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Atlantic City
IMDB Rating: 7.4/10 from 16 votes
Release: 29 January 1981 (Netherlands) /

Atlantic City

Genre: Crime, Drama, Romance
Director: John Guare,
Stars: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Synopsis: Dreams. Becoming an Atlantic City croupier will help Sally realize her dream of going to Monte Carlo, a symbol of the glamorous life that has been evading her since escaping from Saskatchewan a decade ago. Lou dreams that he was a great mobster in the old days. Grace came to Atlantic City for a Betty Grable look-alike contest and stayed to become the wife of a mobster. A brief visit to Atlantic City by Sally's estranged husband will change the course of the lives of Sally and Lou. Written by Dale O'Connor <[email protected]>

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Critic Reviews


(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon.)

Europeans have always delighted in introducing America to itself. (I am thinking of de Tocqueville and Nabokov.) There is something very valuable about seeing ourselves through the eyes of others. In Atlantic City, assumptions about the American way of life, the American dream and the America reality, circa 1978, are examined through the artistry of master French film director, Louis Malle (Murmur of the Heart (1971), Pretty Baby (1978), Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987), etc.)

The film begins with a shot of Sallie Matthews (Susan Sarandon at 34) at the kitchen sink of her apartment squeezing lemons and rubbing them on her arms, her neck, her face as Lou Pasco (Burt Lancaster at 68) watches unbeknownst to her from across the way, the window of his apartment looking into hers. She works at a clam bar in a casino on the boardwalk, which is why she smells like fish, which is why she is squeezing lemon on herself to get rid of the smell. She is taking classes to be a blackjack dealer. Her dream is to go to Monaco and deal blackjack in one of resort casinos and perhaps catch a glimpse of Princess Grace. She listens to French tapes and achieves...an amusing accent. He is a has-been who never was, a pathetic old numbers runner well past any dream of his prime, pretending to be a "fancy man" as he picks up a few extra bucks waiting on an invalid woman.

Enter a hippy couple with all their belongings on their backs. It turns out that he is Sallie's estranged husband, a deceitful little guy who has found a bag of cocaine that he intends to cut and sell; and she is Sallie's not too bright sister, very pregnant. They need a place to stay and have the gall to impose on her.

Both Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances, as was director Louis Malle and writer John Guare for his script. But none of them won. This was the year of On Golden Pond with Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn taking the Oscars while Warren Beatty won Best Director for Reds. (Best film was Chariots of Fire with Colin Welland winning the Oscar for his original screenplay.) Nonetheless, Lancaster and Sarandon are outstanding, and they are both beautifully directed by Malle. Lancaster in particular demonstrated that at age 68 he could still fill up the screen with his sometimes larger than life presence. The familiar flamboyance and sheer physical energy that he displayed in so many films, e.g., Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), The Rose Tattoo (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), to name four of my favorites, are here properly subdued. He moves slowly and is easily winded. He is a sad, cowardly old man whom Malle, to our delight, will miraculously transform.

Sarandon's performance is also one of her best, on a par with, or even better than her work in Thelma and Louise (1991) for which she was also nominated for Best Actress and also did not win. She is an actress with "legs" (this is a pun and an allusion to an inside joke about her famous other attributes–nicely displayed in Pretty Baby--over which perhaps too much fuss has already been made!)--an actress with "legs," as in a fine wine that will only get better with age. She, like Goldie Hawn, Catherine Deneuve and a few others, have the gift of looking as good (or better) at fifty as they did at thirty.

Louis Malle films are characterized by a tolerance of human differences, a deep psychological understanding, a gentle touch and an overriding sense of humanity. Atlantic City is no exception. What Malle is aiming at here is redemption. He wants to show how this pathetic old man finds self-respect (in an ironic way) and how the clam bar waitress might be liberated. But he also wants to say something about America, and he uses Atlantic City, New Jersey--the "lungs of Philadelphia," the mafia's playground, the New Yorker's escape, a slum by the sea "saved" (actually further exploited) by the influx of legalized gambling in the seventies--as his symbol. He begins with decadence and ends with renewal and triumph, and as usual, somewhere along the way, achieves something akin to the quality of myth. Even though he emphasizes the tawdry and the commonplace: the untalented trio singing off key, the slums semi-circling the casinos where Lou sells numbers, the boarded-up buildings, the sad, tiny apartments about to be torn down, Robert Goulet as a cheap Vegas-style lounge act, etc., in the end we feel that it's not so bad after all.

I should also mention Kate Reid who played Grace, the invalid, ex-beauty queen widow of a mobster, who orders Lou about. She does a great job. Her character too will be transformed.

If the late, great Louis Malle was running the world the gross transgressors would surely get theirs and the rest of us would find forgiveness for our sins, and renewal.

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