Atlantic City (1980 film)

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Atlantic City
Atlantic City (1980 film).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Louis Malle
Produced by Denis Héroux
John Kemeny
Written by John Guare
Starring Burt Lancaster
Susan Sarandon
Kate Reid
Robert Joy
Hollis McLaren
Michel Piccoli
Al Waxman
Music by Michel Legrand
Cinematography Richard Ciupka
Edited by Suzanne Baron
Selta Films
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release dates
  • September 3, 1980 (1980-09-03) (France)
  • December 19, 1980 (1980-12-19) (Canada)
Running time 104 minutes
Country Canada
Language English
Budget $7.2 million
Box office $12,729,675[1]

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 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 cut to a phone booth. A young, long-haired man, Dave, goes in, pretends to make a call, grabs something wrapped in tin foil, and leaves. A tough-looking man with bleach-blond hair enters the same phone booth, obviously looking for the tin foil object, but can’t find it.

Dave is hitchhiking with a young pregnant woman, Chrissie. They are both dressed like hippies. In the background are the marshes of New Jersey and industrial smokestacks. The two walk down Atlantic City’s boardwalk and enter a casino where they find Sally who works in one of the casino’s seafood restaurants. We learn that Dave and Chrissie are Sally’s estranged husband and sister. The two had run off together. Sally says she’s not going to let them stay with her but relents.

Lou, the older man who had been spying on Sally, passes them as they enter Sally’s apartment. He goes downstairs to Grace’s apartment. Grace is about Lou's age and apparently spends the day in bed in a room with outdated, girlish pink decor. Lou does errands for her for cash. 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 on the way out.

Lou asks Grace for a five-dollar reimbursement for a purchase. She doesn't buy his story and tells him to steal it from somebody else, calling him king of the crooks. He ignores her abuse. 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 numbers runner.

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 Fred too, hoping to sell the drugs he stole from the phone booth pick-up. Lou watches Dave walk in a bathroom with Fred.

Dave shows Fred a plastic bag of cocaine, hoping to make a sale. Fred says there's been a drug drought up and down the east coast lately. Just that day, he says, he had been called by a friend looking for drugs. Fred takes a sniff and taste and is impressed with the purity of the cocaine. Fred asks Dave where he got it, and Dave says he found it in a phone booth. "Philadelphia?," Fred casually asks, and Dave asks how Fred knew, ignoring the implicit danger in the question. Fred suggests Dave looks like a bum and needs to get a leisure suit if he wants to be taken seriously as a dealer. Dave wants an advance to buy better clothes. While Fred urinates, he tells Dave he can’t do business with him--no advance and no sale. But finishing, he writes a phone number, presumably so Dave can contact Fred's friend. Instead of handing the paper to Dave, Fred drops the paper in the toilet, flushes, and leaves the bathroom. Dave, humiliated and cursing, uses his bare hand to fish the phone number out of the swirling toilet water before it vanishes.

Dave chases Lou down on the Atlantic City boardwalk as he walks back to the apartment building and pretends to have gotten Lou's name from bigshots in Vegas. Dave offers Lou $100 to use his apartment for an hour. Lou returns Peppie the poodle to Grace and 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. Lou is amazed. 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. Grace is at first furious with Lou for ushering a stranger into her bedroom, but she will gradually very much warm to Chrissie. As Lou and Dave walk the boardwalk, Lou says he knew Bugsy Siegel and that Lou killed people in the past when he worked “for the people who worked for the people”. He says he would swim in the ocean and come out feeling clean again.

Lou and Dave go to a hotel. Dave 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 being gently teased by Fred's client/bemused "friend" for being a senior-citizen drug dealer, Dave walks around outside. A car pulls up with the blond man from the Philadelphia phone booth, an associate, and Fred from the bar, who has obviously tipped off the gangsters about Dave. The blond man chases Dave into an elevated garage, eventually catches up to 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’Brien, who is now a bathroom attendant. They laughingly reminisce about once buying 100 boxes of condoms for a gangster party, but Lou tells Buddy 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 casino 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 doing a benefit for the hospital and singing a song about the rebirth of Atlantic City while surrounded by chorus girls. After attempting to call Dave’s parents, Sally walks past Lou who is also at the hospital to see about Dave. He introduces himself as her neighbor and says he’s sorry about Dave.

Lou helps her call Dave’s parents, and when she freezes, Lou talks to them for her. She is impressed by how smooth he is in making a difficult call. 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 78 record of Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" and climbs into bed with Grace who protests, “Lou, what’s got into you?,” but she doesn’t resist much.

The next morning Lou follows Dave’s procedure for cutting the drugs in his kitchen while whistling. He arranges for Dave’s body and a lavish floral wreath to be sent to Dave’s parents. He then goes back to the same client from the previous day and makes another $4000 sale. After buying a new white suit, he visits bathroom attendant Buddy and gives him a large tip and Lou's old suit and suggests Buddy visit a tailor.

Lou takes Sally out to dinner. He’s wearing his new suit and pretends to be more wealthy than he is. She's impressed with his charm and flair and asks him to "teach her stuff" as she wants to be as polished as he. 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, including that 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 that he’s been watching her through her window and 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 associate and the blond gangster who stabbed Dave. The blond hood rips Sally’s clothes, breaks her radio, and rifles through her purse, looking for the drugs or any proceeds. Lou fights back briefly but is held back and gives up perhaps a little too quickly, humiliated but afraid of the gangsters' youth and overpowering strength.

As they return to their apartment building, Grace angrily confronts a clearly shaken 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 for not defending Sally from the gangsters and tells her that in the old days his nickname was “numb nuts”.

Sally is horrified to see her completely ransacked apartment. Lou, who has slipped into his own apartment, begins packing a small suitcase, clearly recognizing that it's just a matter of time before the gangsters realize he has the stolen drugs and come after him. He gathers the remaining dope. He takes a gun, reconsiders and throws it down, then reconsiders again and takes it, leaving. Grace tells Sally it’s not the first time Lou has run. He ran when Grace's 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 that Dave went out with Lou the day before. Grace says, "They took my scale.” Sally angrily knocks on Lou's 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 small amount worth $1000, since the client doesn't have enough money to buy it all. Lou boldly 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. The blond gangster and his associate follow Lou into the casino and demand that Lou accompany them outside and give them what was stolen from them. Lou ignores the men, and a casino pit boss directs them to "leave the players alone." Sally sees Lou and approaches and yells at him that he’s "playing with Dave’s money”. He tells her to sit down. She throws a fit which Lou ignores. As casino personnel move in to remove her, she sees the two gangsters hovering near Lou and slaps the gangster who attacked her, infuriating him, but his partner holds him back as casino workers attempt to mollify the man. As Sally is forcibly thrown out by security and the gangsters are distracted, 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. 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 champagne. Their reverie is broken when they turn on the TV and see a news bulletin about the murders. Lou is genuinely excited to be the subject of a manhunt and the focus of the lead story on the local news.

We then see Grace and Chrissie connecting. Grace tells how she came during the war to Atlantic City for a “Betty Grable lookalike contest”, but the boardwalk was full of Betty Grable lookalikes. She tells the pregnant Sally that she should be with family and 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. Lou is thrilled that the sketch makes him look younger, tougher, and more menacing than he is.

In the morning Lou takes the telephone in the bathroom and calls Grace and admits the murders to impress her. He says he wishes Grace could be there. He is 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 drug 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 the motel desk clerk to call for a taxi back to Atlantic City. As the man calls, Lou looks at the paper the clerk was reading about the murders and tells the man that he did it. The clerk humors him, clearly not believing him.

Back in Atlantic City, Grace is shown out of the apartment building for the first time, clearly feeling younger herself. She knocks on the door of room 307 and sells the last $1000 worth of cocaine to the still-bemused client at the hotel. As she walks away, amazed at the easy money, Lou applauds her aplomb and takes her arm. They walk down the boardwalk together with smiles on their faces. The camera pans up to a wrecking ball slamming into an old hotel, part of the transformation of Atlantic City from old to new.


The film features a cameo by Wallace Shawn as a waiter in a restaurant; Malle's next film was My Dinner with Andre, where Shawn is waited on as a customer.


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.).

Filming locations[edit]

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,[2] 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.


The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1980 in a tie with John Cassavetes' Gloria.

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


External links[edit]