Atlantic City (1981)

Atlantic City (1981)

A never-was romances a dreamer in Malle’s low-key film, full of neat observations

Director: Louis Malle

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Lou), Susan Sarandon (Sally), Kate Reid (Grace), Michel Piccoli (Joseph), Hollis McLaren (Chrissie), Robert Joy (Dave), Al Waxman (Alfie), Moses Znaimer (Felix)

Lou trundles around Atlantic City taking a few cents for bets and wanting anyone who listens to know that back in the glory days of the Boardwalk Empire he was a big shot. Bugsy Siegel roomed with him in the slammer. Meyer Lansky asked his opinions on the latest scores. When he killed someone, he dove into the sea to wash the exhilaration from his body. Not his fault the glory days are gone, and his life has crumbled as much as the worn out city around him. He’s still a player.

Only of course he’s not. Played in a fine autumnal performance by Burt Lancaster, Lou has the front of an ageing star, but is a dyed-in-the-wool loser. He trades on a past that never happened, full of tall stories that only the dimmest and most impressionable would consider believing. He’s essentially a kept servant of Grace (Kate Reid), a former local beauty queen (third place) and spends his nights spying on his neighbour Sally (Susan Sarandon), while she washes away the stench of the hotel fish counter she works in.

When the chance comes to spin a fantasy that means Lou could actually impress and seduce this women, he jumps at it. That chance is Dave (Robert Joy), Sally’s pathetic dweeb of an ex-husband who believes Lou is the perfect to peddle his stolen cocaine around town. Dave winds up dead, Lou pockets the money, impresses the naïve but determined Sally (training to be a croupier) and very firmly considers letting her take the rap when the cocaine’s owners turn up looking for the money.

Both Lou and Sally are dreamers – or fantasists – at the opposite end of life’s scale. Lou dreams big about a past that never was. Sally is dreaming of an impossible future – one of French class, Monaco high-rollers and earning a future as a flash croupier. Really, we know both of their dreams are fantasies. After all it should be clear only losers wind up in Atlantic City. The casinos are dumps and even the criminals are pathetic, easily out-matched by Philadelphia hoods. Louis Malle’s film captures this perfectly in a crumpling city that looks like mouldy leftovers.

Malle’s film is a marvellously structured, low-key but highly effective character study, very well acted and shot with an intelligent, detailed eye. It’s a showcase for Malle’s subtle but intelligent camera work and composition. As Lou serves Grace early in the film, he is kept constantly in the centre of the frame, the camera jerking up and down to match his movements as he fetches and carries for the bed-bound Grace. Dave is frequently shot from above, looking even more pathetic and irrelevant with every shot. This is framing that speaks volume for status and character. The camera fluidly shifts across large spaces – the boardwalk, a casino – to show different interactions in different plains, characters either unaware of each other or using events elsewhere to escape notice.

Grimy and fabulously capturing the collapsing grandeur of a city fallen on very hard times, the setting is the perfect metaphor for the disaster of the character’s lives. None more so than Lou. You can argue Malle’s film may be too sympathetic to Lou – and, indeed, contemporary reviews discussed Lancaster’s inherent dignity mistaking it for the character. Lancaster however is smarter. Lou is a pathetic, sad figure. Look how he delights in puffing himself up as a big shot for the feeble Dave. Watch the childish excitement he takes in the notoriety he collects late in the film. Lancaster perfectly understands the desperate need to dress the part, longing to be something you are not: the grand, well-dressed sugar daddy who solves problems for his moll by unwrapping the elastic band from a roll of dollar bills.

Lancaster never allows this fantasy to be mistaken for reality. When danger comes, Lou almost always freezes or looks to keep himself safe. When he spins his stories of daring or classy confidence, Lancaster shows us a Lou who is replicating behaviours he has seen elsewhere. After completing his first cocaine deal, he has to wash his face in fear in a bathroom – then instantly condescends to an old friend who has been reduced to toilet attendant.

Sally is fooled for a while. But then we know she has a weakness for glamour. After all we’ve seen her indulge the pervy whims of casino trainer Joseph, a lecherous Michel Piccoli. In a clever performance by Sarandon, Sally is naïve enough to be sucked in but guileful enough to just about keep afloat. She tends to trust anyone who oozes confidence. She’s a little star-struck by the idea of Lou perving at her across the window (as if happy that she’s sexy enough to win the attentions of this seemingly classy old guy). But, turned, Sarandon makes clear she’s righteously furious when cheated and far more adept at confidence-tricksterism than the increasingly hapless Lou.

Because when crime comes Lou is out of his depth. But what would you expect from a man who is a live-in cook, dog-walker and sometime-stud for Grace, entombed in her kitsch-nightmare room. Kate Reid is very good as this clear-eyed bully who needs but also despises Lou, who knows all about what an unreliable and cowardly fellow he is deep-down but jealously guards his attentions.

Malle’s film plays out like a sort of noir short story, an adept study of its characters more focused on their damage and flaws than on the crimes at its nominal heart. This is about fantasy and the lies we tell ourselves. Just like Atlantic City kids itself it’s still a gambling mecca, so Lou and Sally believe they still have chances in life. It makes for an intriguing, engrossing film as they lie to themselves and each other, denying the truth until it hits them squarely and unavoidably in their face.

Atlantic City muses on familiar themes, but does so with freshness and intelligence. Perhaps Malle is a little too sympathetic to its characters (Lou in particular), but he is very clear-eyed about the Dennis Potterish fantasy world they are clinging onto and the shabby decline and disrepair that clutters their existence. It makes for a very fine, well-made and fascinating little film, full of sharp observations and wonderfully played beats.

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