I’m not sure that Louis Malle is talked about as often as he should for he has only made a name for himself as one of the most unique cinematic experimenters of his own time: and here’s where I pull up a rarely discussed effort of the sort despite a considerable amount of acclaim it has received. Atlantic City, Louis Malle’s tribute to the death of the gangster genre, is a film that lives and breathes within the monotony and the life of the city – but such a work even finds itself complicated all the more because of the hands it still isn’t an easy one to absorb at that. And yet maybe it’s within this false sense of simplicity where Atlantic City only makes itself out to be one of the most fascinating works of its own time. But it’s in this monotony where a calling for help can be heard, if Atlantic City were not already making itself a challenging enough work to absorb on its own hands.
An elderly Burt Lancaster and a young Susan Sarandon lead the way. Lancaster plays an aging gangster, Lou Pascal, and Susan Sarandon plays Sally Matthews, a young waitress living within Atlantic City. Lou, an aging gangster, makes his living by running numbers in poor areas of the city, and Sally is struggling on her own ends because she wants to become a blackjack dealer. The two of them form their own friendship, but the generational contrast that is present between the two of them also calls for a heightened sense of tragedy. The lifestyle in which they are living, either searching for glory or having lived within glory, has only become so monotonous to them for there’s no place in this city for either one. The whole movie presents itself almost like the life within a gamble, for sympathetic figures thrive upon the scum of the city in order to find a sense of life, signifying a greater doomsday.
The whole city is crumbling around the old and the young. The residence in which Sarandon and Lancaster share is a crumbling foundation, for Atlantic City has no place for them. Atlantic City is a film about living within this sense of an illusion, for they must gamble their way to what defines their own reality. But it’s the comfort in which Lou and Sally find within one another because they know they recognize that Atlantic City has no place for them any longer. But the film’s setting almost has become an allegory for the story, because Atlantic City is a city that seems to be fading away in terms of its glory, for we have buildings that are being demolished in the background, yet without a clear reason. But because we don’t know what happens with the time, that’s where Atlantic City manages to leave behind its heaviest mark, it makes the monotony of faded relevance seem so ominous. The screenplay, written by John Guare, portrays Atlantic City’s past by way of the present, even at the bones of what could easily have made itself out to be director Louis Malle’s most conventional work.
A promising Susan Sarandon at a young age gives a fantastic performance as a troubled figure searching for a way to acquire said glory. In the humiliation she suffers there’s a great sense of empathy that Louis Malle has for her. There’s an angsty side to her character that captures a generation that quickly wants to rise up from dirt, and there’s a confidence to her character that makes her despicable in some regard. And then there’s a greater contrast coming by with Burt Lancaster’s performance as Lou Pascal. Lou Pascal is a gangster who is far ahead of his own prime, just like Lancaster’s own age. He’s lived within the so-called glory already, but he’s still fascinated with where Sally is bringing herself. The whole film feels so contemplative in a sense about the sort of lives these people choose to live, for their morals are contrasted by the stark reality in which they are seeing around them – but the relationship they form between one another is never any less compelling. It seems formed on how differing generations are coming to see under new eyes, and not merely a romance for it didn’t need that sort of glory. And in this humanism, Sarandon and Lancaster leave a grand mark.
There’s no score, and the most music we hear comes out from background singers singing “On the Boardwalk in Atlantic City,” or whatever plays within an interior. To say that it’s all a part of Louis Malle’s sense of minimalism is one thing, but the fact that everything is so distinctly fading from its own relevance is what leaves its own backgrounds so significant to the allegory its story is presenting. Louis Malle is telling a gangster’s story, and yet violence is so minimal, but when it comes about, it still leaves behind a large impact. For what comes by as a result of this highlights a feeling of disappointment in one’s own downward spiral to madness. But at the same time, Malle is directing the film in such a manner his viewers are invited to come and look around within the setting rather than what he’s presenting at the very center. He wants the viewer to look around to see what false glory leads not merely a single soul, but even an entire city to come around to. And it’s a point to be repeated, yes, but the obscurity from relevance is where everyone in Atlantic City is suffering whether it be the setting or the story, and Malle’s methods of highlighting this pain call for something more significant.
I think I’m underrating Atlantic City, but by Louis Malle’s standards it is both his most conventional work and an achievement that doesn’t feel such. This isn’t so much a film about the relationship between a waitress seeking glory and a gangster ahead of his own time, but it’s about a city as it obscures from a sense of relevance that it once had thrived within. It’s a film about Atlantic City, and what the times have done for the city in itself and the people who are living within. Yet there’s an interesting pathos that comes by in typical Louis Malle fashion that only allows one to observe what’s there to be said about dreamers of all sorts. One can recognize despicable intentions and yet Malle has a sense of empathy for his characterization, which almost seems rare in this day and age. And Malle isn’t making any of it explicit, because he doesn’t make Atlantic City about Lou or Sally. And that’s the greater tragedy therein, for they are Atlantic City as it fades within time.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Paramount.
Directed by Louis Malle
Screenplay by John Guare
Produced by Denis Héroux, John Kemeny
Starring Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Michel Piccoli
Release Year: 1980
Running Time: 104 minutes