Atlantic City (1980 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Louis Malle|
|Produced by||Denis Héroux
|Written by||John Guare|
|Music by||Michel Legrand|
|Edited by||Suzanne Baron|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Running time||104 minutes|
Atlantic City is a 1980 French-Canadian romantic crime film directed by Louis Malle. Filmed in late 1979, it was released in France and Germany in 1980 and in the United States in 1981. The script was written by John Guare. It stars Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Kate Reid, Robert Joy, Hollis McLaren, Michel Piccoli, and Al Waxman.
Atlantic City is among the 41 films to be nominated for all "Big Five" Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Screenplay, and one of only six amidst this group to not take home a single award. It lost the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay to Chariots of Fire, Best Director to Reds, and Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon, who were nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress, lost to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.
The film tells the story of a young Canadian woman, Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon), whose dream for a better life in the gambling business is interrupted by the return of her drug-dealing husband, whom she had left behind, and older Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), a longtime resident of Atlantic City. The film's story revolves around how their lives interact and change, both for the better.
A close-up shot shows a knife slicing lemons. The camera pans out to Sally (Susan Sarandon) washing herself with the lemon juice in front of the window at her kitchen sink in an apartment building in Atlantic City. She is listening to the operatic soprano aria “Casta Diva” from Norma. From the next apartment, an older man, Lou (Burt Lancaster), is spying on Sally as she bathes.
We then cut to a phone booth. A young long-haired man goes in, pretending to make a call, then grabs something in tin foil. This is Dave. Another, tough looking guy with bleach blond hair goes in the same phone booth, obviously to get what was in the tin foil, but can’t find it.
We then see Dave hitchhiking with a young pregnant woman, Chrissie. They are both dressed like gypsies or hippies. in the background are the marshes of New Jersey and industrial smoke stacks. The two hippies walk through Atlantic City’s boardwalk and go into a casino where they find Sally (Susan Sarandon), who works in one of the casino’s seafood restaurants. We learn the hippies are Sally’s estranged husband, Dave, and her sister, Chrissie. The two had run off together. Sally says she’s not going to let them stay with her, but relents.
The old man who had been spying on Sally, Lou (Burt Lancaster), passes them as they enter Sally’s apartment. He goes downstairs to Grace’s apartment, a woman about his own age who lives in an apartment with girlish pink decor. We find that Lou does errands for her for cash and that they have a combative co-dependent relationship.
Back upstairs, Dave tries to kiss his estranged wife, Sally, who gives him the cold shoulder, telling him he ruined her chances of making a life in Las Vegas. He leaves angrily, but sees her purse and steals her wallet from it on the way out.
Lou argues with Grace over five dollars. She tells him to steal it. Calling him king of the crooks. He takes the abuse calmly. He takes Grace’s dog Peppie for grooming, and while there he asks the proprietor if she has any bets. We see Lou make his rounds as a small-time bookie.
Sally is taking classes to be a blackjack dealer. We learn that she is taking French classes and her dream is to go to Monte Carlo and work there as a blackjack dealer.
Lou brings the money he has gathered from bets to a man with organized crime connections, Fred O’Reilly, at a bar. Coincidentally, Dave is there to meet with the Fred too, hoping to sell the drugs he stole from the phone booth pick-up. Lou watches Dave walk in the back with Fred. Dave shows Fred a plastic bag of white powdered heroin. Fred takes a sniff and says it’s very nice. “White Christmas”. Fred tells Dave to get a leisure suit and lose the hippy look. Dave wants an advance. While Fred takes a piss, he tells Dave he can’t do business with him. He gives Dave a card with a number on it, presumably a place he can sell the dope.
Dave chases Lou down on the Atlantic City boardwalk as he walks back to the apartment building. Dave offers Lou $100 to use his apartment for an hour. Lou returns Peppie the poodle to Grace, then leaves with Dave who asks to borrow Grace’s scale. The two go downstairs and Dave cuts the white powder with baby laxative on Lou’s kitchen table. Dave tells Lou he just turned $2000 into $4000. Dave asks Lou to walk him around, but Lou says he can’t leave Grace. Dave has Chrissie go into Grace’s apartment to rub her feet so that Lou will be free to show him around. As they walk the boardwalk, Lou tells Dave he knew Bugsy Siegel and that he killed people in the past when he worked “for the people who worked for the people”. He said he would swim in the ocean and come out feeling clean again.
Lou and Dave go to a hotel. Dave says he wants Lou to go to room 307 and exchange the drugs for money. Lou asks why Dave isn’t coming and Dave says he isn’t dressed for it. While Lou is upstairs exchanging the drugs for money, and Dave is walking around. A car pulls up with Fred from the bar and the blond man from the phone booth from whom Dave stole the drugs. The blond man chases Dave into an elevated garage. A chase ensues ending when the blond man captures Dave and stabs him in the chest.
Lou stops in a bathroom after collecting $4000 for the drugs. He bumps into an old friend, Buddy O’Brian, who is now a bathroom attendant. They reminisce about a farcical mass rubber-buying job and Lou tells him he lives too much in the past. As Lou walks home he sees Dave being carried on a gurney into an ambulance.
The police come into Sally’s hotel and give her back her wallet. She asks where they found it and realizes something has happened to Dave and that it was he who stole her wallet. Sally rushes to the hospital and watches as they pull the blanket over the motionless Dave. When they tell her she can claim the body, she says she doesn’t want it and storms out, past Robert Goulet singing a song about Atlantic City surrounded by chorus girls. He’s at the hospital doing a benefit. After attempting to call Dave’s parents, Sally walks past Lou who is at the hospital as well. He introduces himself as her neighbor and says he’s sorry about Dave.
Lou helps her call Dave’s parents, when she can’t handle the call, Lou talks to them for her. After they get back to the apartment building they each go to their respective apartments. Lou again spies on Sally as she bathes topless at the kitchen sink, spreading lemon juice on her arms and chest.
Lou goes downstairs to Grace’s and sends Chrissie back upstairs. Lou puts on an old jazz record and climbs into bed with Grace who protests, “Lou, what’s got into you?” But doesn’t resists too much.
The next morning Lou follows Dave’s procedure for cutting the drugs in his kitchen while whistling. He arranges for Dave’s body to be sent to Dave’s parents. He then goes back to the same client from the previous day and gets another $4000. He visits O’Brian the bathroom attendant and gives him a large tip and tells him to visit a tailor.
Lou takes Sally out to dinner. He’s wearing a new suit and pretends to be more wealthy than he is. Sally has to go to work on a house she and some friends are fixing up. Lou takes her. While there, Lou tells more of his history with Grace. That’s he’s protected her for 40 years, since she was a teenager. But she “got married along the way”.
Sally asks if Lou loves Grace. But Lou says he watches Sally. He then tells her, he’s been watching her through her window, he then describes in loving detail her bathing ritual involving lemons and soap. Rather than being creeped out, Sally is touched and aroused. She takes off her blouse. And Lou delicately begins to run his hands over her. Presumably they make love.
As they return to their apartment building, they are accosted by the blond gangster who stabbed Dave. He rips Sally’s clothes and breaks her radio and rifles through her purse, looking for the drugs or any proceeds. Lou is held back by one of the blond gangster’s associates. As they come up the stairs Grace angrily confronts Lou and Sally, saying men had been ransacking the place. She is especially annoyed by Lou’s new suit. “What the hell are you wearing?” She berates Lou and tells Sally in the old days his nickname was “numb nuts”.
Sally’s apartment has been ransacked. Lou, who has slipped into his own apartment, begins packing a suitcase. And with shaking hands gathers the remaining dope and a gun.
Grace tells Sally it’s not the first time Lou has run. He ran when her husband, Cookie, was killed, “so he’ll run away now”. Sally confronts Chrissie. She admits that Dave and she came to Atlantic City to “sell some dope” to get money for the baby. She tells Sally Dave went out with Lou the day before. Grace says, “they took my scale.” She goes and angrily knocks and his door and sees that he’s gone. Sally realizes Lou has been spending the drug money to romance her.
Lou visits the client at the hotel and sells him the rest of the dope, except for a last $1000 worth, since that’s all the money the client has. He tells the client to tell Fred to leave the women alone, that what “those hoods are looking for [he’s] got.”
Sally goes to her blackjack dealing class, but is told the manager wants to see her. He says he can’t afford to have people with connections like hers working in the casino. He fires her. Sally finds Lou playing blackjack in the casino. As she walks up to him, the blond gangster and his associate are asking him where the money is and they ask him to go outside. Lou won’t leave the table. Sally yells at him saying he’s playing “with Dave’s money”. He tells her to sit down. She throws a fit. As Sally creates a scene and is forcibly thrown out by security, Lou slips out and gets in a cab.
Sally manages to follow him to the bus station and tricks a bus driver into thinking he’s her father and she needs to get him off the bus so he can get his medication. She demands that Lou give her the money. As they walk away from the station, the blond gangster and his associate corner them in an alley. The blond gangster holds a switchblade in Sally’s face.
Lou shoots both gangsters and he and Sally flee in their car. Lou is proud of himself and laughs about killing them. “I protected you,” he says. She tells him to put the gun down.
They go to a hotel and order champaign. Their reverie is broken when they turn on the TV and see a news bulletin about the murders. But the news flash doesn’t indicate that they are suspects. So they relax.
We then see Grace and Chrissie connecting. Grace tells how she came during the war to Atlantic City for a “Betty Grable look-alike contest”, but the boardwalk was full of Betty Grable look-alikes. She offers to buy Chrissie a ticket home to Saskatchewan. Lou asks Sally to come with him to Florida where he has friends. She is leaning towards doing it. Then a police sketch of Lou is shown on the TV and Sally realizes it wouldn’t work.
In the morning Lou takes the telephone in the bathroom and calls Grace and admits the murders. He says he wish Grace could be there. He is strangely proud and we realize he had never actually killed anyone before, contrary to what he had told Dave earlier on the boardwalk.
While he’s on the phone, Sally gets up and goes through his wallet. She takes most of the money. Lou peeks out the bathroom door and sees her doing this, but doesn’t say anything. She makes up a story about wanting to get pizza, saying she’ll bring some back. As she’s walking out the door, he tells her “don’t forget to ditch the car,” indicating he knows she isn’t coming back.
She drives away, listening to a radio program about the wines of France.
Lou asks for a taxi back to Atlantic City, looks at the paper the man was reading about the murders and tells the man that he did it. Grace sells the last $1000 worth of dope to the client at the hotel, as she walks away, Lou takes her arm. They walk down the boardwalk together with smiles on their faces. The camera pans up to a wrecking ball slamming into a hotel.
- Burt Lancaster as Lou Pascal
- Susan Sarandon as Sally Matthews
- Kate Reid as Grace Pinza
- Robert Joy as Dave Matthews
- Hollis McLaren as Chrissie
- Michel Piccoli as Joseph
- Al Waxman as Alfie
- Robert Goulet as himself
Atlantic City was filmed on location in and around Atlantic City and South Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York. Although filmed in the United States, the film was a co-production between companies based in France and Canada. Aside from Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, and local extras, most of the cast originated from Canada or France. The film allowed Canadian actors such as Kate Reid and Al Waxman to successfully transition into American film and television roles.
The production companies alloted Louis Malle the money to make a film with the stipulation that it be made before the year 1979 ended. Malle had a difficult time finding the right script to direct and with time running out his then girlfriend Susan Sarandon suggested using a story written by her friend John Guare, a playwright most notable for his plays House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. Guare suggested that the story take place in Atlantic City, which was still for the most part suffering from the urban deterioration that prompted the legalization of gambling as a solution to save the city. The three met over dinner in early 1979 to work out quirks in the script and began shooting within a few months.
Principal photography commenced on October 31, 1979 and moved swiftly along finishing by December 30, 1979 just in time for the end of the year (a few exterior and location shots were filmed until January 5, 1980). Malle filmed at an opportune time in that he was able to capture old Atlantic City: gambling was still in its early stages there, with only two casino hotels open (Resorts and Caesars; Bally's Park Place would open on December 30, toward the end of the principal photography). Most of the city's old resorts and entertainment piers were still standing, albeit in a severe state of disrepair. Within a couple of years of the filming, most of the these old hotels would fall victim to the wrecking ball as they were replaced with new casinos. To frame the picture, Malle foreshadows the great transition of the famous resort town in the opening credits by featuring footage of the implosion of the once-grand and historic Traymore Hotel on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Louis Malle hired composer Michel Legrand to write a score for the film, which he did. In the end, however, Malle decided against using a score for the film, and opted for all the music in the film to be ambient: the only music used is that which exists in the world of the characters (i.e. radios, musical instruments, etc.).
The opening shot of the old Traymore Hotel being demolished is shown to convey the notion that the city's old hotels were being demolished to make way for the new casinos. However, the Traymore was in fact demolished in 1972, years before the gambling referendum passed in New Jersey. The referendum passed in 1976 and the first hotel to open up was Resorts, formerly the Chafonte-Haddon Hall, in 1978.
When Dave and Chrissie are seen hitchhiking into Atlantic City from Philadelphia, they pass a large model elephant on their way into town. The elephant, named Lucy, was a tourist attraction built in 1881 to lure potential land buyers to South Atlantic City (now called Margate), a small town south of Atlantic City. Left to deteriorate over the years, and on the brink of demolition in 1971, the residents of Margate raised the money to have it restored. Today, Lucy still stands in Margate and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The club where Dave and Lou meet was the famed Club Harlem which opened in 1935 on Kentucky Avenue, and was the premier nightclub for black tourists visiting Atlantic City. The club would open and close frequently from 1968 on, and eventually closed for good by the end of the eighties. It was torn down in 1992. Scenes were also shot in the Knife and Fork Restaurant, another famous Atlantic City landmark.
Atlantic City was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Burt Lancaster), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Susan Sarandon), Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. In 2003, Atlantic City was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
American Film Institute Lists
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes:
- "Yes, it used to be beautiful -- what with the rackets, whoring, guns." - Nominated
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) - Nominated
- AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Gangster Film
- "Atlantic City, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved March 9, 2012.
- Kent, Bill (July 22, 1995). "ATLANTIC CITY; The Town That Smiled". The New York Times.
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies Nominees
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees
- AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ballot
- AFI's 10 Top 10 Ballot
- Atlantic City at the Internet Movie Database
- Atlantic City at Rotten Tomatoes
- Atlantic City at Box Office Mojo