Atlantic City is a film filled with regretful nostalgia and failure. It succeeds in depicting a very specific place and time, and filling it with equally specific characters. I’ve never really seen a film like it. It’s a film about people on the edge of civilization who refuse to give up even though they probably should.
Lou (Burt Lancaster) is a washed up small time mobster, still living in Atlantic City after the mob has mostly been driven out. He takes small bets, looks after an aging beauty queen and mob widow, Grace (Kate Reid), living down stairs, and spies on the young woman living next door. That woman is Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon), who dreams of becoming a blackjack dealer in Monte Carlo but for now is stuck working at an oyster bar in Atlantic City. When Sally’s husband Dave (Robert Joy) comes back to town with her pregnant sister Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) and some stolen cocaine in tow, Sally wants nothing to do with them. Lou positions himself as a big time mobster in Dave’s eyes, and helps him sell the stolen cocaine, but this only does more harm than good when the cocaine’s rightful owners catch up with them.
The whole cocaine plot merely gives the reason for the story to exist, when what is actually important is happening between the characters. The film is mostly about Lou, and him chasing his glory days. Over the course of the film, you come to realize that his glory days weren’t that glorious at all. He never was a big time gangster, which of course is probably the only reason he’s still alive and in Atlantic City. It is kind of heartwarming to see him set up to the plate and become the tough guy he always wanted to be, even if he’s like seventy years old by the time he accomplishes his dreams, albeit on a small level.
The great thing about Lou and how Lancaster portrays him is that he knows he’s a failure. He manages to capture that dual nature of failures everywhere, that they simultaneously expect to amount to nothing and are angry at themselves for failing to do exactly what they know they can’t. This movie, through Lou’s character, brings that across perfectly the first time Lou fails to protect Sally. Lou knows he was never chivalrous, but perhaps through his recent success as a drug dealer, expects to be able to overcome that obstacle.
Atlantic City succeeds in being a portrait of a time and place where people are struggling and just can’t quite make it. Whether they are on their slow and unlikely way up as Sally is, or having a last bit of glory before they check out as Lou is, they all end up being in the same boat. That is really the reason I liked the film, the tenuous connections between surprisingly similar characters at transition points in their lives. I can’t even pinpoint exactly how, but Atlantic City just captured that feeling so well.
“You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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