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


World Music:Nordic Fiddlers Bloc, Moving Sound, Coreyah, Madou Toure, Afrika Mamas, Chinese Folk Music



April sometimes holds surprises–like a snow shower when daffodils are in bloom–so it’s an apt time to review the new album Bonfrosta Shetland Islands term for a hard frost–by Nordic Fiddlers Bloc (NFB). If NFB’s music is unfamiliar, the trio is Kevin Henderson from the Shetlands (Scotland), Olav Luksengård Mjelva from Norway, and Anders Hall from Sweden. Mjelva plays a hardanger fiddle. It has nine (or eight) strings, though you have to look closely to see them. Four are played as one would any fiddle tune, but their vibrations cause the underlying strings to vibrate harmonically and with an eerie quality.  Hall plays viola and an octave fiddle, the latter of which is strung to sound lower. Several of the tunes are polskas, which is often translated as “polka.” Though both are often in ¾ time, a polska is a Scandinavian dance that’s generally more formal than what most think of as a polka. These are reminders that the feel of NFB instrumentals is often that of a folk/classical hybrid. The new NFB album is a dozen gems that includes three solo pieces, one from each musician. It opens with “Schottische Kerlou,” a lively dance tune penned by piper Calum Stewart who now lives in Brittany and has a suitable Scottish/Breton feel. Two of my favorite pieces are “Frygg,” a tribute to Frigg, a superb Finnish band; and the gorgeous title track. Available videos are currently scare, so trust me when I say the latter captures the quiet locked-down feel of winter. Plucked strings and bell-like tones make for a magical blend that’s at once forlorn, yet hopeful. You can, however, see the lads on “Adam’s Nightmare” and observe the balance between Henderson’s jauntiness and the moodiness provided by Mjelva and Hall. The hardanger gets a workout on “Bas-Pelles Eriks Brudpolska” and will quickly hear why it’s also a favored wedding march. For pure fun, try “Myrstacken,” which starts slowly but doesn’t stay in said tempo for very long. The word is Swedish for “anthill” and NFB make a mountain of it. Savor this release for musicianship of the highest order.



A Moving Soud is a Taiwanese band, though their newest record Songs Beyond Words sometimes sounds Indian. They are often where modern and meditative meet and mix. Its centerpiece is Mia Hsieh, a willowy singer and dancer who sometimes drifts into the music to offer bird-like vocalizations and at others is front and center directing the action. “Silk Road” and “Ganesh” are decidedly on the meditative side of things. You will hear Hsieh but also instruments such as the two-stringed bowed erhu and the lute-like zhongruan, which sounds like an up-sized pipa. Check out the concert footage of “Fire Dance,” which is supplemented by the performance of an actual fire dancer, and a very supple one at that. Hsieh and the band have a lot of fun on “The Market Song” in which they recreate the sounds, bargaining, and controlled chaos of a Taiwanese agora. “Interplanetary Heart” also intrigues, with hand percussion evincing the thump of the universe. 



Coreyah is from South Korea, though much of its music is redolent of Indonesian gamelan in that it is trance-like and superlunary. This sextet from Seoul sometimes gets tagged as a psychedelic band. I get that in the sense that their sunny dispositions and deliberately paced music conjures swaying dancers lost in a musical groove. But let’s not imagine the Grateful Dead. Rather than a guitar-driven band, Coreyah’s main melody instruments–played within a mix of minimal guitar and various percussion–are bird-like wooden flutes in the hands of Kim Dong Kun and the zither-like geomungo, which is played seated on the floor and plucked with a bamboo stick. The heart, though, is singer Ham Boyoung and she has a glorious voice that can be as delicate as a “Yellow Flower,” one of the songs from their new album Clap and Applause, but also catchy and filled with verve, as we also hear in said song. Listen carefully to her on “Good Dreams” and you will also notice that hers is a voice of many colors and ornaments. Watch Coreyah’s NPR Tiny Desk concert and I suspect that you too will be mesmerized by their infectious charm. 



Mamadou “Modou” Touré is the son of famed Senegalese musician Ousman Touré.

The son also rises, though his album Touki occasionally suffers lapses linked to uncertain focus for his band. Touré has a smooth and powerful voice and his songs explore his Senegalese roots, family, and identity. A few songs, like “Moon,” are in English but the bulk are in Wolof, Soninke, or French.  Touré plays an acoustic guitar and, depending upon your perspective, you might wonder if he sees himself as a folk singer, a folk rocker, an Afropop artist, or a jazz fusionist. The title track has elements of the latter, whereas "Mélokane" is laden with pop hooks, and “Noone” has an electric guitar interlude that feels forced. But there is no doubting the allure of his sunny vocals. 



Let’s hear it for the ladies. Afrika Mamas is six single mothers from South Africa shaped by the dream of group leader Ntombifuthi Lushaba to take their music to the world. That tale is told in “Iphupo.”  They will immediately put you in mind of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and that’s no accident. On Ilanga, the ensemble’s fourth record, Afrika Mamas sing of the challenges of everyday life such as being female singers in a male-dominated society, street vending, and the travails of miners. Songs such as “Isilingo” showcase their robust a cappella Township style and don’t assume the deep bass is a male vocalist! Many songs such as “Tshelamina” spotlight call-and-response singing, but there is diversity within them. Compare the former to “Sithwele Kanzima” in which the chorus sometimes switches roles with the leader. They also offer a cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” that’s a bit like Durban meets Motown.




Only in the West is “folk” music identified with singer/songwriters. In most places it means music of the folk–ordinary people. The Folk Music of China, Vol. 10 highlights indigenous peoples from Yunnan Province in the southwest of China, a region bordering Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Tibet. Various singers from the Pumi, Lisu, and Nakhi peoples sing about things around which their lives revolve, including: vegetable searching, dragon worship, blooming Kapok flowers, shepherding, hunting, and weddings. These are untrained voices meant to accompany tasks or commemorate events and bear such straightforward titles as “Song of Transplanting Seedlings.” They are sparse–mostly a cappella or with minimal instrumentation–and demand patience. There are 28 tracks, but most are just over a minute in length. They may not be your cup of tea–they grow a lot of it in Yunnan–but they are folk music stripped to its basics.


Rob Weir



The Glass Key: Will It Snap?



Directed by Stuart Heisler

Paramount, 85 minutes, NR (pre-ratings)




In most film noir movies, it’s best not to trust anyone unless you are very sure of their character–very sure. The Glass Key is considered a noir classic and it’s one that plays off the theme of moral ambiguity. “Classic” might be too strong, but it is based upon a Dashiell Hammett story, and Hammett knew a few things about the elusive distinctions between right and wrong.


On the surface it seems straight forward. Reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) is running for governor of a state that could use a good corruption cleansing. He entrusts his campaign to political fixer Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a man who operates in the ethical gray zone, but nonetheless earns Ralph’s trust and is engaged to his daughter Janet (Veronica Lake). Soon, Madvig is so deeply ingratiated into Henry’s good graces that he brags to his associate Ned Beaumont (Alan Ladd) that he practically has the key to the Ralph’s house. Beaumont warns Paul to make sure it’s not a glass key– a term meaning one that it might snap and a metaphor for an act that can’t be undone. 


What can be done and undone is a theme of the film. Henry’s son Taylor (Richard Denny) is the classic family black sheep who everyone but daddy knows is worthless. Another noir standard is that it’s never a good idea to be on the outs with a gangster and Taylor has racked up some significant debt to  local thug Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who is just fine with the state’s crooked politics and worries that Madvig might get Ralph Henry elected. Janet’s not exactly a peach either. She wears Paul’s engagement ring, but he’s challenged in the couth department and Janet prefers Ned, though he’s too loyal to Paul to tread on his turf.


When Taylor becomes his best self–a corpse–the question arises as to who offed him. Varna has an alibi and all signs point to Paul, who vigorously denies it. The allegations though, are enough to steer Ed away and Varna tries to recruit him. Janet is another enticement and we can’t help but wonder whose side she’s on. The Glass Key becomes one of those tales in which any of a number of people might wish Taylor dead–including family members and friends–and not even District Attorney Farr (Donald McBride) trusts that evidence and suspects match. Like Farr, you might not expect the ultimate resolution.


The performances of Ladd and Lake stand out in the film. Ladd never quite cracked the A-List in his day, but managed to get steady work in Hollywood in roles such as he played in The Glass Key: a brooding, but steady guy whose inner qualities rather than conventional good looks made him attractive. He was only 5’5” –not exactly Cary Grant territory– but was often paired with Lake, who was just 4’11.” Lake is probably best remembered for her luxurious peek-a-boo blonde mane, but she also exuded qualities associated with a femme fatale: snark, slinkiness, cleavage, and an ever-present air of danger. In The Glass Key, Ladd and Lake smolder rather than sizzle, because that’s what their respective parts demanded. Donleavy is also quite good. He’s oily, but he keeps us guessing whether he’s just an effective political operative or as crooked as an elbow filled with fish hooks.


The Glass Key is a solid noir film, though not it’s a bit like Ladd in that it’s not quite top-tier. As a film, it can be confusing if you’re not paying close attention. Jonathan Latimer’s script is problematic, though it might not have been his fault. Hammett’s novel was a heralded work, but one that was rougher and had fuzzier lines between right and wrong. The Hollywood Code of the day had strict standards about how crime was presented. Beaumont gets a small makeover for the film, but it’s just enough to soften him. Ditto Janet, who is more duplicitous in the novel. But assuming that Hammett isn’t at the top of your reading list, the film version of The Glass Key will do you. I doubt it will destroy your faith in politics; more likely, it will confirm what you’ve long suspected.


Rob Weir