Classic Film: Atlantic City




Directed by Louis Malle

Paramount, 104 minutes, R (partial nudity, 1970s clothing)






In Atlantic City, petty wiseguy Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) looks over his shoulder at the slate gray sea and reminisces about his heyday: “The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”


 My parents met and married in Atlantic City after World War II. They ended up moving to Pennsylvania, near where my mother was raised. Dad, a Worcester, Massachusetts native, frequently disparaged Pennsylvania and yearned for Atlantic City. I first visited as a child in the early 1960s. Steel Pier, the famed diving horse, and Boardwalk sedan chairs were still there, but the place was a dump. The film Atlantic City is set a decade and a half later, around the second time I visited. Remarkably, it was even worse. Visitors were advised not to venture into the city and with good reason: it was squalor, boarded storefronts, crime, and angry urbanites at their scariest. Change, though, was on the horizon. Old hotels were coming down and glitzy casinos were rising. We know how that turned out; small-fry hoods like Lou were pushed aside for big-time crooks and crime syndicates. (FYI: Donald Trump didn’t start fleecing Garden Staters until 1984.)


Burt Lancaster is our guide from romanticized past to squalid present and a future of misplaced hope. The story opens in Philadelphia, where another chiseler, David Matthews (Robert Joy), observes a drug drop in a phone booth (remember those?), steals the package, and heads to Atlantic City to sell it, with his pregnant girlfriend Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) in tow. He’s actually married to Chrissie’s sister, Sally (Susan Sarandon), who left her loser husband, moved to Atlantic City, and dreams of leaving her dead-end oyster bar job and becoming a blackjack dealer at a soon-to-be-opened casino. She’s taking card-dealing lessons from Joseph (Michel Piccoli), a haughty Frenchman and is trying to learn French in the bargain. Sally also has an interesting evening ritual. She stands in front the window by her kitchen sink, squeezes fresh lemons, and proceeds to rub the juice on her neck, shoulders, and breasts. She is unaware that her neighbor, Lou, watches her.


David and the hippie-meets-New Age Chrissie show up and Sally wants them gone, but relents and allows them to crash at her apartment for a few days. She knows nothing about David’s theft of drugs00. Not much good can come from a peeping Tom neighbor, a drug-dealing estranged husband who ripped off drugs from a Philly crime syndicate, an about-to-pop sister, a condemned apartment, and a pipedream. The appearance of some truly dangerous gangsters won’t help matters either. All of this opens the door for an unusual relationship with an unlikely protector, Lou. He too lives in a fantasy world–one that he has repeated so often it passes for truth, though all he’s done for many years is run low-level numbers rackets for a bigger hood, and walk the dog and rub the feet of faded celebrity Grace Pinza (Kate Reid).


Atlantic City takes us to unexpected places. It got five Oscar nominations at the 1982 ceremonies but didn’t win any, as On Golden Pond gobbled up a lot of awards. In retrospect, that film seems so much like a Hallmark weepie that one could say that Lancaster and Sarandon got jobbed. There is a reason why Lancaster was a Hollywood legend. His was a performance in which braggadocio, pathos, bathos, and kindness intermingled. That’s a tough balance to maintain, but he did so effortlessly. Sarandon also threaded a small needle, hers between conflicting traits such as determination, naiveté, wholesomeness, and a bit of double-dealing.


Atlantic City was mostly praised in its time and the performances of the four principals–add Reid to the mix–remain impressive. Some other things don’t stand up as well. Joy went on to do some TV work, much of it in Canada, but he’s pretty stiff in the film and McLaren is downright embarrassing. The late-70s fashions are also pretty hard on the eyes and the pursuing thugs are cardboard cutouts. The film probably also suffered at Oscar time from being a joint Canadian-French venture. (Hollywood always prefers to honor itself.) It also suffered from a romance/comedy/drama blend that doesn’t quite gel.


Another reason to check it out now (or revisit it) is for its implied warning about casino promises. Aside from a few Native-American reservations, casinos are like the blackjack table: the house wins and both punters and bandwagon-jumping politicians get fleeced. (Hello Bangor, Camden, Detroit, Springfield!) Atlantic City and its ocean might or might not have been something back then, but if given a choice of criminals like Lou or the gambling syndicates, I’d rather bet on the former.


Rob Weir

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