“Atlantic City: You’re Back On Top. Again.” Or so says a billboard prominently featured in Louis Malle’s wistful 1980 tale of resurrection and rejuvenation on the Jersey Shore. The seaside resort’s vacillating fortunes over the years have provided captivatingly crumbling backdrops for everything from The Sopranos to The King of Marvin Gardens, but Malle’s Atlantic City caught the town on an upswing, thanks to the then-recent legalization of gambling and construction of casinos on the boardwalk. None of this new business sits well with Lou Pascal, an old-school numbers runner and relic from the mob’s 1940s heyday, touchingly played by Burt Lancaster in one of his great “leopard in winter” performances. Lou claims he used to be a bigshot (“cellmates with Bugsy Siegel”) but these days he lives in a hovel, running errands for —and sometimes sexually servicing— his boss’ crotchety widow (Kate Reid) while collecting fifty-cent bets around the neighborhood. Maybe only an actor of Lancaster’s regal bearing and innate grace could manage to not come off as ridiculous while walking her poodle.
At night he looks out the window, longingly, at Susan Sarandon’s Sara. She’s an oyster house waitress from Saskatchewan who dreams of being a blackjack dealer in Monaco. Every evening she bathes herself with lemons to get rid of the seafood smell from work, listening to opera and blissfully oblivious to her neighbor’s prying eyes. By this point in his career Malle was already an expert at managing, shall we say, questionable material, so Lancaster’s leering comes off not as lecherous but rather a sad lament for his long-lost youth and a yearning for all the promise of Sarandon’s supple, fresh-faced beauty. Her wide-eyed gaze has seldom been put to such poignant use, and the film plays upon our old movie memories of Lancaster’s dazzling athleticism and a virility that sometimes bordered on self-parody. Yet here he is now at age 67, putting on his most elegant robe before sneaking peeks at a young girl’s tits in the window across the way.
Scripted by playwright John Guare, Atlantic City’s delicate wisp of a story is pretext for Lou’s momentary return to the big time. Sara’s small-time crook of an ex-husband has just blundered into town with her pregnant sister in tow, as well as a stash of stolen heroin. Through a variety of misunderstandings, Lou comes into possession of the purloined smack and before you know it he’s wearing a snazzy new white suit, fancying himself Sara’s guardian, protector and possibly more. As the sign says: “You’re Back On Top. Again.” Of course, we’ve already gathered that Lou isn’t so much a has-been as a never-was — a former Mafia errand boy with delusions of grandeur. But Lancaster was never more moving onscreen than when he was lying to himself, and there are shades of his shattering performance as John Cheever’s The Swimmer in Lou’s tall tales of his glory days. “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then,” he rhapsodizes, hilariously, as if the sea were somehow now diminished like everything else.
Put together on an astoundingly short schedule, Atlantic City was originally supposed to be an adaptation of Laird Koenig’s novel The Neighbor, until Malle read the book and didn’t like it very much. The Canadian tax shelter funding scheme required that a film (any film) be shot before the end of the year, and since it was already August, Malle’s girlfriend Sarandon put him in touch with her pal Guare, whose most recent Broadway play, Bosoms and Neglect, had closed after only four performances. Malle was taken with the idea of Atlantic City as “this absurd place with nothing but buildings going up and buildings going down” so Guare built that into the screenplay’s central conceit. It’s a city of melancholy dreamers constantly revising and reconstructing their identities, whether the small town girl from Saskatchewan who wants to deal blackjack in Monaco, or the elderly dog-walker peeping Tom who thinks he’s a gangster.
There’s a gentle, easygoing spirit to the film that I worry keeps it from being remembered as well as more tough-minded tales from the same era. Shot with sharp attention to decaying buildings in the background with a foreground full of forward progress, Pauline Kael described the filmmaking as “extraordinary, though in a way that doesn’t hit you on the noggin.” With his usual wry reserve, Malle makes a study of the crumbling old tourist traps against the antiseptic new corporate emporiums, the margins bustling with colorful characters like Michel Piccoli’s blustery cardsharp and the director’s future My Dinner with Andre star playing a mispronunciation-prone waiter, billed as “Wally” Shawn.
Lou Pascal, in his snappy white suit reminiscing about “Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy,” is essentially a very silly man, smitten with a girl four decades his junior because maybe she’s the only person in town young enough to buy his line of B.S. “Teach me stuff,” she asks with a voice that sounds more like a purr. (I’d say Sarandon’s never been sexier, except Susan Sarandon is always this sexy.) Lou may be a fool, but the movie regards him with great generosity, and Lancaster suffers the story’s indignities with a steely gravitas. “I am a lover,” he announces, with a pride that pulls your heartstrings out, and in that moment we understand why she wants so badly to believe him.