#360) Atlantic City (1980)


#360) Atlantic City (1980)

OR “Deal or No Deal”

Directed by Louis Malle

Written by John Guare. Based on the novel “The Neighbor” by Laird Koenig.

Class of 2003

The Plot: The lives of two neighbors in a dilapidated Atlantic City apartment unexpectedly intersect in this acclaimed crime drama. Aspiring casino dealer Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) is blindsided when her estranged husband Dave (Robert Joy) and his pregnant girlfriend/Sally’s sister Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) arrive unannounced. A chance run-in with Sally’s neighbor – washed up gangster Lou (Burt Lancaster)– leads to Lou assisting Dave in a business transaction involving stolen cocaine. As this unfolds, so does an unexpected bond between Lou and Sally. But the pull of Atlantic City’s corrupt underbelly may be too strong for these two.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Lancaster’s “masterful performance”, Guare’s “taut script”, and Malle’s “European sensibilities”, whatever that means.

But Does It Really?: This is a tough one. On the one hand, I’m a sucker for a well-acted character study, and “Atlantic City” still delivers on that front almost 40 years later. On the other hand, you don’t hear “Atlantic City” mentioned often among the great films. Throw in another nationality dispute (see “Other notes”) and I have to question the film’s NFR inclusion. Still, I liked this film quite a bit, which is definitely a point in its favor. A slight pass/“minor classic” designation for “Atlantic City”.

Everybody Gets One: Legendary French director Louis Malle had been making movies for 20 years when he made his first American film, 1978’s “Pretty Baby”. When he was approached by International Cinema Corp. to direct a script based on a novel by Laird Koenig, Malle hired playwright John Guare to do a rewrite. Guare (best known today for “Six Degrees of Separation”) opted to write an original story also set in Atlantic City and, at Malle’s request, featured a prominent role for Malle’s then-girlfriend Susan Sarandon.

Wow, That’s Dated: “Atlantic City” is a very specific moment in the history of the Monopoly City. The hottest tourist spot on the East Coast during Prohibition, “The World’s Famous Playground” fell on hard times after WWII, and by the early ‘70s, many of the city’s hotels were either converted to apartments or demolished entirely. In a last-ditch effort to bring back tourism, New Jersey voted to legalize casino gambling in Atlantic City in 1976. The demolition happening throughout the film is real, and many of those sites are now the home of casinos and luxury hotels.

Seriously, Oscars?: After a successful run in Canada and France in 1980, “Atlantic City” saw its American release in 1981. While not a box-office success, the film was nominated in the Oscars’ “Big Five” categories. “Atlantic City” was the only Best Picture nominee to go home empty handed, losing to favored films “Chariots of Fire”, “Reds”, and “On Golden Pond”. “Atlantic City” did, however, sweep Canada’s Genie Awards.

Other notes

  • Another nationality dispute! “Atlantic City” is primarily a co-production between Canada and France, but one of the Canadian studios that financed the film was Famous Players Limited, a division of Paramount Pictures, who distributed the film in the United States. It’s a real stretch by NFR standards, but it helps that the film was shot in America and features two American leads.
  • That opening shot definitely gets your attention. Susan Sarandon has stated that for years fans would send her lemons, jokingly wishing they had filmed the scene with $100 bills instead.
  • Shoutout to Lucy the Elephant.
  • I’m sure Susan Sarandon relished the opportunity to play something that wasn’t “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Sally gets to be dimensional and flawed, still a rarity for female leads.
  • Also dated: Susan Sarandon’s mammoth cassette player (on loan from Joe Gideon, I presume).
  • Surprisingly for a movie written by a playwright, there’s a restraint on spoken dialogue in this movie. There’s still some clunky exposition near the beginning, but most of the characterizations happen through actions and facial expressions.
  • The film has not one, but two Canadian acting legends. Kate Reid was a mainstay of Canada’s theater scene, and got the role of Grace after Ginger Rogers soundly turned it down. Al Waxman (Alfie), best known as Lt. Bert Samuels on “Cagney & Lacey”, was a respected actor and humanitarian in his native Canada. He even has a statue in Toronto!
  • The $4000 Dave says he can get for the cocaine would be $14,000 in today’s money.
  • Is automated parking still a thing?
  • Special Guest Star Robert Goulet! I’m sure Goulet was fully aware of the ironic counterpoint his appearance is meant to provide. I wonder how John Guare feels about being able to connect Goulet to Burt Lancaster with only one movie.
  • Oh the irony of Wallace Shawn playing a waiter in a Louis Malle film.
  • You can’t imagine anyone other than Burt Lancaster playing Lou. His studio system acting style plays nicely into a character that is stuck in the past.
  • And then we get to the scene where Lou tells Sally about his voyeurism and she finds it romantic. Good luck getting that in a movie today.
  • Once again, I found myself not taking a lot of notes, mainly because I was just enjoying the movie. Also this movie is just subtle enough I thought I’d miss something.
  • “I don’t believe in gravity.” Let me guess: Chrissie doesn’t vaccinate her kid.
  • And yet, despite the gloomy situation the characters find themselves in, and the overarching theme of corruption, the film manages to end on an optimistic note. It’s the “flower growing in a parking lot” metaphor from “The Office” on full display.


  • Everyone’s career benefited from “Atlantic City” and its post-Oscar bump. Louis Malle’s next movie was his iconic “My Dinner with Andre”, Burt Lancaster reinvented himself as a character actor (see “Field of Dreams”), and Susan Sarandon has been a Hollywood mainstay/political activist ever since.
  • As for Atlantic City itself, the gambling revitalization helped the city immensely, with the ‘80s being another boom period for the town. While still popular, Atlantic City just isn’t what it used to be. I blame a certain President of the United States who shall remain nameless.

Further Viewing: “Boardwalk Empire” was a fictionalization of Atlantic City’s heyday, with Steve Buscemi’s Nucky Thompson being a stand-in for the real Nucky Johnson. This is the Atlantic City Lou is referring to when he says, “it used to be beautiful, what with the rackets, whoring, guns…”

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