By John H. Foote
Lou (Burt Lancaster) talks a big game. He can do it because there is no one really around to refute his tall tales about being a big shot gangster in Atlantic City years before. Truth be known he was nothing more than a numbers runner for the mob, but having outlived them all, he can now talk the big talk. The only one who knows the truth is Grace (Kate Reid), a one time beauty, moll to the top man, who Lou now takes care of and endures her abuse. She knows what he was, and never ceases to remind him of it.
Lou has a secret that she does not know. Each night he goes to his window and watches Sally (Susan Sarandon), a young woman working in an oyster bar, come home and rub lemons on her skin to take away the stench of the oysters. She takes off her shirt, her bra and rubs lemons up her arms, her neck, on her breasts, everywhere while Lou watches, transfixed on her beauty. Who is she? How can he meet her? The old man is smitten with her.
When he encounters David (Robert Joy), a small time thief on the run with a connection to Sally, Lou offers to help him. David has made the foolish mistake of stealing a block of cocaine from the mob in Philadelphia and they are after him in Atlantic City. Offering to help him sell the drugs, Lou takes it and indeed makes a sale to a group of businessmen on a bender in a hotel playing cards. In the meantime David is murdered by the mob, leaving Lou with a stash of cash and more cocaine to sell. Suddenly he is a swell, with lots of money in his pocket, new clothes on his back and ready to meet Sally and tell her about his imagined life as a mobster. Of course, in his new white suit and impressive appearance, she is at once taken with him, whispering to him, “teach me stuff”, which he is most willing to do. Sally takes the older man home and they make love, sending Lou over the moon.
When she learns that Lou has money that belonged to the now dead David, she wants part of it, stating he was her ex husband. Suddenly their relationship alters dramatically.
However, the mobsters who killed David soon make the connection to Sally and, while she is at work, they trash her apartment looking for the drugs or the money. Encountering her at work they attack the two lovers, beating Lou down and hurting Sally, making clear their intentions. Lou is humiliated that he could not be a man and fight for Sally, ashamed he is an old man. The next time they are approached by the goons, Lou shocks Sally by pulling out a gun and killing the two of them without hesitation. Stunned at what he has done, while he is elated, they decide to flee Atlantic City and hit the road with their stash of cash. But after seeing composite drawings of the murder suspect on television, and realizing the police are not looking for Lou at all, she takes half the money, Lou gives her the car and she heads off to find her new life, while Lou returns to Grace, who now sees him differently, respecting him for what he has done, he is no longer a big talker, but a man of action.
Burt Lancaster gave the performance of his lifetime in Atlantic City, bringing a vulnerability to the character of Lpu that made him sweet, even sad. Wistful at being someone big, a man people feared, respected and looked up to, he knows deep down he is nothing of the kind. But the money he makes from the cocaine, brings him respect, and when he kills the goons coming after he and Sally, he does not care about taking a human life, his only thought is that he protected her from harm. Lancaster had been great in the past, winning an Academy Award for his preacher in Elmer Gantry (1960) and, though very good in that, he went to another level in this film, giving an astonishing performance of great depth and visceral power.
There is a haunting, melancholy quality to his work, he simply knew this was the role of his lifetime and gave it everything he had. Lancaster won Best Actor awards from the Boston Film Critics, the LA Film Critics, the NY Film Critics Circle, the National Society of Film Critics, the British Film and Television Academy and Canada’s Genie Award, and though nominated for both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe, he lost to Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981) the year’s sentimental vote. Lancaster’s towering performance was hailed by Pauline Kael as one for the ages and drew many to the film when it opened in New York City, a Canadian-France production directed by Louise Malle.
Wide eyed Susan Sarandon was terrific as Sally, dreaming of being a dealer as she shucks oysters all day in the bar where she works. Sarandon was best known to audiences for her campy performance as Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) but would evolve into one of the most formidable actresses in film after her work in Atlantic City. Her huge doe eyes capture everything she sees, locking it into her memory for the rest of time, she misses nothing. She too was an Oscar nominee, for Best Actress, possessinbg a heartbreaking chemistry with Lancaster. In another time, perhaps they would have driven off into the sunset.
Louis Malle gave the film a gritty realism, capturing the seedier sides of the famous gambling city, showing the under belly of the world of gambling. Lou was once a player, however minor in that world years before, but now stays alive running a numbers game with small time gamblers. The film has the feel and look of a documentary, a credit to Malle’s direction and quest for realism.
This was the first Canadian nominated for Best Picture!
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.