(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day. These films could be nominees or they could be winners. They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee! We’ll see how things play out. Today, I take a look at the 1981 best picture nominee, Atlantic City!)
It’s a city with a storied past and an uncertain future. It’s a place where old men on street corners can tell you stories about meeting Bugsy Siegel in the lobby of an old hotel that’s just been demolished. The decrepit remains of old Atlantic City co-exists next to half-completed luxury casinos and hotels. It’s a place where business deals are celebrated in the Frank Sinatra Suite and where a woman trying to make a very important phone call might find herself being serenaded by Robert Goulet.
It’s also the home of Lou (Burt Lancaster). From the minute we first see Lou, it’s obvious that he’s a man past his time. He walks up and down the worst streets of Atlantic City, dressed in a gray suit and trench coat. With his white mustache and his coolly professional manner, he looks like he belongs in an old movie and not hanging out in his shabby apartment or drinking in the local bar. When Lou was younger, he was acquainted with all of the big names: Siegel, Luciano, Costello, Lansky. Of course, he wasn’t ever much of a mobster. He used to run numbers. If pressed, he’ll tell some interesting stories but it’s not difficult to tell that he’s lying. (At one point, it’s mentioned that Lou’s Mafia nickname was Numbnut.) Now, Lou is an old man. Much like a condemned Atlantic City hotel, he’ll soon be due for demolition. He spends most of his time taking care of Grace (Kate Reid), the widow of a mobster. When he’s not responding to Grace’s demands, he watches his neighbor, Sally (Susan Sarandon).
Sally is originally from Canada. She came to America looking for a better life and ended up working as a waitress. Under the strict tutelage of Joseph (Michel Piccoli), Sally is learning how to be a blackjack dealer. Someday, she hopes that she’ll be able to move out of her apartment and into a communal house on the beach. Until then, she works hard every day and then returns to her apartment, little realizing that she’s being watched by Lou.
And then David shows up.
David (played by Canadian character actor Robert Joy) is Sally’s estranged husband. Sally knows that David can’t be trusted but she reluctantly allows him and his pregnant girlfriend (Hollis McLaren) to stay with her for a few days. David has stolen a large amount of cocaine from the Philadelphia mob. David wants to sell it but he quickly discovers that no one in Atlantic City is willing to deal with someone who they don’t know. Fortunately, for David, he runs into Lou. Lou, looking for a chance to be a real gangster and also wanting a chance to get closer to Sally, agrees to help David sell the cocaine. Unfortunately, for David, two hit men from Philadelphia have traced him to Atlantic City and are determined to not only get their cocaine back but to also kill David as well.
It may sound like the set up for a standard crime thriller but Atlantic City is actually a thoughtful meditation on getting older, falling in love, and dealing with the fact that things change. Lou is a relic of the past, looking for one last chance to make his mark before, like the older buildings on the boardwalk, he’s demolished and forgotten about. Sally and David are the dreamers, hoping to build a future in America.
Louis Malle directs at a leisurely pace. Those looking for a hyperkinetic gangster film will be disappointed. There’s only two acts of violence in Atlantic City and Malle presents both of them in a low-key, matter-of-fact fashion. Instead, Malle focuses on exploring the lives and dreams of the film’s characters and Burt Lancaster rewards that attention with an absolutely outstanding performance as a dignified man who knows his best days are behind him but who still refuses to give in to defeat. It’s one of Lancaster’s best performances and he was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Atlantic City was nominated for best picture but lost to Chariots of Fire.