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Movie Reviews

Atlantic City  

I have not been fortunate enough - yet - to see many of Burt Lancaster`s films, especially classics such as From Here to Eternity and Elmer Gantry (his Oscar-winning role). But I`ve been lucky to see at least one movie which does contain a fascinating role, the 1980 film Atlantic City.

Lancaster plays Lou, an aging man whose life consists of numbers-running and taking care of Grace (Kate Reid), a former beauty queen. They live during a time when Atlantic City makes the transition from illegal gambling and crime to legitimate casinos and tourist traps. Lou, however, has a soft spot for the old days, and fancies himself as someone with the potential to be a high-class gangster like that of Capone, or Bugsy Siegal. He may finally get his wish.

 Buy Atlantic City [1981] on DVD at Amazon!

A man and a pregnant woman show up at the doorstep of Lou`s neighbour, played by Susan Sarandon. The man is, in fact, Sarandon`s husband, and the woman is her sister, who the husband decided to run away with. As well, the husband has stolen some cocaine meant for a drug lord, in hopes of making lots of cash. With Lou`s help, he attempts to sell the drugs. But the drug lord does eventually catch up with the husband, and kills him. It is at this point when the true story begins, as Lou finds himself with a lot of unsold cocaine, which nobody knows is in his poesession, which he can then sell and reap the financial benefits of crime for what perhaps is the first time of his life. And he is also able to get closer to Sarandon, a woman whom he voyeuristically watches frequently. Lou`s delusions of grandeur may finally come to fruition.

Despite the outlines of the plot, I wouldn`t call this a crime drama. What little action there is feels almost like an afterthought. The nature of this film leans much more toward a very subtle form of comedy. This is apparent when one studies the Lancaster performance. He plays Lou with absolute dignity and sincerity. Yet everything he says is nonsense. He gives the appearance of a wizened man, familiar with the ins and outs of old-fashioned underground crime, and in his conversations with both Sarandon and the husband, he even spins a few tales of being a great lover, of regretting the occasions in which he had to bump off a few people, and waxing nostalgic over the good old days in general - "You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days." All these speeches simmer with very subtle humour. It soon becomes clear to us that in reality Lou is merely a gentle and silly old man, who has always stood in awe of the "great" criminals, and who now finally has the cash to make himself act like one too. Yet while other characters might merely play up Lou`s foolishness and turn this movie into straight-ahead comedy, Lancaster gives Lou a mystery, an irony. You can see the emotion, and the need in his eyes; he really does want to be the person who he attempts to model himself after, and you wonder why he feels that he must do this. He is a dreamer, growing more and more senile and pathetic, who stumbles upon the perfect situation where he can wear his facade of criminal greatness.

But while Lancaster puts on a brillant facade, he can only be effective to Sarandon and the husband because they, like others who do not live in Atlantic City, see only the romance as well. These two character are from the Canadian Praries, quite far from the big city, and they, too, have dreams of success and the easy life. But the lesson to be learned is that reality, in the violent form of the drug lord, and even in such mundane things as unchallenging employment and mediocre housing, is not perfect.

It may surprise you to learn that this film, about what is essentially the American Dream, is officially a Canadian-France production, partially paid for by Canadian tax dollars, and not a true "Hollywood" film. The supporting cast includes many faces who are familiar to those who remember old CBC television programs, including Louis Del Grande (Seeing Things), and Al Waxman (King of Kensington), as well as many faces who have cropped up often yet remain nameless. The only thing missing is Gordon Pinsent. The funniest thing, for those who know their Canadiana, is to see Moses Zaimer, media guru and owner of MuchMusic, Bravo!, CITY-TV, etc, make what is a crucial appearance, as, get this, the drug lord chasing Sarandon`s ex-husband! The question I`d like answered is whether Louis Malle, the great French director, was so strapped for support that he had to beg Moses and the Canadian government to lend him some cash!!

No matter. Atlantic City is still a classic, unique film, done in the style of many European filmmakers, and anchored by a masterful appearance from a Hollywood legend.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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