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.