Sunday 24 February 2008

Atlantic City (1980)

Susan Sarandon listening to opera and rubbing lemon juice over her breasts while Burt Lancaster watches through two sets of windows from next door seems like a pretty good way to attract our attention at the start of a movie. No, it's not as lurid as it sounds but that's what's happening nonetheless. It's a Louis Malle film, made while he was dating Sarandon, and he keeps on grabbing our attention. Next a drifter intercepts a drop of drugs in a phone booth and he and his pregnant hippie girlfriend in a patchwork coat hightail it to Atlantic City. As they arrive we see a huge building being demolished. It's definitely an opening to remember.

The girlfriend is Chrissie and the drifter is Dave Matthews. No, not that one. The connection is that Dave is the brother of Sarandon's character Sally, and Chrissie is Sally's sister. The weirdest thing is that as soon as they reach Atlantic City they head straight to the hotel casino where she works, like she'd really want to see them or something. It doesn't take too long for Dave to meet his maker but he lives long enough to bring an ageing gangster called Lou Pascal into the scene in a very non-traceable way and he's where our real story lies.

The beauty of it is that it would seem that it would be how Lou influences Sally that gives us our plot but it's really the other way round. She's a trainee croupier with high hopes and Lou, having been around as long as Atlantic City, or so it would seem, is a good bet to make the difference. However it's Sally, or the image of her that Lou has in his mind, that changes him into what he's always dreamed of being. Dave's drugs are the beginning but it's Sally that's the impetus and Lou that becomes changed.

Lou is a peach of a character. He sees himself as an old time gangster but never really was, even when it was the old time and he was a gangster. He lives the life, still running numbers even though the casinos have pretty much replaced the numbers racket. He doesn't pay income tax, he doesn't even have a social security number, yet he's still nobody. He helps out an old lady neighbour who was married to a real gangster, and it's never clear if he puts up with her abuse because he really loves her or because she's a real link to that gangster past.

What he really is is a relic and relics of the old Atlantic City are either dead or long faded, like an old friend Lou runs into who's now running a shoeshine stall in a restroom. They're as out of place in the modern Atlantic City as the building Lou and Sally live in, which is due for demolition so it can be turned into a casino. Our story is about how Lou finds his way back to relevance, at least to his way of thinking, and about his way of thinking in the first place. It's a great opportunity and it earned Burt Lancaster a well deserved Oscar nomination.

There are some truly great scenes here, beyond the opening. There's Dave being killed during a cool fight on a vertical car park that should have inspired a video game. There's Sally trying to call Dave's parents from the hospital while Robert Goulet serenades her through the phone booth window during a promotional shot. There's Lou failing to protect Sally when he first needs to and then succeeding to protect her the next time around. There's the toll booth scene. There's Lou watching the news. There's the panic in Grace's voice when she's told about reincarnation. There are lines like 'I don't wear seatbelts. I don't believe in gravity.' At the end of the day though, it's about Lou, and what he means.

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