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The '70s was a defining decade for the Northeast United States and filmmaking. Cities that had been known for their opulence slowly deteriorated, and the movie industry, which still had strong New York roots, reflected this. Seventies movies set in New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey were gritty tales about trying to escape the slums before they destroyed you. Directors like Scorcese used New York's deterioration like a canvas to paint their tales of desperation. While the cities burned, desperation spread, the seedy underbelly of society grew, and '70s films captured the moment.
Atlantic City, made in the closing months of 1979, was one of the last great '70s films. Director Louis Malle captured this seaside town's metamorphosis from over-the-hill beauty to casino heaven. First, some necessary background.
Around the turn of the century, Atlantic City was established as a resort town for the rich and famous of Philadelphia. Along with having the world's first boardwalk, Atlantic City was home to one of the most beautiful skylines around. In the 1920's, it became a safe haven for mobsters who wanted a vacation. Realizing that everyone needed a break now and then, mobsters had an understanding that Atlantic City was off limits and anyone could vacation without fear of violence.
However, World War II brought Atlantic City's heyday to a sad ending. Other boardwalks were built up and down the coast, people moved out west, the mob started to have a negative influence on the city's image, and Atlantic City's infrastructure slowly deteriorated. The city, once the crown jewel of the East Coast, became a town of slums and criminals.
Atlantic City thought legalized gambling could bring about a renaissance. The film captures the city's hopes and fears as the casinos are being built and desperate people believe they will finally strike it big. However, these same people don't realize that there are many problems that come along with the casino money and lifestyle.
Burt Lancaster stars as Lou - a small time mob gopher who never amounted to much. He has been running numbers forever and just gets a new boss every time the current one dies. Lou spends his days catering to the needs of a local tough and the widow of his former, legendary mob boss. No one respects Lou, not even Lou.
Sally (Susan Sarandon) is the girl next door who catches Lou's fancy. Like many in Atlantic City, she thinks the casinos will bring her fortune. She works days in a seafood bar, and studies to become a card dealer at night. Sally is bright and hardworking, but she faces a threat to her future success.
Her deadbeat husband, Dave (Michael Piccolli), ran off with her sister, Chrissie. Months later, Dave has stolen a drug delivery and has shown up in Atlantic City to peddle it as his own for a quick score. Sally's association with Dave could endanger her chances of working in a casino due to strict laws prohibiting employees from associating with criminals. Already blackballed in Vegas because of Dave, she doesn't want any part of his life in Atlantic City.
Will Sally be able to get rid of Dave and have the fresh start she craves? Will Dave be able to get the help he needs from Lou?
Lancaster is fabulous. The legendary actor somehow finds the soul of a perennial loser and wears the persona like a glove. He is able to show the character's desire to be one of the greats, but he unable to rise above third class hoodlum. Those who take advantage of him can do so by stroking his ego and inflating his sense of self. Lancaster is brilliant in the closing scenes when he thinks he has finally found greatness.
Sarandon is wonderful as the closest thing this noir pic has to a conscience and moral center. Her character wants to be cultured and rich, but she doesn't know how to go about it and wonders if she is fooling herself.
Malle's vision of Atlantic City is just as gritty and shocking as Scorcese's view of New York. Using the historic changes as a backdrop, Malle has created a time capsule for those who don't remember an Atlantic City without Trump and Bally's. If you stray from the boardwalk, you can still find the slums and characters that are seen in the film. You just don't want to.
Atlantic City is not just a time capsule of Atlantic City, but of '70s filmmaking as well. Movies like The Godfather, Mean Streets, Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver were critical and box office successes (OK, Mean Streets didn't make a ton of money). However, as the decade came to a close, more emphasis was being put on making big blockbusters like JAWS, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
For a look back, check out Atlantic City.
Special Thanks to New Jersey online, which contains a wonderful, informative history of Atlantic City.
Directed by Luis Malle
Written by John Guare
Burt Lancaster Lou
Susan Sarandon . Sally
Michael Piccoli ... Dave
Robert Goulet Robert Goulet (who else would he play)
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