ATLANTIC CITY A-
France Canada (105 mi) 1980 d: Louis Malle
Guare practices a humor that is synonymous with lucidity, exploding genre and clichés, taking us to the core of human suffering: the awareness of corruption in our own bodies, death circling in. We try to fight it all by creating various mythologies, and it is Guare's peculiar aptitude for exposing these grandiose lies of ours that makes his work so magical.
—Louis Malle, in a foreword to a collection of screenwriter John Guare’s plays
An unlikely combination all around, a French-Canadian film production of an English language American film, written by New York playwright John Guare, but filmed by French director Louis Malle right around the time he married American actress Candice Bergen, though at the time he was just ending an affair with the lead actress of this film. Set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, known as a resort town and a city of dreams back in its heyday, a place where the high rollers came to be seen, also for its boardwalk along the beach overlooking the ocean, but the town suffered a lengthy period of economic decline after the prohibition era, as cars allowed people greater mobility where they could visit the casinos without actually spending the night. By the late 1960’s it was largely a ghost town, as many of the resort's once great hotels were either shut down, converted to cheaper apartments, or demolished. This film is set in the off-season during an era of busy reconstruction, a bridge between the future and the past, like a time warp, shot mostly on location by Richard Ciupka, where the town is busy tearing down the old buildings to make way for new projects, as they just legalized gambling, promising economic revitalization as they begin construction on new high-end Casinos, hoping to revive that all but forgotten dream. The casting of the ageless but equally forgotten Burt Lancaster as Lou is a godsend, as if the film was written with him in mind, as he’s rarely ever shown this degree of fascination and effortless grace, light as a feather on his feet, yet old as the wind, a relic from the gangster days of yore, supposedly running with Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel. Giving what is likely the most subtle and nuanced performance of his career, he is a near invisible numbers runner who stealthily moves through the crumbling neighborhoods, his ghostly existence is acting as a bodyguard, occasional lover, and handler of the hypochondriac and near bed ridden Grace (Kate Reid), the widow of a deceased gangster of some repute that Lou used to work for, as she humiliatingly flouts her money in his face, tauntingly calling him “Mr. Mastermind, Mr. Ten Most Wanted,” ringing a bell in her room that rings in his apartment directly above (that he often muffles with a cloth), where he is constantly at her beck and call. The ring in your ears may be the sound of her screaming out continual instructions for him to carry out, like a drill sergeant, one right after another, which he occasionally ignores, but mostly he treats her like a queen.
Working with Malle on a second consecutive film, following PRETTY BABY (1980), Susan Sarandon as Sally has that dizzyingly eccentric yet sexually open personality that works perfectly in tandem with Lancaster’s mannered yet overly polite gangster, where he gazes through the window as she performs a ritual over the sink in her apartment just across the way from his, where every night she cleanses her arms and bare breasts with lemons hoping to get the fish smell off her body, as she shucks oysters all day in the casino. Without actually knowing her, he knows her, probably fantasizing being with such a young and voluptuous woman, but he keeps his distance. An unlikely event changes all that, as literally sweeping into the picture is a hapless looking hippie couple, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) and Dave (Robert Joy), who couldn’t look more out of place on the casino floor, eventually asked to leave by security. But Dave is a drug dealer, thief, con man, and perpetual liar who happens to also be the ex husband of Sally (from Moose Jaw, Saskatchawan in Canada), but he’s run off and impregnanted her kindly naïve and flower child sister, Chrissie, a Hare Krishna devotee who attempts to remain in balance with the universe. When Dave announces his arrival in town, needing a place to stay, Sally is none too happy, but considering her sister’s state, she puts them up for the night, which is all Dave needs, as he’s carrying a large stash of cocaine stolen from the mob in Philadelphia. Dave’s seamy plans go awry when he can’t move the goods right away, as he’s dressed like a bum. Lou, on the other hand, is dressed like a million bucks, so Dave uses him as the courier delivering the goods in exchange for $4,000 dollars in cash. Dave unfortunately meets foul play with a nasty set of characters and can be seen carried out as a corpse on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance as Lou finalizes his business transaction in what looks like a continuously rolling 24/hours a day card game. This leaves Lou sitting pretty with the money and the drugs, suddenly throwing his money around like the old days, infatuated with his new sense of power and significance, taking care of all the funeral arrangements for Sally, who leads a hectic enough life as it is, seen taking classes (led by Michel Piccoli) learning to be a croupier, a casino card dealer, where Piccoli is subtly steering her to learn French and come work with him in Monte Carlo where she can earn some real money.
As fate would have it, Lou starts taking care of Sally, wining and dining her, accompanying her on the streets, where they are quickly met by the Philadelphia guys who smack them both around on the street, but can’t find what they’re looking for, having already ransacked her apartment. Lou is devastated that he couldn’t protect her, that he let her down, but continues to pile up cash making more deliveries to the card game and begins to carry a gun. When the bad guys persist, literally hounding them, this time Lou accommodates, emptying his revolver into both guys, leaving them lying in the street. Giddy with pride, laughing out loud at the unexpected result that feels more like a newly discovered state of euphoria, he and Sally quickly exit town in grand style with a load of dough in their pockets, taking the car of the newly deceased. While shown in real time, this plays out like a fantasy sequence, as Lou suddenly envisions himself as “the Man,” the last of the big time spenders, becoming a legend in his own mind, where he’s just taken ten years off his life, suddenly revitalized and feeling brand spanking new. Winner of Best Film at the Venice Festival in 1980 (in a tie with John Cassavetes’ GLORIA), though considered a foreign film by the Golden Globes, the film was nominated for all the 5 major categories at the Academy Awards, but was shut out. The international flavor of the production company however really benefits this film, as it’s a hard to define mix of gangster film, crime thriller, film noir, and romance, while also offering a comment on the changing landscape of an all but forgotten resort town favored by gangsters in the past half century, a once thriving illicit enterprise that was a haven for outlawed activities. Once the action died down, the town died with it, where just the name New Jersey is synonymous with the mob, as they initially left New York to get away from the police heat. Malle brings all these themes together, influenced by American B-movies of the 1940’s, filmed with an effortless grace, making the improbable seem probable, perfectly blending Lancaster’s dignified maturity and sense of history, seen as an ageless relic, as if he were a walking museum piece, much like Jean-Pierre Melville’s portrayal of BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956). The story itself is like a bittersweet reverie, a play on the best years of our lives, yet depicted with an unmistakable gloom of regret for missed opportunities, where history is just a brief moment in time, as everything quickly disappears in a flash, all sent to the trash heap, where lifetimes are just as easily forgotten.