In one of Burt Lancaster’s finest roles he had the misfortune, and then the great fortune, to go head-to-head for the audience’s affection with Susan Sarandon’s lemons.
Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980) traces the decay and rebirth of a city and a man as Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aged one-bit-hood who’s sniffed but never tasted a life of crime, bumbles his way into his beautiful neighbor’s screwed-up life. That neighbor is Sally (Susan Sarandon), and her daily work in a casino oyster bar leads to the ritual cleansing of her bare breasts and arms with lemon juice each night. Watching the painstakingly thorough application of said juice through Sally’s kitchen window, we share a voyeur’s perch with Lou from his darkened room next door. Thus begins our identification with Lou–through our common depravity.
The first fifteen minutes spread out silently, setting the plot and place like a gentle ocean wave lapping the shoreline. Such sustained quiet in a film is striking in its own right, but all the more unlikely when you realize it was written by a playwright. This is John Guare’s only attempt at conceiving a project explicitly for the silver screen, and you wonder if he just got bored with the medium because it came so naturally to him.
Louis Malle has juxtaposed much of the opening action with scenes of demolished and decayed buildings. Old Atlantic City was razed and rebuilt with the legalization of gambling in 1976, a metamorphosis etched in the lines of Lou’s rumpled suits. Gone is the city’s axis of organized crime, replaced by the glitz of the legal jackpot and the free-for-all drug trade. Lou is just another decrepit structure, waiting for the wrecking ball. Watching Lou running numbers through the poverty stricken parts of town, or trying to hock a shamefully stolen cigarette case, he seems outside of time–like a guy selling Christmas trees in May.
As Lou shuffles around town enduring a series of humiliations, Burt Lancaster is not “mugging” in any scene. There’s no winking to the audience, reminding us not to confuse Lou with Burt. This is an actor finding the most pathetic corners of his soul and exposing them for us to judge.
Because Lancaster gives such an honest performance, he takes the audience to wildly unexpected places. Lou descends into his gangster fantasy, enabled by the accidentally successful execution of a drug deal that lines his pockets for a few days, and he takes us along for the ride. As the character Lou becomes more and more deluded, the actor infuses him with a noticeable heft and vigor. He straightens his back. He moves more gracefully and charm starts to ooze in his every utterance. He’s bluffing everybody, including the audience, and we should know better because we know what he’s holding.
His bluff works best on Sally – who’s been blindsided by the unexpected return and violent death of her estranged husband Dave. Actually, estranged doesn’t cover it – he ran off with her kid sister, knocked her up and returned to peddle some stolen dope from her home. What’s the word for that? When Lou extends a knowing, comforting, wealthy-looking hand to her, she’s in no position to question the help. The irony, of course, is that Lou’s holding Dave’s drugs and money, sucking Sally right back into the drama surrounding her dead husband.
Lou has been watching gansters all his life, and now that the time has come to play the part, he grabs it with both hands. He wraps the mist of illusion around them so tightly, we can almost believe their love scene. Maybe for a minute. Which is all Malle and Guare give to them.
Physical violence ends the charade. When thugs push Lou aside to attack Sally, he crumples in the corner. The curve returns to his spine as if crushed by the weight of reality. And we realize what we’ve endorsed thus far is nothing more than a cheap veil covering a rotten dream.
Lou realizes it too, just in the nick of time to salvage what passes for a happy ending. He’s got to extricate Sally from the mess he’s created. And though he’d rather high-tail it on the first bus out of town than face the actual danger he’s stirred up, she drags him into the fight where he’s got to pull the trigger to save them both. All the typical positive outcomes are flipped on their heads. Success would be murder. Happiness would be an appearance on a wanted poster. That’s how it ends in Atlantic City.
It’s hard to believe that the Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” was not conceived for, or at least in reference to, this film. It shows how accessible these themes were at this time around this place. Still, they mingle in my mind as one extended meditation. A terrific companion to the movie, whether or not they have any other than the title in common.