on 27 April 2003
ATLANTIC CITY is a superb character study of a city in transition and small-time characters who live hoping to give life to their big-time dreams. The film features a smashing performance by Burt Lancaster. French director Louis Malle, presents a tightly shot film with little wasted footage, but his nostalgia for America's seamy side of history is often far-fetched, with a foreign perspective that distorts rather than clarifies. John Guare's script is taut, sparkling with original dialogue and far superior to TAKING OFF (1971), which Guare wrote for Miloš Forman another foreigner, who made it big in the staes- AMADEUS and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.
Aside from Lancaster's absolutely engrossing performance, the film leaves a sad impression of emptiness, similar to the vacant lots in Atlantic City where splendid hotels once stood. Lancaster somehow represents the new plastic casinos that have risen in their place, shining expensive towers without personal history, without grandeur. That is the taste left behind; one of empty waste and fragile lives. That is not to say the film is essentially cold and unforgiving, as the final scene with Lancaster and Sarandon together shows- he letting his young lover go to a life with more chance for at least some kind of fulfillment.
on 17 July 2009
This is a film that crosses the genres; a combination of crime thriller, love story and meditation on change, progress and decay. It's a subtle interweaving of a place (Atlantic City, New Jersey) with a small number of characters who inhabit it.
Louis Malle (Lacombe Lucien, Au Revoir les Enfants, Pretty Baby etc) in his second American film takes the decaying coastal resort as his subject rather than just his backdrop, in that the demolition and renewal (shown evocatively on screen) of the fabric of the town as the developers move in mirrors and also contrasts with what is going on in the life of a number of its inhabitants.
These are an ex-small time leg-man for racketeers (Burt Lancaster), a restaurant worker cum casino croupier trainee (Susan Sarandon), a gangster's widow and a hopeless cocaine pusher. They have in common that none of them are living fully in the present. The pusher has a vague plan that selling the cocaine he's come upon by accident will change his life. Sarandon imagines that the doors at the casino at Monte Carlo will be thrown open to her. The widow has an exaggerated notion of importance harking back to her dead hoodlum husband's supposed status. Lancaster looks back on a life of failure that he dresses up as success. We feel he's a good man inhabiting the skin of a bad man, and his relationship with Sarandon demonstrates this ambivalence - part paternal, part sexual. Burt Lancaster portrays this mixture wonderfully well; I felt that beneath the charming surface there lurked something menacing or perhaps just damaged. He knows that in film acting less = more; his great screen presence keeps your eye and your mind on him throughout.
As we see the Art Deco blocks of the run-down resort being replaced by casinos, Malle asks the viewer to question the nature and value of the change in the landscape in parallel with the changes in circumstances of his characters. It's a subtle and even painful equation that after a slow start begins to grip you as it unrolls. It's the kind of film that gives up its secrets over more than viewing.
For whatever reasons, this film never has received the recognition and appreciation I think it deserves. It was directed by Louis Malle and stars Burt Lancaster as Lou. (In Atlantic City, first names are all you need to know about those around you.) Malle carefully develops three different story lines: Lou's long-term affair with Grace (Kate Reid), a mobster's widow; Lou's relationship with Sally (Susan Sarandon) to whom he feels both a paternal and romantic attraction; and his symbiotic relationship with Atlantic City. Both he and the city seem long past their prime. During the course of the film, Sally also becomes a widow. Credit Malle and his excellent cast as well as cinematographer Richard Ciupka for creating and then sustaining an atmosphere of deterioration and menace. Special note should also be made of John Guare's screenplay. He, Malle, Lancaster, Sarandon, and the film were all nominated for an Academy Award. (FYI, The respective winners in 1980 were Bo Goldman for Melvin and Howard, Robert Redford for Ordinary People, Robert De Niro for Raging Bull, Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner's Daughter, and Ordinary People.) Toward the end of his career, Lancaster accepted a series of roles (including this one) which enabled him to explore and reveal subtle nuances of character and personality which much earlier roles neither permitted nor required. My own opinion is that his performance as Lou is his greatest achievement as an actor.
However, in certain respects, Atlantic City itself really is the dominant character. I recall brief visits to it in the 1970s. The city then bore little resemblance to what it has since become, at least in the casino area. Of course the city then bore little resemblance, also, to the elegant seaside resort it once was 75 years earlier. My guess (only a guess) is that Malle's work in this film -- especially his establishment and enrichment of precisely appropriate tone and atmosphere -- had a significant influence on later films such as House of Games (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Billy Bathgate (1991), Road to Perdition (2002), and The Cooler (2003). As I said, just a guess.
One final point: I think it is a disgrace that the so-called "special features" provided with the DVD version are limited to "Theatrical trailer(s)" and "Widescreen anamorphic format."
World-weary fantasist Lou Pascal’s (an outstanding Burt Lancaster) words to ex-mucker, Sean Sullivan’s shoe-shine man, Buddy, of course, reflect Lou’s own preoccupations as much as they do his pal’s in Louis Malle’s superb 1980 nostalgia trip. And, as well as Atlantic City’s portrayal of an unlikely, but increasingly poignant and endearing 'love affair’ between the ageing Lou and neighbour, Susan Sarandon’s aspiring casino-worker, Sally Matthews, the film’s other standout feature is the evocative way Malle (and, via some gritty, naturalistic cinematography, Richard Ciupka) depict the 70s/80s-era milieu of the run-down, 'seen better days’, nature of the titular New Jersey gambling retreat. Essentially, we’re at the 'back end’ of the hippy-era of a decade (or so) earlier, with CND and 'no nukes’ graffiti still prevalent, as Sally’s husband, Robert Joy’s 'amateur criminal’, Dave, now hooked up with Sally’s pregnant, new-age, sister, Hollis McLaren’s Chrissie, drop in on Sally, in the process turning her world upside down.
Ex-gangster, now 'numbers man’ and city fixture, Lou has been admiring Sally from afar (well, through their respective apartment windows) and his chance to woo (and lavish luxury upon) his intended beau comes about as a result of a drugs deal gone wrong with Dave. Lancaster is on top form here (in a performance to rank with the likes of those in Sweet Smell Of Success and, the thematically similar, The Leopard) as the deluded romantic, telling tales of 'old buddy’ Bugsy Siegel and longing for (imagined) days past, as is Sarandon as the troubled, confused, but (initially) willing seducee. The other outstanding acting turn here is that of Kate Reid as Lou’s sharp-talking, 'Norma Desmond-like’, long-time acquaintance, Grace, who provides many of the film’s comedic moments, whilst Michel Piccoli turns up in a cameo role as Sally’s smooth-talking, would-be seducer and casino boss, Joseph.
Repeatedly, Malle harks back to the film’s milieu and the inherent conflict between the city’s 'tourist friendly’ aspirations and its seedier, criminal undercurrents – such as during the brilliant juxtaposition of Robert Goulet’s singer crooning Atlantic City, My Old Friend, whilst, in parallel, Sally suffers personal trauma. In the end, though, it is the pairing of Lancaster and Sarandon that carry Malle’s film, as Lou’s delusions of grandeur (and heroism) get the better of him and we find the couple on the run from the mob in a thrilling final half hour, giving rise to a highly poignant conclusion.
Right from the opening shots of Susan Sarandon washing herself with lemon juice and water - it starts with a close-up of her slicing the lemons - you know that this is going to be an exceptional film that never falls back on clichés or easy story-telling. As always with Malle, you gradually piece together the picture of the main characters through their actions and a sense of place that seems an essential part of it. Atlantic City is a gambling centre on the coast that has clearly seen better days, but there is poignant life in Burt Lancaster's character who may have been more of a player in its heyday, yet still has the urge to live and flourish in the present in spite of his diminishing faculties. His interaction with the lovely Sarandon as a character whose dreams are more forward-looking is beautifully shown, using all the ambiguity that was the director's trademark. Sarandon's eyes have never been used to more expressive effect, bringing grace to a role that, thanks to her and Malle, could never be pedestrian, yet would be in lesser hands. Her husband is an innocent abroad, trying to make his way in drug-dealing, having run off with Sarandon's sister, and then turned up on her doorstep with the sister naively hippy-ish and heavily pregnant.
The boy doesn't seem to have much going for him and is all too convincing right down to his sexy, chino-covered butt, the one thing neither he nor anyone else in the film is probably even aware of, not that the importance of sex is downplayed. It is refreshing the way Malle roots his observations in an understanding of desire, both sexual and otherwise, and how it should not be trampled on ... this boy comes to a horrible end, not really shown, but shown enough for you to sense its awfulness, and his human fragility and fecklessness is conveyed in a way that gets to the heart of things as few films about drugs or gangsters manage to do. There is a complete lack of glamour and slickness. Burt Lancaster is amazing, and Hollis McLaren also deserves a special mention, reprising a similar role to the one she played in Outrageous!. That film was also a collage of tender, left-field beauty, and here what you are left with is a sense of wonder, the beauty of the images stealing up on you unexpectedly in conjunction with the humanist concerns of the director, a bit like a flower growing in the most arid, least promising soil.
on 18 November 2013
One of my all time favourite films which I hadn't been able to track down in DVD format.Loved seeing it again. A subtle European film maker looking at US and the crime film with fresh eyes...a car chase in a car lift;a killing where the killer can't believe he's done it;a great script...SS says Teach me BL says wisdom or knowledge? And wordly wise after a one night stand he tells her to ditch the car(when she claims she's only going for a pizza!) Watch it and admire.
This is a 1980 film, one of two made in America, by the French director, Louis Malle. It stars Burt Lancaster, as Lou, in one of his best performances, alongside Susan Sarandon, as the trainee casino worker, and the object of Lou's desire. Lou is like the city he lives in, trading on former glory, fantasies, and a faded past. He is a small-time hustler, who likes to pretend he was once a big-time gangster. He spends his time spinning yarns about the old days, running a small numbers racket, and living off his ageing girlfriend Grace, played by Kate Reid.
One day, he spots the young and attractive Sally, who is working selling shellfish to fund her casino training, and becomes obsessed with her, forming an unlikely relationship. Her ex-husband turns up, a low-life who has stolen drugs from the mob, and is on the run. He is tracked down by them, and killed, leaving the drugs behind with Sally. She and Lou decide to sell them, and the elderly Lou finally achieves some credibility, at least by his reckoning, as an Atlantic City drug dealer.
This film is surprisingly warm, and often humourous. The acting standards are high, and performances impeccable. The slow pace is both understandable, and welcome, and the whole thing screams class, at every turn.
on 9 April 2015
Don't hesitate to get into that film. You will love it because they are all crooked and they all want only one thing, to fool and rob the others. Killing is not really their job, but they enjoy doing it when it is not by accident and they relish the sensations they get when it is by accident. They rob, they deal and not only cards, they kill and assassinate, they cheat and they lie, they show off and they pretend, in one words they are all freaks who are petty criminals of no real nature and ambition. They manage to kill one another for a few thousand dollars, mind you something like thirteen or maybe seventeen thousand. Peanuts, even in 1980 or some time before.
That was the time when Atlantic City was finding some new gambling dimension after the downfall, when Las Vegas was investing beyond its own city limits and on the east coast for a while, that is to say close to New York, Philadelphia and some other cities of that size. That could not be the big losers and the big betters and the big winners, but many regular small or average addicted gamblers are more profitable than a few erratic big ones.
And when we are speaking of small, we mean small. Some plain white powder cut down by half anyway for twice the price. That powder was stolen and the money that came with it was just as much stolen as the white powder itself, from the first thief, to the second thief, to third thief, and the stolen money goes around just as much as the stolen white powder on a never ending merry-go-round.
Among these small young amateurish criminals a couple of two older and by now wasted uncouth people are trying to get everything for themselves and yet they realize their age does not fit that kind of activity and life, and they just collect a few crumbs and they let the only surviving younger one get away with the loot.
The only really good interest of the film is the decadent dimension of it. The younger generation was in the process of taking over but the golden boys had not arrived yet, the yuppies as they were going to be called. But all the same, it reeks of decadence with an after taste of poverty, particularly mental poverty. That world took so much time and energy to get wiped away. That was the time when a completely new approach was necessary and the older actor known as Ronald Reagan was going to be elevated to the position of president and that will bring this and this will mean that.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on 11 September 2010
The picture quality of this 2008(!) UK release is awful. If you can play it, the Region 1 Paramount edition, released14 May 2002, is *far* better.
on 9 January 2010
A simply brilliant and touching film with humour, violence and love. All encompassed in a seedy town trying to reinvent itself. Lancaster plays his best role as a not very bright, rather vain failure on the fringes of crime. He gets caught up in a very modern world of drugs with which he is totally unacquainted and is fixated by a younger woman who has her eyes set on greater things. It pans out in a manner that is totally believable and a lesson on how to make a gangster film.