Thursday, December 17, 2015

Before I Die #560*: Atlantic City (1980)

*This is the 560th of the 1,172 films on the "Before You Die" list which I am gradually working my way through. There was a jump between film #553, 3-iron, and this one since there were 10 new films added to the list this year. I had already seen 6 of them; hence the jump to #560.

Director: Louis Malle

An unusual blend of crime and wistfulness that makes for interesting viewing.

Atlantic City takes place roughly in the year it was released, 1980. True to history, the setting is an Atlantic City that is attempting to come back from decades of hard times, following the boom of the 1900s through the 1930s. Reflecting this attempted revitalisation is the movie's protagonist, Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aged former criminal who subsists by running small-time lottery numbers for a local dabbler in criminal activities. Lou had been around during the boom times during and immediately after Prohibition, when he had some contact with the gangsters who would become some of the most infamous in U.S. history, including Nucky Johnson and Lucky Luciano. Whereas those more notable figures are all dead or in prison, Lou remains to languish in Atlantic City.

Lou's opportunity for revival comes in the form of an accidental run-in with the drifting, estranged husband of his neighbor, Sally (Susan Sarandon). Sally's husband has stolen a bag of cocaine, which he needs Lou's help to sell. Lou sees this as a rare chance to make some real money and be an authentic gangster, if only for a little while. Lou must navigate some troubled waters in order to realize his modest dreams of success. There are vengeful mobsters lurking about, and Sally has some concerning personal troubles of her own.

The veneer of the movie can be a bit drab. Some of this is the dilapidated setting of a worn out city. Buildings are falling apart; wallpaper is peeling; and people's clothing is often garish or simply unattractive. Much of this was clearly intentional, though some is merely the product of outdated styles from 1980. It can make the movie a bit hard to watch after an hour or so. It doesn't help that the dialogue doesn't offer the actors much chance to do anything organic or interesting. It isn't bad, per se, but neither is it particularly interesting.

Amid the sad urban blight and garish neon lights, Lou and
Sally find odd sorts of comfort with each other. It may be
fleeting, but it does pack emotional punch. 
Once you get past these flatter aesthetic elements, though, the story is well worth taking in. Unlike nearly all other gangster movies, this one is a very subdued study of character. There are no criminal masterminds or powerfully cunning kingpins here. Lou is a D-grade wannabe thief from the past who is still clinging to a faded dream of criminal glory. Burt Lancaster plays the part extremely well, and Susan Sarandon's turn as his love interest, Sally, matches him well. There is an interesting uncertainly as to the resolution of Lou and Sally's tale, as the third act teases multiple possible outcomes, several of which could have been satisfying. The actual finale was a rather atypical one, which I appreciated.

Though I may never watch this movie again, it was well worth viewing once. It stands as a very different entry into the library of gangster movies, making it a must-see for fans of the genre.

That's 560 down, only 612 to go before I can die.