Atlantic City (1980)

Atlantic City (1980)

“Now it’s all so goddamn legal.”

When an aspiring croupier (Susan Sarandon) in Atlantic City is visited by her estranged husband (Robert Joy) and pregnant sister (Hollis McLaren), she unexpectedly finds herself caught up in an adventure involving her elderly neighbor (Burt Lancaster), a former low-level gangster caring for an aging moll (Kate Reid).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Burt Lancaster Films
  • Casinos
  • Drug Dealers
  • Gangsters
  • Has-Beens
  • Louis Malle Films
  • May-December Romance
  • Susan Sarandon Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “there is much in this film” — which he considers to be director “Louis Malle’s best English-language film” — “to appreciate,” including “the seedy [title] city itself.” He argues that “even if you’ve never been there, you’ll feel nostalgia for the pre-casino days.”

Peary writes that playwright “John Guare’s exceptional, witty script is full of believable, interesting types — all hoping for that one shot at happiness.” He notes that Guare and Malle’s “major theme is reflected in the coupling of Lancaster and Sarandon,” whose “union serves as a metaphor for the present-day mixing of the old and new in Atlantic City”; he points out they “make a dynamic screen couple.” Finally, Peary notes that the film features “a nice choice of locations,” with “Malle’s eye for detail… as usual, impeccable.”

Peary doesn’t specifically call out performances in his GFTFF review, but he does nominate both Lancaster and Sarandon as Best Actor and Actress in his Alternate Oscars book. They’re perfectly cast, nicely complementing one another in terms of personality, grit, and desire for the finer things in life.

Speaking of this, when we first see Sarandon re-encountering her low-life husband — who not only cheated on her, but impregnated her impressionable sister! — we wonder what it says about Sarandon that she’s come to this sorry place in her personal life.

However, we soon learn that she made bad choices given few choices in her small Canadian town, and is now on a self-determined path to correct that. Meanwhile, seeing shabby but elegant Lancaster ordered around by a shrewish old woman:

… makes his accidental turn towards increased cash flow seem hopeful, despite our knowing it can’t end well given the involvement of brutal drug dealers.

The supporting cast nicely rounds out the story, with Joy and McLaren — once again playing a pregnant young woman, as she did in Outrageous! (1977) — believable as the clueless and hopelessly naive young couple who set the plot in motion; Reid — perhaps best known for her role as Dr. Ruth Leavitt in The Andromeda Strain (1977) — rather hilarious in a role that allows her to morph from nag to caretaker:

… and Michel Piccoli in a small role as Sarandon’s worldly instructor.

Malle’s action-packed yet character-driven drama has held up well, and remains well worth a look.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Burt Lancaster as Lou
  • Susan Sarandon as Sally
  • Fine supporting performances
  • Richard Ciupka’s cinematography
  • Excellent use of location shooting

Must See?
Yes, as a fine drama by a master director. Nominated as one of the Best Movies of the Year in Alternate Oscars.


  • Good Show
  • Important Director
  • Oscar Winner or Nominee

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)


One thought on “Atlantic City (1980)

  1. Rewatch (11/25/20). Must-see, as a unique, satisfying cult film. As posted in ‘Revival House of Camp & Cult’ (fb):

    “It’s a shame you never saw Atlantic City when it had floy-floy.”

    ‘Atlantic City’: I had previously sort-of presumed that (in commercial terms) Louis Malle’s film of John Guare’s risky / quirky / shaggy dog script only got made because a big name star (Burt Lancaster) saw the lead as a juicy role. While that last part is certainly true, the film got made because – having secured a limited-time deal with Canadian / French financiers and time was running out in the script search – Malle followed a suggestion of co-star Susan Sarandon (involved with Malle at the time) and met with Sarandon’s friend Guare to talk over one of his ideas. They would have gotten their lead anyway – but, fortunately, they got Lancaster (who turns in, I think, one of his best performances).

    This is yet another film I hadn’t seen in many years, possibly since its release. It is also another which has held up extremely well. Named for a place, the story luxuriates in the former glory of that place. By way of extension, it’s populated with two kinds of people: those who hang on to memories of better times and those coming up who are looking to create better times. These fringe, mirror types share a love of high-style flash but none of the main characters are really smart-enough to be major players in the worlds of grift and legal chance.

    ‘AC’ is a slow-burn (at least for most of its running time) but, as such, it’s not at all tedious. A dual plus-factor begins with Malle’s subtle way of dovetailing the characters; from there, the script takes on the task of interlocking puzzle pieces in a series of risk-driven events. This is a crime story in which the criminal activity is firmly secondary to the characters. But, at the same time, we’re not encouraged to care for the people we’re watching, necessarily; Malle’s interest appears to be in observing people who persist in being less than what they could ever be.

    The complexity of the conclusion is refreshingly real.

    ‘Atlantic City’ won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and Malle won as Best Director at BAFTA.

Leave a Reply