Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)

The overriding themes I picked up on in Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” were loneliness and decay…physical decay, and the decay of past values, sensibilities, and eras.  In its first scenes, we watch Burt Lancaster’s elderly number-runner Lou as he watches his pretty young neighbor Sally rub lemons on her skin from the confines of his dark, musty apartment.  You don’t see any actual grime or cobwebs or such, but his apartment just feels old and stale, its archaic furniture and trinkets and white-haired inhabitant plucked from another time and place.  Lou tries to convince others, but maybe himself most of all, that he was once in the big time, one of Bugsy Siegel’s cellmates, in fact, but all that’s in the past now, (and maybe not even that, when you consider how his behavior as the film progresses seems to contradict everything we thought we knew about who this man was), and Lou’s now just an old man reduced to watching his neighbor bathe herself in lemon oil and acting as dog walker / errand boy / gigolo for Grace, the slightly demented hoarder across the hall, and the widow of a no-goodnik not unlike Lou himself.  And Sally, who works at an oyster bar and has pipe dreams of becoming a blackjack dealer in Monte Carlo, spends her nights listening to her precious opera tapes and unknowingly putting on a show for her just-as lonely neighbor.  They live in their own worlds – Lou in the makeshift graveyard of circa-1940s culture that is his apartment and Grace’s down the hall, and Sally in an impenetrable bubble of unfulfilled desires, and the fantasies that it seems that even she herself knows are farfetched.  They’re so discontented, so similar in their loneliness that their eventual meeting, and unlikeliest of courtships, by a twist of fate involving a stolen stash of drugs and Sally’s loser ex-husband Dave, is like an incredible breath of fresh air – their paths towards each other are nearly as set in stone as their destiny to end up far, far apart. 

Once we leave that run-down apartment complex and start strolling the famous boardwalk with Lou as he imparts his old-time wisdom on his wayward, makeshift protégé Dave, the feel isn’t that different from before, and yet drastically different at the same time.  My oh my Atlantic City is a dump when you’re not standing in the middle of one of Donald Trump’s casino floors, and you realize this as Lou makes his rounds through the slums collecting his tiny little bets.  Just as Lou’s apartment, as well as his own wrinkled body and outdated yet stylish suits, are the decayed evocations of a bygone era, so too are the crumbling, soon-to-be-demolished apartment buildings that line the boardwalk, making it all the more powerful when Lou, older and dressed much more differently than everyone around him, laments the decay of his once-beautiful building to the younger Dave – one symbol of the past remembering another.  I might be mistaken, but I think that nearly every outdoor scene in “Atlantic City” might be set to cloudy skies, further compounding that air of despair as what was once Lou’s world of glitz and glorious depravity crumbles before his and our eyes. 

And yet, at the same time I was surprised, and damn near startled, when we first left Lou’s time capsule-like apartment, only to see a thoroughly then-modern day Philadelphia and Atlantic City, inhabited by the likes of the grungily-dressed Dave, the piggish and foul-mouthed gangsters out to get Dave and their stolen dope, and all the pimps, hoes, addicts, dealers, and degenerates in-between that you’d never see in the old-school gangland that a man like Lou seems to have come from.  Hell, the first time we see the insulated Lou and Grace meet Dave and Chrissie, Sally’s pregnant kid sister who Dave ran away with, it’s contrast defined, as the penniless, shabbily-dressed and Zen and reincarnation-obsessed Chrissie and the off-kilter and shrill yet thoroughly old-fashioned Grace form the unlikeliest of bonds, as we often see them just lounging together in Grace’s bed as Lou and Sally, the main players, do their own thing.  It comes off as a kind of weird, unsuccessful attempt at comic relief as Lou and Sally deal with those gangsters in the main plot, but it’s actually oddly touching to see this bizarre, nearly wordless and never-explained bond between old widow and young flower-child, the strange collision of the representatives of two cultures/eras, and almost a Shakespearan parallel to the more obvious bonding of the elderly Lou, whose time to shine has long past, and Sally, decades his junior and still seemingly with something to live for.  It’s all a little too allegorical and sacrifices some sense of realism in the characters, especially in the minor characters like Grace and Chrissie, and overall too much of this movie involved people talking about Atlantic City like it’s the most literarily metaphorical place in the universe, and old-timey songs in dance halls about Atlantic City itself.  As great as the ongoing image of ruined buildings is, a lot of this film overdid the whole depiction of place thing to the point of saturating its effectiveness (a billboard taunting the physically displaced Dave and Chrissie and the emotionally displaced Sally with the phrase ‘Atlantic City, you’re back on the map.  Again.’ is the posterchild of too-obvious symbolism that the film occasionally reverts to).  

Ultimately, though, it’s all quite evocative and complex, especially when it comes to the more fully-realized characters like Sally and Lou.  When you consider one of my favorite scenes, which is nothing more than Lou in a bathroom reminiscing about the old days with the washroom attendant, an old friend of his, and then all the disgusting and crumbling buildings that tower above the old man as he tells Dave about his glory days in Vegas, you realize that this movie is actually quite apocalyptic, as if this iteration of Atlantic City is a waste land, the physically and emotionally ruined leftovers of a more glorious time and place.  If the subplots leave something to be desired, despite some nice images, and the timing of the plot’s twist and turns – the gangsters showing up at the perfect moment, Lou and Sally seeing a crucial (and contrived…) news report just at the right time, etc. – are a little too convenient and manufactured, then at least the motivations of Lou and Sally are really, really difficult to pinpoint.  Susan Sarandon can overdo it now and then, going nuts when she’s thrown out of a casino, for instance, but there’s a certain maturity and sadness to her portrayal of Sally that actually makes it believable that she’d become enamored and sensually take off her blouse in front of Lou as he tells her all the little details of the lemon ritual he’s watched her do nightly.  And Burt Lancaster…my goodness, what a performance.  Just when you think you’ve figured Lou out, when it looks like he’s after Sally because his aging libido’s found one last ounce of strength, or because his sudden stumbling onto thousands of dollars in drug money has reinvigorated his zeal for the fast life, something about Burt Lancaster’s understated performance, a kind of combination between yearning for the past and all-out despair, that suddenly casts doubt on why Lou’s doing what he’s doing.  I’m probably giving Sally the short-shrift, which is testament to how “Atlantic City” is so seemingly simple in its story and so deceptively complex in its character’s motivations, so you can’t be sure why Lou breaks free from the confines of his shitty apartment to risk life and limb for some drug money and a beautiful neighbor, or why Sally lets this outwardly-lecherous old man be her sugardaddy and act so apathetic when her husband meets his own sad and pathetic fate.  I’m still not sure what the ending means, what becomes of Sally and that car, and what it means to see Grace of all people in a situation you’d never expect to see her in, but I’m pretty sure a rewatch of this movie, flawed around the edges yet filled to the brim with unspoken backstories and feelings, might shed some more light on the intertwining of two people separated by age, brought together by fate and their mutual need for…something.

I mean, just look at Lou, and how fleshed out he is, precisely because Burt Lancaster is so subtle and soft-spoken, and so much of Lou’s backstory is gleaned in tiny bits and pieces as he reminisces in that bathroom or tells Dave maybe-memories, maybe-tall tales.  You can learn so much from this man simply by looking at his face as he watches Sally bathe in lemons – studying her as a scientist quantitatively conducts an experiment, with a hint of forlornness.  Hell, the look on his face of anguish and ‘what have I done’ when the gangsters accost Sally because of the drugs that Dave stole, unaware that it’s Lou who’s reaped the benefits, defines great acting better than any Oscar-bait word jumbles could.  The whole time, you’re under the impression that Lou was once a well-to-do gangster and number-runner and tough guy, based on the stories he so eloquently tells, because of his cool and suave demeanor when he tells his drug customer ‘hands off the suit’ and brushes him aside, because of his angry dismay at being unable to go all chivalrous on those thugs in aid of his new dame Sally, and that he goes on this one final adventure of drugs and riches and lust and passion because he misses the good ol’ days, because he wants one last taste of being a somebody, a real important tough guy instead of a pitiful peeping tom.  But then, when you see his incredibly comical and overly-enthusiastic reaction after dispatching a couple of bad guys (Lou Pascal really, really, really did not read the Dr. Richard Kimble Handbook on Being a Fugitive), when you see how he foolishly brings attention to himself by immediately spending ill-gotten drug money on flashy clothes and what-not, all behavior incredibly unbecoming of a professional and calculated hoodlum, you start to get that feeling in the back of your mind that, as the villainous Mr. Butler said in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” ‘that man’s never killed anyone,’ and that this isn’t Lou’s attempt at evoking his past, but rather fantasy fulfillment.  And suddenly, he and Sally have one more thing in common.


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