The Thrill Is Gone
Matthew Eng on Atlantic City
In May 1929, leaders of the United States’ various organized crime syndicates flocked to New Jersey’s Atlantic City for an unprecedented event: a four-day meeting to thrash out a host of issues, including the raging bootleg wars that had reached a fever pitch three months earlier when seven affiliates of Chicago’s North Side Gang were gunned down on Valentine’s Day. Fifty years later, the New York–based playwright John Guare came across a photo of some of the conference’s assembled gangsters and associates. His gaze alighted on a grinning man, younger than the summit’s other attendees, lingering on the photo’s margins. “There’s our hero!” Guare exclaimed to Louis Malle, the French filmmaker who had himself lingered on the margins of his country’s revolutionary New Wave before relocating to America, where he went on to helm a string of narrative and nonfiction features and marry Candice Bergen. Guare and Malle had been brought together in July 1979 by the former’s friend and the latter’s then-paramour Susan Sarandon to quickly conceive of, write, and shoot a film that would take advantage of Canada’s tax-shelter boom, which allowed Canuck investors to deduct 100 percent of their stake in a movie from annual taxable income and launched the careers of directors like Bob Clark and David Cronenberg. (Guare alleged that part of the film’s $7.5 million budget came from a Winnipeg rabbi.)
The boyish figure in that old photo who so preoccupied Guare would become the sexagenarian never-was Lou Pasco (played by Burt Lancaster), a would-be outlaw and the unlikely hero of the film that became Atlantic City. Malle’s film, which debuted at the 1980 Venice Film Festival (where it shared the Golden Lion with John Cassavetes’s Gloria) before opening in the U.S. to great acclaim in April 1981, is a crime caper set in the long-woebegone resort destination, a seaside locale of faded glamour and tarnished glory, then in the midst of wide-scale demolition and tawdry corporate renewal, much to the disgust of Lou and his fellow old-timers. (Gambling was legalized in New Jersey through a 1976 referendum.) A low-level hustler hanging on decades past his prime, Lou makes his meager living running numbers for the mostly working-class Black clientele of a sleazy bookie/drug dealer (John McCurry) and working as an errand boy for an arthritic, bedridden gangster’s moll named Grace (deliciously vivified with a foghorn’s roar by Kate Reid, resembling a funhouse version of Joan Blondell). Though she came to Atlantic City for a Betty Grable lookalike contest, Grace now seldom leaves the cramped apartment below Lou’s in a dilapidated building on the boardwalk. The two are connected by a bell whose clang informs him that it’s time to make her breakfast, walk her dog, or just sit by her side and remember the old days.
“It’s all shit now,” Lou bluntly announces of Atlantic City, bemoaning the lack of “floy floy” that characterized its better, lawless days, quoting the song “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy),” a Depression-era hit by the Black jazz duo Slim & Slam that is as obsolete as our hero. Lou is reminiscing about “the rackets, whoring, [and] guns” of his checkered past to a new friend, a scruffy, unwashed hippie named Dave (Robert Joy) who has intercepted a drug deal in Philadelphia while hitchhiking with the heavily pregnant Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), the sister of his estranged wife, Sally (Sarandon). Dave has befriended Lou in the hopes that this high-talking relic might be able to serve as a go-between in his efforts to offload his stolen cocaine, cannily mixed with baby laxative.
What Dave doesn’t know is that Lou has spent his nights hopelessly pining for Sally, who lives in the apartment next to his. In the film’s opening and most famousimage, Sarandon sensuously bathes her arms and torso with freshly squeezed lemon juice to the stately sounds of Elizabeth Harwood singing an aria from Bellini’s opera Norma. As the camera zooms out, we discover that Lou is cautiously, rapturously watching Sally through drawn window blinds. The eroticism of this moment is later grounded in practical, even shameful necessity: Sally, a recent arrival in Atlantic City, works behind the counter at an oyster bar in a casino hotel and uses lemons to rid herself of the fishy after-odor of her labor. Ten years prior to the events of the film, Sally hitched herself to Dave, the first man willing to take her away from their sleepy hometown of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. (Curiously enough, Atlantic City shares a historical connection to Moose Jaw, whose underground tunnels were used by rumrunners during Prohibition; unsubstantiated anecdotes have proliferated for years about run-ins between various Saskatchewanians and Al Capone.) After Dave burned her name in Nevada and impregnated her sister, Sally settled by the Atlantic, training to become a croupier under the tutelage of a bombastic French instructor (Michel Piccoli) intent on getting in her pants, all while tending to her dreams of self-betterment and dealing cards in Monaco.
Lou and Sally’s paths will eventually converge, but its leads don’t properly meet until 45 minutes into the movie’s runtime, once Dave is fatally stabbed by the dealers he ripped off, the murder captured in an indelible chase through the levels of a mechanical parking lot, all while Lou is making four grand from part of Dave’s diluted stash, selling it to the amused organizer (the hilarious Al Waxman, a treasure in his native Toronto) of a round-the-clock hotel room poker game. When Sally comes to the hospital to identify Dave’s body, Lou introduces himself and offers to take her home, a scene featuring a winking cameo by a never-oilier Robert Goulet, seen crooning “Atlantic City, My Old Friend” at the opening of the new Frank Sinatra Wing. From there, Sally and Lou, newly emboldened by his nettings and sporting a flashy white suit, spend a whirlwind day together, having a lavish lunch and taking care of Dave’s funeral arrangements, all on Lou’s dime.
Atlantic City is a film full of odd, mismatched duos, including brassy Grace and the woo-woo Chrissie, a reincarnation-touting healer who becomes the elder dame’s temporary caretaker. But it’s the central relationship between Sarandon and Lancaster that most beguiles. What propels Malle’s film is the incongruous pairingof a vaguely familiar actress at the outset of a major career though still, at this stage, trying to hoist herself off of Hollywood’s B-list and an Oscar-winning star nearing the end of a strangely eclectic filmography that ran the gamut from hard-bitten, low-cost noir to bloated studio message movies to sweeping art-house epics by Luchino Visconti.
Lancaster eagerly, immediately accepted Malle’s offer to star in Atlantic City after the director and Guare came across his image in a portfolio of aging American actors and agreed that he was perfect for the part. Once cameras started rolling in the fall of 1979, Lancaster began butting heads with Malle, requiring Sarandon to act as intermediary. Few actors have been better suited to their role, especially in the winter of their career, than Lancaster is to Lou. With his barrel chest and beanstalk frame, Lancaster was an electric and alluring leading man in his Hollywood prime, and yet an air of desperation suffused so many of his performances. Whether Lancaster was playing heroes or hucksters, what stood out were the beads of sweat trickling down his forehead, the bated breath, the silver tongue that never completely disguised the cracks of a man with something to lose.
Tasked here with playing a veritable and visibly wizened nobody, a man nicknamed “numb nuts” for running away when his boss was gunned down, Lancaster taps into a mortal vulnerability veiled in his past screen incarnations, pathetically burnishing a reputation that never existed. When the goons who killed Dave attack Sally outside her building, Lou can only stand by helplessly, too weak and too old to intervene. In close-up, the blanched look on Lancaster’s face is a pitiful encapsulation of human frailty and soul-killing cowardice; this grimace gives deeper meaning to the moment when Lou is finally able to act and kills the same goons with a gun stowed away for a rainy day. At other times, Lancaster effortlessly rekindles the fire in his belly that typified earlier efforts, not least in his frisky rapport with his costar.
Sarandon, who grew up just a couple of hours away from the Atlantic City in central New Jersey, remains an actress whose greatness I never question yet often struggle to define. Neither a protean chameleon nor a scaler of great emotional heights, Sarandon is distinguished instead by the fierceness of her pinpoint focus, concentrated in those sanpaku eyes that seldom waver and captured most effectively in Atlantic City when Sally stares transfixed at her estranged husband’s corpse for several time-stopping seconds. There’s a distinction made on a recent episode of HBO’s Irma Vep between becoming the character and letting the character become you; the latter is where I think Sarandon’s skillset resides. Locating her characters from within rather than relying on accents, cosmetics or theatrics, connecting to a woman as callow, chaotic, and kookily inclined as Sally on a gut level, Sarandon is always recognizably Sarandon, yet she also seems meant to be exactly where she is onscreen, brilliantly alive to each moment and the wavelengths of those around her.
Sarandon and Lancaster give Lou and Sally’s short-lived relationship a genuine, warm-blooded tenderness. This is crucial to the film, not least of all when Sally, upon hearing Lou reveal his Peeping Tom tendencies, proceeds to unbutton her shirt, get on her knees, and offer herself to a man old enough to be her father. The actual sex that occurs is kept strictly off-camera, and yet it’s a development impossible to imagine being attempted today. In these actors’ playing, this is an act straightforward in its mutual consent, presented neither as farce nor grotesquery nor violent act. (The scene proved difficult for even Lancaster to wrap his head around. As Sarandon recalled years later for Kate Buford, the actor’s biographer, “It was very, very difficult for him to understand, to embrace initially that she gave herself to him. He saw it as him pretty much taking her clothes off and taking her.”) This scene—along with the instances of Lou’s voyeurism, as forthright a depiction of the much-maligned “male gaze” as one is likely to find in movies—have surely aged Atlantic City irreparably in the eyes of certain viewers, no matter that Lancaster’s gentlemanly manner fends off the whiff of lechery that could have easily explained his character.
It is to Lancaster’s and Sarandon’s credit that Lou and Sally’s bond feels not like a fated union between soulmates betrayed by time but a fleeting intersection of two souls on decisively separate paths. Atlantic City is the run-down playground where this meeting is made possible. Atlantic City was also the location for Lancaster’s rendezvous with Ava Gardner after he robs a factory and double-crosses his co-conspirators in the actor’s debut film, Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946). In that noir, Lancaster is again hoodwinked by the woman he covets when Gardner takes off with his money, leaving him in the lurch. Atlantic City, too, is where Lancaster was vacationing in July 1946 when he received an auspicious telegram from Universal producer Mark Hellinger. The Killers had just screened for the press to great enthusiasm and as Hellinger wrote to Lancaster, “I am afraid you’re destined to be a big star, you poor guy.”
Malle’s film also culminates with a woman taking Lancaster’s money and running as Sally nicks part of Lou’s drug profits and drives away in the murdered goons’ car, suddenly possessing the means to reach her far-flung dream of starting anew in France. The theft is a gift, an escape route from one with more time behind him than before himbestowed to one with plenty more life left. Without striving for import, Malle and Guare describe an alternative version of the American dream: not pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps but scrounging up enough cash to hightail it out of America, crawling through a cracked window of opportunity and hoping that what lies on the other side will provide one with enough to survive, if not thrive. I am unfailingly moved by the long shot of Sarandon speeding away, the sun rising around her at golden hour, her life suddenly larger than her dreary apartment and portable cassette player, her possibilities endless. Who hasn’t, at one time or another, cast oneself in the same scene, wondering what it might be like to leave the world we’ve known behind?
For Lou, the conquering hero, Atlantic City is enough. Malle’s film is something like a fairy tale set in a very real and rapidly deteriorating kingdom. It’s a film about transitory connections, dashed ambitions, and unexpected bravery, but it’s also, for me, about the uncomplicated magic of a good story skillfully and soulfully told, infatuated with its characters and ruefully romantic about the lives they might still forge for themselves. It ends with two golden agers blissfully strolling past the starkly unattractive sight of yet another boardwalk edifice being repeatedly smashed by a wrecking ball. They’ve just pulled off one final score and they’re pleased to be in each other’s company. It’s all shit now, but there’s room enough yet to dream and scheme.