Atlantic City balances between the sleazy, tawdry elements of violence and crime and the tragedy of those few innocent caught between those forces. Quiet, almost meditative, Atlantic City is a portrait of a world in transition, ostensibly for good but which like the glitzy casinos really have a calculated heart underneath the lights.
Trouble comes to Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon), starting a new life as a waitress but who is studying to be a card dealer in the upcoming casinos on the Atlantic City boardwalk. That trouble comes in the form of her estranged husband Dave (Robert Joy), who ran off with her hippie-drippy sister Chrissie (Hollis McLauren), pregnant with his child.
Dave Matthews is here to sell some cocaine he stole in Philadelphia, which Sally knows nothing of. She wants them out, but they're family. Dave befriends Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aging former mobster who lives in Sally's building. He agrees to sell some of the cocaine to an ongoing card game, as Dave is too conspicuous. Dave, however, is killed by the Philly mobsters and now they are after both Lou and Sally.
Despite caring for and perhaps caring about Grace (Karen Reid), a fellow mobster's widow, Sally has been Lou's obscure object of desire. Despite their age difference, Lou's kind and tender manner win Sally over and they share an intimate moment. Unfortunately, Dave is more trouble dead than alive, as the mobsters continue their brutal harassment of them, and Sally is fired from the casino as well as dropped from the card dealer class due to Dave's criminal past.
While Chrissie bonds with Grace, Lou takes matters into his own hands in a final confrontation with the killers. Vague dreams emerge for Lou and Sally, with Lou thrilled to finally rise to being the mobster he's always wanted to be. Still, they must take separate roads on their own way to redemption.
The symbolism Atlantic City has between the end of one world and beginning of another is hard to miss. The dilapidation of the city itself matches the crumbling world these figures live in. As the city appears to rebuild itself, the hope and optimism plugged by the leadership is countered by the characters own sense of despair.
Perhaps the best example of the dichotomy in Atlantic City is when Sally is brought in to identify Dave Matthews' body. As she tries to call his parents in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Robert Goulet in a cameo is singing the optimistic Atlantic City, My Old Friend. He even seems to be flirting with her, causing her more anxiety.
Atlantic City has exceptional performances from the two leads. In a certain way, Burt Lancaster plays against type as Lou. He isn't really a tough guy, even with his claims of being a cohort of gangsters like Dutch Schultz and Bugsy Seigel. He may have been a gangster, but we see that Lou really is putting up a front, a man who finds it easier to play gangster than actually be one. Lancaster's performance explores that idea of 'toxic masculinity' long before it was even a term.
As he silently and painfully does nothing while gangsters rough up Sally, we see the desire to do something but also his fear, his inability to live up to his ideas. He takes charge of things for Sally, and even manages to make her, his obscure object of desire, his own, but Lou is also surprisingly tender. Seeing him almost with childish glee celebrate his first killings is both endearing and sad.
Sarandon too excels as Sally, the only genuinely sane and good person in the film. She too yearns to 'be someone', longing for a touch of class with dreams of being the first female card dealer in Monte Carlo's fabled casino. Sarandon makes Sally a survivor and fighter, one who fights for herself despite how often even the most benevolent of men can take advantage of her. Sally's yearnings for respectability are even when she appears to be erotic: her daily habit of washing herself with lemons and lathering her body with it, we learn later, are a way to get the fish smell off of her.
There is also fine work from Joy as Dave Matthews, the curse on everyone he meets, Reid as the former Betty Grable lookalike contestant and mob widow now reduced to having only Lou and her spoiled dog for company. Granted, McLaren's Chrissie struck me as the height of stupid (no sane woman runs off with her sister's husband and thinks it part of the Universe's grand plans) but to her credit I didn't end up hating her, seeing her as more naive than malicious.
Louis Malle captures that world of fading and faded glory attempting to build itself up again softly and delicately.
Atlantic City is a sad, somber film, one that reveals the genuine sadness of a dying world even as it appears to be resurrecting.