl" Jeanne Moreau. He would then split his time between documentaries (Phantom India) and narrative films. His Le Souffle Au Coeur (Murmur Of The Heart) would push sexual boundaries (incest between mother and son), and later he would follow Atlantic City up with another quirky gem, My Dinner With Andre (and the lost Sean Penn heist comedy Crackers). His final major achievement, Au Revoir Les Enfants (Goodbye, Children), would take him back to the Nazi occupied France of his childhood before his death in 1995. There is a great tradition in American films (going back to Chaplin) of Europeans coming to America and shining a light on our cities that we (Americans) may not see for ourselves. John Schlesinger gave us a different side of New York (Midnight Cowboy) and Roman Polanski pulled the rug up on Los Angeles (Chinatown). But besides Malle and Lancaster much of the vision for Atlantic City is also from the script by the distinguished playwright John Guare (Six Degrees Of Separation) and cinematographer Richard Cipka (this the only memorable film on his otherwise dull resume). The look and feel of the city of Atlantic City is like the characters, sad and lonely. It’s almost a ghost story, the people and the places are dead, but don’t know it. They live off of their memories and the dreams they once had. The people, like the buildings, are being torn down to make room for the next generations of suckers to take their place.


Atlantic City was nominated for 5 Oscars: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Best Actress (Susan Sarandon), Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay.

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