Atlantic City (Malle, 1980)

A film that takes place in the title city, Louis Malle’s Atlantic City is less Godfather than it is The Gambler.  It’s a character study of sorts, but not one that’s intensely psychological as films that fall into said sub-category tend to be.  Instead it’s a surprisingly sweet film and a nice portrait of a city that is evolving (or devolving) and leaving one man behind in its nostalgic ruins.

That man is played by legendary actor Burt Lancaster.  He of those great big puppy eyes and also of one of my favorite films – Siodmak’s The Killers, which I’ve referenced more than once on here.  Lancaster plays Lou, a former numbers man, who talks a bigger game than he’s actually participated in.

He’s obsessed with Sally – a young Susan Sarandon – and spends most of his time playing errand boy to the elderly, bed-ridden Grace (Kate Reid).  There’s also an appearance by the great Michel Piccoli as Sally’s lascivious casino-boss.  Lou runs into Dave (Robert Joy), Sally’s former husband, who convinces him to take part in a cocaine deal as the delivery man.  When the owners of the cocaine come to collect their stolen property Dave is murdered, trouble ensues, etc.

Atlantic City isn’t one of Malle’s best films, but it speaks to the caliber of the director that it’s still quite good.  As he did throughout his career, the visual style in this work is rather different from other efforts.  Here it’s often simple and quiet.  His blocking is made up of a large number of tracking shots and there’s an emphasis on silence (particularly in one awesome scene).  But, unlike say Lacombe Lucien or something more visually striking like Elevator to the Gallows, Malle’s stamp in this film comes through more thematically than any one indelible imaging (except, of course, the restraint and control he proffers – that’s right, proffers).

Something about this film reminds me the Rafelson film The King of Marvin Gardens.  I guess the obvious reason is that both take place in AC, but I think that it’s more than that.  Both films really aren’t concerned with the glitz and glammer of the city and instead focus on its drabber side.  Both films also make the aforementioned city-character comparison, and finally, though Malle’s blocking is nowhere near as hyper as Rafelson’s (whose own blocking is reminiscent of Lumet’s) both rely on their character’s more so than any one particular visual element.

Okay, so back to the film, and the “silent” scene I mentioned before.  This is where Dave is killed.  It takes place on – I’m not really sure what it’s called – one of those moving panels where cars are raised and lowered.  Dave is jumping from panel to panel away from the knife-wielding pursuer.  The only sounds are diegetic: the mechanism pushing the cars up, Dave’s footsteps, breathing.  There are “pop-out” moments where a lesser film would have used a musical cue for added dramatic emphasis.  Malle plays it coolly, letting the rhythm of the actual sound reflect the malaise of the city itself.  No one cares.  Even later, when a police-chief is interviewed and angrily spouts off about the killings, there is never a real sense of urgency in the violence – or the supposed attempts to stop it.  By playing this murder scene as he does Malle basically plays his aural tactic against his visual tactic: the visuals – a dramatic chase scene – tell us that this is suspenseful, important drama.  The aural – those mundane, quiet sounds – tell us that this isn’t something “worth” a Hollywood-ized score.

SPOILER HERE: Lancaster has a great moment towards the end of the film when he kills a man and protects Sally.  It’s become evident to that point that his stories of “the old mob” are just that: stories.  His absolute glee in this killing, in proving himself capable and useful, is the exact opposite emotion we’d expect following a series of gunshots and from a character who, to this point, hasn’t been portrayed as maniacal.  It’s a nice switch.  Again, the violence isn’t at the center.  It’s Lou’s evolution.  The fact that ironically, after all of the years, all of the fictions, and after the Atlantic City he knows is no more, he’s finally a real


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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