Directed by Louis Malle
Lou (Burt Lancaster) is an aged gangster who longs for the mythologized days of old, and Sally (Susan Sarandon) is a young waitress who hopes to absorb some of his sophistication. Though they live next door to each other it’s only over the course of a handful of days that they get to know each other and then find their potentially doomed fates intertwined.
There is indeed a plot here that forces them together, involving drugs and murder, but they are more deeply connected by a similar yearning for something promised by Atlantic City. For him it’s a time and place, corrupted long ago by corporatization and legalization but the scent of which still lingers. For her it’s strictly the industry. Sally might as well be an aspiring actress living on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In the spectacle of Atlantic City she dreams of a future working the craps table, not just here but potentially in places like Monaco too.
Her desire is more practical, in that sense, and she’s taking measured steps towards achieving it. During her hours off from the oyster bar where she works, Sally trains to be a croupier, preparing for a test in the coming weeks. When her ex-husband, Dave (Robert Joy) and her pregnant sister, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) show up, they threaten to derail this plan.
Dave is a bit of a monster, a lowlife who ran away with Sally’s sister and yet has the gall to show up asking for a place to crash. Then he, I suppose predictably, steals money from her purse and sells stolen cocaine picked up in Philadelphia.
It’s with the help of Lou, who notices Dave in the apartment building and sees something of himself in the restless but wayward young man that Dave earns some serious money. He angles to take advantage of Lou, and the old man who initially seemed quite wise and patient (partially because that seems to be the Burt Lancaster character type) suddenly feels desperate and lonely by agreeing to work with a character we know not to trust.
When Lou comes back outside he finds that Dave has been killed by a couple of mostly silent gangsters who will show up throughout the film.
Rather than mourning the young man, Lou finds a great deal of joy in his new fortune. He spends the money from selling Dave’s drugs to begin dressing like the man he might’ve once been and has always yearned to be. He spreads the wealth, like the mob bosses of old, buying kindness and friendship with frighteningly large bills. This includes sidling up to Sally, whom we have seen him regard lustfully from afar, by paying for the transportation of Dave’s body back home to Canada.
Soon they begin a tender relationship that always feels quite complicated because of how we’ve seen it begin. The opening shots of the film are quite sensual, with a close up on a lemon being sliced and then rubbed over Sally’s arms and chest. It’s only as the camera slowly pulls back that we realize Lou is watching her through the window.
Their relationship, once he introduces himself to her, begins simply and kindly enough. She is flattered, though possibly unnerved, by the way he pampers her because it speaks to her own aspirations, living the life of the people who surround her in Atlantic City. One of the best of these moments is when Lou insists she smell the cork to see if the wine is up to snuff. Her confusion makes it clear she wouldn’t be able to tell either way, but she is quite enamored with his apparent good taste.
Their relationship only grows more intimate and surreal from there, but things begin to go wrong when the gangsters who murdered Dave come after them looking for the drug money, which of course Lou has.
They will beat up the two of them, and Lou is scared into fleeing town. The woman downstairs for whom he cares, Grace (and who is certainly an odd but tragic character in her own right) will tell Sally that this is what Lou does, he runs. He may like to think of himself as a gangster, but when the going gets tough he runs. In other words he’s just a coward.
Sally will learn that Lou was involved with Dave and demand that he give her what she thinks is rightfully hers. She tracks him down before he can skip town, and though inebriated, Lou will manage to kill the two gangsters when they again track them down.
Sally is startled, though the old man is proud. This time they do skip town, and Lou will brag to multiple people that he’s the man responsible for the double homicide all over the news. Frightened, Sally will steal some of the money from his wallet (which does kind of belong to her in a way) and leave him behind. Lou recognizes what she’s up to before she leaves, but in a final act of empathy he lets her take the car and bolt.
Atlantic City is like the French New Wave gangster films of old, which makes sense since Louis Malle directed one of the best of those films, 1958’s Elevator to the Gallows. That same Jazz-y score and sense of doom is all over this film, and if you don’t much appreciate the trappings of this genre (drugs, gangsters, sometimes contrived plot conflict) it’s hard not to enjoy the strong sense of place.
The Atlantic City of this film has been changing for sometime. Lou is of an extinct breed, a ghost who lingers on the boardwalk with little to do since all the original illegal activity has now been legalized and, in some cases, turned into family activities. He will come across old friends including a bathroom attendant who ruminates about the old days and the old ways. Then there’s the hospital with a large plaque commemorating Frank Sinatra, himself quite tied to (or at least associated with) mob activity.
The smell of the old ways remains, even as the beachfront skyline changes with the demolition of rundown buildings in favor of the construction of new high-rise condominiums and hotels.
Within this transitive period there are two people who pass like ships in the night. While Lou is on the way out, and fighting for relevancy, Sally is only about to begin her climb. By coexisting they both seem out of place, much as the actors themselves do. When I think of Susan Sarandon I think of 90s films like Thelma & Louise and Dead Man Walking or even the 2011 film Jeff, Who Lives at Home. When I think of Burt Lancaster I picture black and white films from the 50s and 60s like The Sweet Smell of Success and Seven Days in May.
So there is a timeless quality to this film and to the way Atlantic City is portrayed. I think it’s much the same for any location with such history or which is presented as the beacon of something, no matter how corrupt or lawless it may be. Like Las Vegas or Hollywood the city we see here is a symbol of success, of becoming a self-made person. It’s quite American, it seems, for better or worse. No matter when you are or were alive, places like this exist as metaphors for what you can become but also what it might take to get there.
It’s hard to separate the financial success from the accompanying threat of death in this film, much as with other gangster stories in which the rise must give way to a fall of some kind.
Up Next: Spirited Away (2001), Punishment Park (1971), Spielberg (2017)