I might have thought "Atlantic City" was more of a
fantasy had I not lived for several weeks circa 1970 in a hotel near Sunset
Strip named the Sunset Marquis. It is now a luxury hotel of the same name, but
at that time a room was $19 a night, and the residents included Tiny Tim, Van
Heflin and Elaine May. You dialed room service, you got Greenblatt's Deli. A
scrap-iron dealer named Jack Sachs presided as the "mayor" from his
poolside efficiency. He ran the cocktail hour as his personal salon, supplying
whiskey to the circulating population of show-biz folks -- Jackie Gayle, Roy
Scheider, Harold Ramis -- on their way up, down or sideways.
similar establishment provides the location for Louis Malle's "Atlantic
City" (1980), which takes place in an apartment house near the Boardwalk.
It's slated for demolition, and all around are vacant lots filled with rubble
and the sky-cranes of new construction. Every exterior shot seems to have a
background of debris being shoved out of upper windows, or bulldozers clearing
this doomed building live three people: An oyster-bar waitress named Sally
(Susan Sarandon), an aging numbers runner named Lou (Burt Lancaster) and a
widow named Grace (Kate Reid), who came to the city 40 years ago for a Betty
Grable look-alike contest and depends on Lou to run her errands, some of a
sexual nature. She lives in an apartment so filled with photographs, stuffed
animals, feather boas, geegaws, silk festoons and glitz that you might think it
is a fantasy, but not me, because I saw Tiny Tim's apartment one morning when
the maid left the door standing open.
claims to have been big-time in Vegas in the old days, "a cellmate of
Bugsy Siegel," no less. Now he walks a daily route through Atlantic City's
urban decay, taking 25-cent bets on the numbers. It's implied that a stipend
from Grace keeps him afloat. At night he stands behind the blinds of his
darkened apartment and watches as Sally engages in an after-work ritual. She
cuts fresh lemons and caresses her skin to take away the shellfish smell.
after they know each other, Lou confesses that he used to watch her. She says
she knew there was somebody, but didn't know who. "What did you see when
you looked at me?" she asks. He describes her ritual in great detail, and
when the camera cuts back to her, she has opened her blouse, as if his words
were stage directions.
this closed world come two loose cannons, Dave and Chrissie. Dave was once
married to Sally, then ran away with Chrissie, Sally's younger sister. They're
a better match, equally spaced out; Sally on the other hand wants to succeed.
"Teach me stuff," she asks Lou at one point.
taking lessons in blackjack from a casino boss (Michel Piccoli). Dave has
stolen some drugs in Philadelphia, wants to sell them in Atlantic City, and has
a contact named Alfie (Al Waxman) who runs a permanent poker game in a hotel
room. Gangsters from Philadelphia inevitably come looking for their drugs and
for Dave, who becomes dead. Chrissie becomes the confidant of Grace, Lou
inherits the drugs and makes the deals, and then he buys himself a new white
suit and sets himself up as a knight in shining armor to protect Sally from the
guys who killed her ex-husband.
is nothing particularly new in this screenplay, written by the playwright John
Guare, and assembled from drugs, colorful characters, a decaying city, memories
of the past. What makes "Atlantic City" sweet -- and that's the word
for it -- is the gentleness with which Lou handles his last chance at amounting
to something, and the wisdom with which Sally handles Lou. Lou wants to take
the drug money as a gift from the gods and recreate his glory days. The
question is, were there really glory days? A gangster as important as Lou
claims to have been should be, by now, either rich or dead.
is not a letch. He has dignity, the same kind of instinctive aristocratic
self-regard that made Lancaster's performance in Visconti's "The
Leopard" (1963) so authentic. When you embody dignity, you don't need to
play it. There is a moment in the hotel room with the poker players when he
casually uses the side of his arm to brush away someone who invades his space.
And a moment when he says quietly to another man, "Don't touch the
suit." That he can seriously see himself as the lover of the much younger Sally
is more plausible when he uses the word "protector."
he actually does protect her, his dreams seem within reach. The giveaway is
that he's so elated when he defends her from an attack by two hoods. A real
gangster, a real buddy of Bugsy's, a real former hit-man, would not be as
excited as a kid. Yet Lou's childlike delight at his own startling behavior is
part of the man he really is: Like the narrator of Scorsese's
"GoodFellas," he admires and envies gangsters and likes to be a big shot.
Malle (1932-1995) was a French New Wave pioneer who alternated between
documentaries and fiction, between France and America. His first feature,
"Elevator to the Gallows" (1958), grew directly from the 1950s Frenchnoirperiod that gave us Jacques Becker, Jean-Pierre
Melville and the late flowering of the actor Jean Gabin. Their French noirs
were more elegies than adventures, more concerned with failure than triumph,
less interested in action than the close observation of the daily behavior of
their heroes. The best scene in Becker's "Touchez Pas au Grisbi"
shows Gabin preparing a late-night dinner of pate for the old pal he has
loyally supported through one fiasco after another. After dinner, he gives him
a toothbrush and pajamas.
Lancaster's character, the association with Grace begins with the fact that she
needs Lou to survive. To conceal her desperation, she insults and criticizes
him like a diva, and he sees right through her. Grace the aging beauty (and
perhaps retired whore) finds a natural rapport with Chrissie the hippie, who
believes in reincarnation and foot reflexology. They're far apart in age, style
and beliefs, but they both construct fantasies to wall off the grim reality
for Lou and Sally, there is something tender and subtle going on. Neither was
born yesterday. Both have dreams. Both have lived with disappointment. Even
though they could be lovers, they have no future together, and maybe no future
separately. They don't need to say this to each other. When he helps her, it is
because she needs help, and equally because he needs to help. His payoff is not
living happily ever after, but in having an eyewitness who knows that at least
once during his descent into obscurity he stepped up to the plate and acted as
he thinks a man should act -- a man like the men he admires, who may have been
criminals but were powerful and respected. The movie does not deny reality; it
ends with what must happen, in the way it must happen, given what has gone
years after his death, Louis Malle is the subject of a tribute at Facets
Cinematheque in Chicago. The nearly complete retrospective includes films
("Au Revoir les Enfants," "Lacombe, Lucien," "Murmur
of the Heart," "Damage") that are as good or better than
"Atlantic City," but which are surprisingly not in print on video.
The British critic Philip French, who knew Malle since his first film, thinks
"Atlantic City" is the best of his American projects, although I
would choose "My Dinner with Andre" (1981), and Stanley Kauffmann
thinks "Vanya on 42nd Street" (1994), Malle's last film, is the only
successful film of a Chekhov play.
I told a French film official last autumn that I had just seen and admired
"Elevator to the Gallows," I received not a smile but a scornful
"pffft!" Perhaps Malle alienated his countrymen by moving to America,
by marrying Candice Bergen, by taking on so many American stories ("Pretty
Baby," "Alamo Bay"). Malle did not follow his New Wave origins
into ideological extremities, like Godard, but like his German contemporary
Fassbinder frankly desired large audiences.
interesting, even with a seemingly commercial project like "Atlantic
City," is how resolutely he stayed with the human dimension of his story
and let the drug plot supply an almost casual background. Here is a movie where
reincarnation is treated at least as seriously as cocaine, and the white suit
even more so.
"My Dinner With Andre" is also in the Great Movies
series, and Ebert reviews many other Malle films, including "Elevator to the
Gallows." There are also 1972 and 1976 interviews with Malle.