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Atlantic City

Layers of subtext and symbolism somehow manage to stay out of the way of the very human story in Louis Malle's 1980 drama Atlantic City . The marvelous script by screenwriter/playwright John Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Six Degrees of Separation) uses the late '70s redevelopment of Atlantic City, N.J. as the backdrop to tell a story of people with shattered dreams and almost delusional optimism, and he does it so deftly that its hard to tell whether the characters represent the death and rebirth of the once-vibrant city or vice-versa. Burt Lancaster stars as Lou, an aging, small-time hood whose career has come down to running numbers and acting as caretaker/kept man for a gangster's abrasive widow (Kate Reid). Fixated on Sally (Susan Sarandon), the gorgeous oyster-bar waitress who lives next door, Lou gets his chance to finagle his way into her life when Sally's pregnant sister and not-quite-ex-husband (Robert Joy) show up, hoping to sell a stolen pile of cocaine. When the deal goes wrong, Lou ends up with all the drugs and all the money, and he uses the cash to impress Sally, who is training to be a casino dealer in the hopes of putting her white-trash past behind her. Malle's very European direction of Guare's screenplay focuses on change and rebuilding — as Sally works to become a croupier to distance herself from her Saskatchewan roots, Lou buys a new suit and regains his manhood by foiling the thugs who come after the drug money. All the while, the grand old palaces on the Atlantic City boardwalk are under constant demolition, to make way for the new casinos ... and all over town, guys like Lou become expendable as a new era of corporate crime replaces the small-time criminals. As a character study, Atlantic City is notable because of the way the film avoids caricaturing the principals. Lou is charming but sort of pathetic, and having a powerhouse like Lancaster portray him is genius casting — one can believe him to really have been something back in his day, but as the film plays out it's revealed that he was never anything more than a minor-league gopher for the mob. Sarandon's Sally first appears every bit as self-possessed and ethereal as the smitten Lou believes her to be, but after watching the way she doesn't quite brush off the advances of her smarmy blackjack teacher — and her justifying her marriage to a loser by saying she'd have done anything to get out of Saskatchewan — it becomes clear that she doesn't see Lou as anything more than another possible stepping stone on the way to better things. Certain set-pieces in Atlantic City resonate with such rich complexity that they stay with the viewer for a long time afterward — the now almost iconographic shot of Sarandon ritualistically rubbing lemons on her arms, shoulders and breasts to remove the smell of fish; Sally on a balcony, stringing along her teacher for a tape of French language lessons while on the boardwalk below, her husband cons Lou into helping with his drug deal; Sally identifying a body at the city's medical center to the sound of Robert Goulet performing down the hall in the lobby. A touching and complicated film about a town and its citizens reinventing themselves, Atlantic City was nominated for five Academy Awards; often overlooked, it's one of the best films of the early 1980s and a valuable addition to any DVD library. Paramount's DVD release offers a clean, bright anamorphic widescreen transfer. The colors are so bright, in fact, as to almost be garish at times; the reds are so overly saturated, it feels as if the color may may been enhanced a bit. The monaural Dolby audio is clear enough but hardly sparkling, and doesn't do justice to Michel Legrand's lovely, understated score. On board is the original theatrical trailer, which is a hoot — completely ignoring the actual tone of the picture, the trailer sells Atlantic City as an action-packed caper film with the tacked-on '70s wokka-chikka music, making it look like some kind of cheesy Quinn Martin production. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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