Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)
Lou is a small time gangster, who thinks he used to be something big. He meets up with a younger girl, Sally, who is learning to be a croupier. Her husband turns up with drugs he has stolen from the Mafia.
Louis Malle once said that he never really was a part of the French New Wave. However, many would consider his first films as part of the famous French films. Having worked with Jean-Jacques Cousteau and Robert Bresson brought to his films some kind of distance from his subjects. This is probably one of the reasons he could treat the issue of French collaborators as cold and as deeply involved as in Lacombe, Lucien. Malle always wanted to make films like Bresson’s and in some ways it is better that he managed to make films of his own and not copy what his master did. It can only be one Bresson.
With Atlantic City, Malle tells the story of Lou (Burt Lancaster), a nostalgic low key gangster that is only the shadow of himself. He is devote to Grace (Kate Reid) the lover of one his closest friends who was killed on the boardwalk. Their relationship is one of submission from Lou and they are linked together by their past. Both living in it and feeling sorry that Atlantic City is not what it used to be. Living in the apartment next to Lou, is the young Sally (Susan Sarandon) who wants a fresh start after her husband left her for her pregnant younger sister. When Sally’s ex-husband gets knifed after trying to sell drugs he took from the Philadelphia mafia. Lou sees the opportunity and becomes what he thinks and fantasies about: a real high class gangster. He gets a clean white suit, protects Sally, and acts like a real man.
Lancaster’s presence is noble and like his role in Luchino Visconti’s masterpiece The Leopard he brings an angle of truth to his unfortunate loser that is getting a real kick out what must be a normal day for a gangster. He acts just like a little boy who realizes he can accomplish things he always dreamed about.
Far from being Louis Malle’s greatest film, I preferred the coldness of Lacombe, Lucien but I need to discover more of his films to have a clear portrait of the director, Atlantic City may seem a bit aged but delivers a sincere portrait of a city that was trying to erase the traces of its bleaker past to build on the casinos and hotels that garnishes its boardwalk today. It is a little ironic to watch this film after the disaster of Sandy but it gives another point of view when we see the demolition of the hotels and the constant work of bulldozers in the back of almost every outside frame.