Directed by Louis Malle
Genres : Fiction - Runtime : 1 h 44 min
French release : 03/09/1980
Production year : 1980
Some years after her husband, Dave, ran off with her sister, Sally Matthews finds herself working in a casino in Atlantic City. One day, Dave and her sister turn up on her doorstep, looking for a place to stay. Unbeknown to Sally, Dave has intercepted a stash of drugs which he intends to push in Atlantic City, with the help of Sally’s neighbour, an ageing one-time gangster named Lou. When Dave is killed by the crooks from whom he stole the drugs, Lou decides to take Sally under his wing, abandoning Kate, an old widow he has been looking after for the past few decades. Lou and Sally seem to have it made – until the gangsters catch up with them...
Atlantic City was filmed on location in and around Atlantic City and South Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York. Although filmed in the United States, the film was a co-production between companies based in France and Canada. Aside from Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, and local extras, most of the cast originated from Canada or France. The film allowed Canadian actors such as Kate Reid and Al Waxman to successfully transition into American film and television roles.
The production companies alloted Louis Malle the money to make a film with the stipulation that it be made before the year 1979 ended. Malle had a difficult time finding the right script to direct and with time running out his then girlfriend Susan Sarandon suggested using a story written by her friend John Guare, a playwright most notable for his plays House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. Guare suggested that the story take place in Atlantic City, which was still for the most part suffering from the urban deterioration that prompted the legalization of gambling as a solution to save the city. The three met over dinner in early 1979 to work out quirks in the script and began shooting within a few months.
Principal photography commenced on October 31, 1979 and moved swiftly along finishing by December 30, 1979 just in time for the end of the year (a few exterior and location shots were filmed until January 5, 1980). Malle filmed at an opportune time in that he was able to capture old Atlantic City: gambling was still in its early stages there, with only two casino hotels open (Resorts and Caesars; Bally's Park Place would open on December 30, toward the end of the principal photography). Most of the city's old resorts and entertainment piers were still standing, albeit in a severe state of disrepair. Within a couple of years of the filming, most of the these old hotels would fall victim to the wrecking ball as they were replaced with new casinos. To frame the picture, Malle foreshadows the great transition of the famous resort town in the opening credits by featuring footage of the implosion of the once-grand and historic Traymore Hotel on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
Louis Malle hired composer Michel Legrand to write a score for the film, which he did. In the end, however, Malle decided against using a score for the film, and opted for all the music in the film to be ambient: the only music used is that which exists in the world of the characters (i.e. radios, musical instruments, etc.).
The film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1980 in a tie with John Cassavetes' Gloria.
Atlantic City was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Burt Lancaster), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Susan Sarandon), Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen. In 2003, Atlantic City was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
For his second English language film, Louis Malle returned to somewhat safer territory than his first. Compared with the controversial Pretty Baby (1978), Atlantic City would appear to be a pretty unremarkable film, a fairly conventional mix of American crime thriller and romance. Certainly, the film is one of Malle’s most restrained works, showing little of the atmosphere or inspiration of his previous French language films.
What begins as a somewhat run-of-the-mill crime drama gradually evolves into an engaging romantic drama, spiced up with the occasional brilliant comic touch. What sets Atlantic City part, and has made it something of a cult classic, is the way it gently turns the traditional gangster movie on its head, presenting its crooked central character as a vulnerable, tragically flawed human being rather than a glamorous hero or villain. The crumbling, run-down location of Atlantic City serves as the perfect backdrop, providing a very powerful visual symbol of the decline of the film’s central character Lou, a fading crook played brilliantly by Burt Lancaster (in one of his most memorable film roles).
As the old gambling halls are being pulled down to make way for new, legalised casinos, the city is experiencing a kind of rebirth. In a similar way, the arrival of Sally and her drugs-pushing ex-husband into his life represents a kind of rebirth for Lou. But, try as he might, Lou’s new lease of life is illusory, and the experience only serves to remind him of his failed past and to, ultimately, put him back in his place.
Film enthusiasts will easily spot the references to class film noir – after all, Louis Malle was, like his French New Wave contemporaries François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, greatly influenced by the American B movies of the 1940s. Whilst admittedly not as stylish as Louis Malle’s first, and most celebrated, crime thriller, L’Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958), Atlantic City is stronger in its characterisation and cruel sense of irony.
Atlantic City received critical acclaim and was nominated for five Oscars (best actor, best actress, best director, best film and best original screenplay), although it won none. It was to be Louis Malle’s most successful film (grossing around 10 million dollars) and was a huge success in the United States.
© James Travers 2002
Source : cinemaforever.com
Production and distribution
Co-production : NEF - Nouvelles Éditions de Films
Associate Producer : Justine Héroux
Screenwriter : John Guare
Director of Photography : Richard Ciupka
Sound Recordist : Jean-Claude Laureux
Editor : Suzanne Baron
Music Composer : Michel Legrand
Production Designer : Anne Pritchard
Sound Mixer : Jacques Maumont
Genres : Fiction
Sub-genre : Drama
Themes : Games
Production language : English, French
Nationality : 50% French (France, Canada)
Production year : 1980
French release : 03/09/1980
Runtime : 1 h 44 min
Current status : Released
Visa number : 51625
Visa issue date : 17/09/1980
Approval : Unknown
Production formats :
Color type : Color
Aspect ratio : 1.85
Sound format : Mono