Movie: Atlantic City (1980)

There’s a large sign on a building that could either be in the process of being remodeled or prepared for demolition.  Given what we have seen so far of Atlantic City in 1980, good money would be on the latter.  The sign reads “Atlantic City you’re back on the map.  Again”.  First, there’s the wording, which implies the city is actually looking forward to its second recovery.  Then there’s the suggestion this town is on a map of places sane people might want to go to.

It is obvious Atlantic City, the place, is not going to achieve its goals of rehabilitation.  Like attracts like, and the denizens are all people who can’t escape this black hole, the has-beens and never-wills.  It’s like a movie populated with characters from Steely Dan songs.

The two main characters are played by Burt Lancaster, an elderly man who was allegedly a major player decades prior, and Susan Sarandon, as his next-door neighbor who has aspirations of becoming a blackjack dealer.  At first, there isn’t any interaction between them.  The closest they get is he secretly watches her every night when she stands her kitchen window, dousing herself in lemon juice to try to cover the smell of the oysters she spends all day shucking at a casino.

These are the small lives of people in limbo, just waiting for anything to happen.  Anything arrives in the form of a husband Sarandon discarded, and he has brought along her pregnant sister.  We can assume the backstory.

Robert Joy plays the should-be-ex-husband, and it’s a shame he isn’t in more of the film.  He brings a considerable amount of skeezy, schemey energy to the proceedings, as well as a large quantity of stolen cocaine that drives the plot.  Another character I wish was in the movie longer tells Joy “You look like a fire sale” and “You look like a training poster for the NARC squad.”

The final scene in which Joy appears is when he attempts to flee a thug by climbing the levels of a parking structure with moving platforms.  As the levels pass by one another, this proves to be another game of chance in a town fueled by gambling.  Except the stakes are the highest possible this time, and he’s going to lose.

Because of this, Lancaster ends up the recipient of the cocaine, and he uses some of the resulting proceeds to make arrangements to send Joy’s remains back to his hometown.  Sarandon believes Lancaster is using his own money.  Things will get more complicated when she discovers the source of this money that is really hers.

Atlantic City feels very real and natural.  It isn’t like we’re watching a documentary, but it has that sensation of heightened reality the best movies have.  Nobody does anything that isn’t be in keeping with what we have seen of their characters, or suddenly possesses any knowledge or skills without explanation.

Atlantic City of 1980, the place, looks like the realm of losers, a place where dreams go to die.  Almost miraculously, Atlantic City, the 1980 film about such losers, is a winner.

Dir: Louis Malle

Starring Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon

Watched on Kanopy