Of the four Louis Malle films I’ve seen—the other three being Murmur of the Heart, Lacombe Lucien and Au Revoir Les Enfants—Atlantic City is the weakest, and though it is not a bad film, I found it disappointing considering how long I’ve wanted to see it and how thrilling I expected it to be. Malle was a fine crafter of war films, which is to say of urban and rural malaise in wartime, but the crime film is a different breed and I don’t think it was Malle’s strength. The narrative is of a classic mold: an aged ex-gangster, in this case Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster), looks back on his glory days—to the extent that he had any glory days to begin with and isn’t deluding himself—and longs for one last chance to flex his muscles, and gets it. There’s nothing wrong with putting out your own take on a traditional story such as this, but you’ve either got to stick to its tragic, inevitable outcome (Le Samouraï, not a film about aging but still a great classicist example) or put a spin on it (Sexy Beast). Atlantic City does neither. It has a third act rife with potential for crisis and explosion—with a double murder, a guy bragging about it to everyone, a stolen car and a stolen stash of money—yet the characters walk away from the pigsty scot-free. What an unbelievable copout.
I could write that this occurs because the film has a European tone, which relies more on consistency and patience and less on notions of rising and falling actions than American cinema, but which doesn’t seem like the most proper filter for an American crime story. But that wouldn’t be a fair criticism. The script is by playwright John Guare, and the characterizations and dialogue thus come with quirks, elaborations and slices of exposition that would be fine for theatre but that don’t always work on film. At the story’s center is Lou’s friendship with Grace Pinza (Kate Reid), a widowed, bedridden, shrill hypochondriac living in a garish apartment with medicine-pink walls and the tawdriest gewgaws, whom Lou does favors for at his own expense. It’s a character you wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect in a crime story, and it depends on Reid’s talents to sell it, which she does. Then, there’s Joseph (Michel Piccoli, the painter in La Belle Noiseuse, one of my favorite French films), the boss of the casino where Lou’s neighbor and love interest, the much younger Sally (Susan Sarandon), works at the oyster bar and trains as a baccarat dealer. He teaches Sally some French and tries to convince her to become a courtesan. He is a thoroughly unnecessary creation, a pathetic foil to Lou, and cannot be saved even by Piccoli’s immense stature. At other times, the acting doesn’t even bother to save the dialogue. Hollis McLaren, as Sally’s sister Chrissie, is a clichéd country girl with pigtails to boot, Robert Joy, as Sally’s estranged husband Dave, is stodgy and awkward. Fortunately, he is dispatched early on, in a deft action sequence set in a car elevator. The cocaine he stole from the Philadelphia mob—an entity represented here by a beefcake thug and a gunman in fedora and trench coat, two more clichés—ends up in Lou’s hands, setting the mob on Lou and Sally’s trail and giving the plot its thrust.
The plot is low-stakes; the script makes Dave out to be rather boorish, so his death doesn’t have much emotional impact on the ensemble, and the ending makes all that came before it look like good, clean fun. What’s more, the love story between Lou and Sally has not dated well. Oedipus complex aside, it hinges on Lou spying on Sally, through the window, going topless and exfoliating herself with lemon juice. This leads to some nifty cinematography (from Richard Ciupka), such as the opening shot that starts as a close-up on the lemons and ends in Lou’s apartment, but today, Lou comes off as a senile creeper, and the scene where Lou confesses his lust to Sally and Sally is moved to disrobe is seen for what it is: an implausible fantasy, barely rescued by Lancaster’s charisma and Sarandon’s emoting. What Malle and Guare leave us with is a jumbling of disparate genres and archetypes that don’t quite jive with each other, but that are by themselves mostly curious and well-acted enough to merit interest. So I’ll recommend this, though I’ve spent a lot of this review focused on the flaws, because I know Malle better than this. Now go watch Murmur of the Heart, and keep an open mind about the ending.
Tomorrow: Another film that I have high hopes for, and that I am more confident will be a masterpiece: Marketa Lazarová.