Top Fifty Films of the 80s — Number Thirty-Five


#35 — Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)
I’m always struck by the grand seediness that shapes the film Atlantic City. Louis Malle’s film shows how the once glamorous metropolis of the title is rotting from the inside out: buildings falling into decrepitude, billboards faded to indecipherable ghosts of their former selves, neon signs that flicker like fading heartbeats. Malle captures it all with the same empathetic attention that’s the defining characteristic of his filmography. What’s perhaps more notable, then, is that this seediness is a quality that all but vanished from American films in the years that followed. Through the seventies, there was a strong desire to capture the physical breakdown of cities and other man-made markers of society with a bracing authenticity. In the eighties, that gave way to an approach in which even squalor was meticulously designed, just another feat of art direction. In Atlantic City, though, the breakdown remains brutally real. Importantly, it’s also an ideal reflection of the film’s story and themes.

The central figure in the drama is Lou Pascal, played by Burt Lancaster. Like his city, Lou is looks back on his glory years with certainty, despite the fact that they may have been as false and forlorn as his dismal present. He’s a hustler who doesn’t know or believe that the world is on to his scams. He’s also pines after his much younger neighbor in the apartment across the courtyard, an urge that doesn’t require a whole lot of extra motivation grafted onto it considering she’s played by Susan Sarandon and has a penchant for treating her unclad torso in lemon juice, a nightly ritual somehow made more sensual by the sense of straightforward utility she brings to it. His relationship with her–both fatherly and debonairly romantic–is a significant part of why Lou thinks he’s getting his imagined mojo back.

Lancaster is plainly phenomenal in the film. His sword blade grin makes it woefully easy to root for Lou, even as it seems he’s looking in a distorted mirror. There’s maybe no major actor in the history of film who played ego as effectively as Lancaster, largely because his own lack of vanity always allowed him–even compelled him–to show the tarnished fool’s gold beneath the lustrous sheen. He saw ego not as a sly manifestation of actorly pride, but as a pathway to revealing the vulnerability of his character. Lancaster had a flinty ingenuity about him in his best roles, and Lou Pascal is absolutely one of his best roles.

Frenchman Louis Malle crafts the film with an outsider’s curiosity and honesty. Working from John Guare’s lustrously moody screenplay, Malle revels in the dark crannies of the American experience in which ruffians operate with complete disinterest in ornate surroundings and seemingly endless card games take place in battered apartments like some eternal pastime of the damned. There’s no evident sentimentality in Malle’s directing, which makes it all the more compelling that he endeavors to understand the nostalgic longing of his main character. Malle studies him, which makes it equally imperative to study the strange culture that shaped him, the short games and long cons that represented his own version of the American dream. There was prosperity in those casinos, the luminescence of the signs like beacons to a better life. Lou never truly stopped believing in it, because giving up on the promise was like accepting defeat and, with it, the grim march to the grave. Maybe Malle didn’t see Lou as representative of an America that was wrenched by a sort of national existential confusion at the time–a few years after Watergate, hostages held captive in Iran–but, if he didn’t, maybe he should have.

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