Atlantic City – a strange co-production and an essential ’80s movie

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Atlantic City movie poster

Recently, I’ve been revisiting movies from the ’80s, an undervalued cinematic decade, I believe.

A flick I loved as a kid – I was probably 15 or 16 when I saw it the first time – is Atlantic City.

I hadn’t seen the 1980 movie for years if not decades, but watching it again last week I was happy to see that it’s stood the test of time.

Burt Lancaster plays Lou, a washed-up bag-man for the mob; Susan Sarandon is Sally, the neighbour he spies on (never mind the fact that, though they’re shown to live side-by-side in an apartment building, they somehow have windows that look in on each other’s kitchens) watches her rub lemons on her breasts to get the fish smell out (she works at an oyster bar in a casino while she’s learning to be a dealer).

When Lou falls into a cache of mob-money thanks to Sally’s no-good ex-husband (Robert Joy), Atlantic City takes a turn for the desperate as the two go on the lam from a threatening Moses Znaimer and his silent, menacing goon. The plotline is decent but Atlantic City shines in the performances, especially Lancaster and Kate Reid, who plays the ex-mob wife whom Lou looks after.

Burt Lancaster Atlantic City movie image

Burt Lancaster in Atlantic City (1980).

Louis Malle, who directed, finds the burnished soul of the city; there’s a great cameo by Robert Goulet. Speaking of cameos, that’s Wallace Shawn (credited as “Wally Shawn”) as a waiter in a later scene.

Burt Lancaster Susan Sarandon Atlantic City movie

Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City (1980).

What is perhaps most curious about seeing the movie 30+ years later, is the weird Canadian component, something I didn’t pick up on the first time(s) I watched it.

The movie is a France-Canada co-production (hence Malle directing). This means that there are plenty of Canadian actors (Ried, Joy, Al “King of Kensington” Waxman), that Sarandon’s Sally is learning French, and there are lots of references to her hometown of Moosejaw (“It’s near Medicine Hat” she says at one point). Needless to say, she’s determined not to go back to Saskatchewan, a motivation that drives the plot somewhat.

Susan Sarandon Atlantic City

Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City.

It’s a cliché to say this is the kind of movie that couldn’t be made today, but in the quirkiness of its co-production requirement and the attention paid to character development in the screenplay (by John Guare) and direction, Atlantic City really is a gem from another era of filmmaking. In heart and soul it’s more of a ’70s movie, but it helped usher in a decade that included some pretty great movies as well.

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