Atlantic City

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: John Guare
Stars: Burt Lancaster (Lou Pasco), Susan Sarandon (Sally Matthews), Robert Joy (Dave Matthews), Kate Reid (Grace), Michel Piccoli (Joseph), Hollis McLaren (Chrissie), Al Waxman (Alfie), Robert Goulet (Singer), Moses Znaimer (Felix), Angus MacInnes (Vinnie)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1980
Country: USA / Canada / France
Burt Lancaster won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of a conniving salesman-turned-preacher in 1960's Elmer Gantry, but his best performance was arguably in his role as Lou Pasco, an aging small-time gangster in Louis Malle's Atlantic City. Lancaster brings to the role a great, endearing physicality, a sense of presence that is convincing in its character-created self-delusion. Lou is a man for whom the past is his only consolation, but it is a past that is largely a figment of his own imagination and years of dreams-turned-lies.

The film's backdrop is the titular New Jersey resort town, which was in the midst of a major transformation following the official legalization of gambling by the state of the New Jersey in 1976. Once known as the "Queen of Resorts," whose boardwalks in the 1920 and '30s was the place to be seen for Hollywood royalty and gangsters alike, it had been in steady decline since the end of World War II, slowly deteriorating until the sudden burst of multi-million-dollar construction following the legalization of gambling. At one point, we see an old, proud hotel being torn down to make way for a gaudy new casino, and it is an apt visual metaphor for the complete transformation that was occurring at that time, as the ocean-side city morphed from a once-ritzy resort island to a Disney-fied tourist trap.

In such a world, there is little room for men like Lou. But, as the film makes clear by the end, there has never been much room for men like him, two-bit hustlers and con men who talk big and dream even bigger, but ultimately accomplish very little. They exist in the margins, and although Lou puffs himself up with stories about "the old days," when he was cellmates with Bugsy Siegel and "worked for the people who worked for the people" like Al Capone, he is more marginalized than ever.

Even as the city he has called home for decades deteriorates and is reborn into something entirely different, Lou refuses to leave or change his "old school" ways. He remains in stasis--literally frozen in time--while the city evolves, leaving him even less room than before. "Now it's all so damn legal," he complains at one point. "Howard Johnson is running a casino." His sense of the past is so nostalgic that it blankets even those things that haven't changed. "You should've seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days," he says wistfully, as if the good old days of guns and racketeering somehow changed the ocean itself.

Lou lives in a seedy old building that is scheduled to be torn down, and he spends his days running small-time numbers for quarters and taking care of Grace (Kate Reid), the feisty widow of a long-deceased gangster for whom Lou used to work. At night, he watches a young woman named Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) wash her arms and torso with lemon juice to take away the fish smell from the oyster bar at which she works during the day. After work, she takes classes on running a blackjack table, her head filled with dreams of dealing her way to Europe.

Ironically, Lou finally gets his chance to be a high-roller when Sally's husband, Dave (Robert Joy), rolls into town. Months earlier, he had run away with Sally's sister, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), a sweet and affable, but painfully simple, young women who is eight months pregnant by Dave. Dave has stolen a package of cocaine back in Philadelphia, and he enlists Lou to help him sell it. He gets in Lou's good graces by claiming to have heard of him in Las Vegas--that he is "the person to see" in Atlantic City--and Lou is so desperate to believe such a story about himself that he buys it wholesale, despite its obvious fabrication.

When something happens to Dave, Lou is left holding thousands of dollars in cash and more cocaine to sell, and he immediately dives into the situation, buying a new suit, impressing Sally with his spending, and strutting with a new form of confidence, the confidence that has always been in his dreams, but never his reality. Of course, it's still a fantasy--Lou's money is the product of happenstance, and it will run out even if the Philadelphia gangsters who track Dave to Atlantic City don't get it back first.

The screenplay, written by playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) is ultimately not about plot mechanics--what Lou will do with the cocaine or if the gangsters will ever catch up with him or even if he and Sally will end up together are of little importance. Instead, he and director Louis Malle focus on Lou's character and how these events allow him to finally be--if only for a short while--the man of his dreams. Atlantic City, as the city itself promises, is about the fulfillment of dreams, although the ironic twist is that the fulfillment itself is something of fantasy itself, powerful, but fleeting.

Atlantic City DVD

Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
Languages English
Subtitles English
DistributorParamount Home Video
Release DateMay 14, 2002

1.85:1 (Anamorphic)
After years of suffering in soft, faded, full-frame VHS, Atlantic City has finally been allowed to shine in this new anamorphic transfer. The image is still a bit soft, in keeping with the cinematic style of the late 1970s and early '80s, but the colors are greatly improved, with much more vibrant, well-saturated hues. The image itself is clean throughout, with only the slightest traces of dirt.

English Dolby 1.0 Monaural
The one-channel soundtrack is adequate. As the film is mostly dialogue-driven, the majority of the sound mix would be maintained in the center channel regardless. There are several instances in which opera music is used diegetically, and while it sounds clear, it is certainly lacking the fullness that would have been accorded by a multi-channel mix.

Theatrical Trailer
Presented in anamorphic widescreen.

Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

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