Atlantic City (1980) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

This movie is rarely mentioned with the great films of the 1980's, but it is much too good to have been forgotten so quickly.

Burt Lancaster plays a superannuated small-time hoodlum in Atlantic City. Although he's still the same unimportant bag man that he was in his youth, that's not the story he tells his new acquaintances. To hear him recall the old days, you'd think he stood side-by-side with Dillinger at the Biograph, except that he escaped and left John D to take the heat. Burt claims, for example, that he was once Bugsy Siegel's cellmate. True enough. Ol' Burt was locked up on a drunk and disorderly charge when Siegel was tossed into the same holding cell for ten minutes as he awaited transfer to Leavenworth.

When he meets people today, Burt claims to have been a major mobster, and claims he is now rich, studly, and important. In reality, he is entirely dependent on the largesse of his former boss's widow, who demeans him constantly and reminds him he has always been a loser. He also runs a few numbers in the poor neighborhoods, but the arrival of legalized gambling in Atlantic City has made illegal gambling a dying profession, and Burt finds himself working for pennies.

One day, by accident, he finds a route toward his dreams. His sexy neighbor receives a surprise visit from her deadbeat husband and her dim-witted sister. Burt befriends all three of them. The husband is a small-time dope dealer who somehow stumbled into a hefty amount of cocaine. He runs afoul of real mobsters when he tries to sell his stash in Atlantic City, so he ends up in the morgue, and Burt ends up with his stash. Within days, Burt has a wad of money, a sexy young girlfriend, a snazzy car, a new wardrobe, two murders on his hands, and some real mob enemies. In short, he starts to become the man he has been pretending to be.

This all plays out in quite an amusing way. Lancaster effectively walks a fine line between being pathetic and earning our identification. His sexy neighbor-turned-lover is played by Susan Sarandon, and their bittersweet romance, which consists of equal parts of genuine loving and swindling one another, is resolved in a sensible way that leaves them both with their pride and a bit of their dreams.

The film is about small-time people with big-time dreams, of course, and the setting of Atlantic City is perfect. In essence, the city (then a decaying summer resort struggling for a renaissance as the Vegas of the East) joins Sarandon (the girl from Moosejaw who dreams of being a French socialite) and Lancaster (the lowly mob bag man who dreams of being the godfather) in three parallel stories.

The movie has some very interesting elements:


Tuna's comments: Sarandon washes herself with lemon juice, to get rid of the fish smell from the oyster bar where she works, as Lancaster watches from across the way. The nipple eluded us for most of the scene, allowing only some partial peeks, but I found myself saying when the camera was behind her, "Is she going to keep facing that damned window forever?" Then a light went on. If she is bare-chested, and facing a window at night, there should be a reflection. Sure enough, there is her breast reflected back from the window.

1. Although this film is not primarily a comedy, it has some genuinely odd and offbeat humor, and cast a wry eye at both its main characters and society. As Sarandon walks away from identifying her husband's dead body in the hospital, she walks past the dedication ceremony of the hospital's new wing (The Frank Sinatra Wing), which is adjacent to the morgue. About fifty feet from the dead bodies, Robert Goulet is singing and schmoozing with the crowd and hospital officials. Sarandon tries to use the phone in the lobby to notify her husband's parents, while Goulet dogs her, mugging for the crowd, microphone in hand. I can picture it really happening. I'm sure Goulet probably has sung in a few morgues in his day, and probably doesn't see anything much different from the reaction he gets from live audiences.

"If ever I would grieve you"

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen, 1.85

  • it is a satisfactory print, but just barely. It seems too dark, and with too much noise. It appears to me that there is a much brighter, more vivid film still waiting to be exposed to the world.

2. The film starts out with about two minutes of Susan Sarandon washing her breasts with lemon juice, jiggling them back and forth, up and down. While her nipples are obscured by glass perfume jars, this scene is nonetheless very sensuous, and sets our expectations correctly for an unusual film.

3. For a film that is essentially a character-based European-style film about life's underbelly, with an often bleak atmosphere, and a satirical aloofness from its characters, it has a surprisingly upbeat ending. And, Lord help me, I found it very satisfying. 

 The film was much awarded, and nominated for five Oscars, all major ones (no wins):


Best Actor in a Leading Role Burt Lancaster
Best Actress in a Leading Role Susan Sarandon
Best Director Louis Malle
Best Picture
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen John Guare

Tuna's thoughts in yellow:

Atlantic City (1980) is, as Scoopy said, way too good a movie to have been forgotten. While it has plenty of humor, some action, and suspense, its real strength is interesting characters played to perfection, good cinematography, and a plot that is not predictable, so the proper genre is probably character-driven drama. The logical formula ending would have been to have Lancaster and Sarandon going to Monte Carlo together, and second (tragedy) choice would have been to have Lancaster killed. Neither of those things happened, so the ending was a surprise, and, what's more, it was true to life.

The Critics Vote


The People Vote ...

IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B. This is a helluva good, bittersweet, richly textured movie. The plot line is interesting enough that it will hold your attention. The cinematography is excellent. The characterizations are fascinating. Lancaster got the ultimate role of his senior years, and handled it deftly. Sarandon was naively sexy. It is not without flaws, but it can be very funny, it can be sad, and the ending made me feel good. (Tuna says: "Granted, I am a huge Sarandon fan, but I think most anyone will enjoy this film. B.")

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