Lou was one tough Atlantic City gangster in his time. Says he knew Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky. Even was Bugsy Siegel’s cellmate for a while.
“I had to kill guys in the day,” he wistfully confides to a young drug-dealing wannabe. “Then I’d feel really bad. I’d swim way out into the ocean to clean up. Ahh, you should have seen the Atlantic in those days.”
Problem is, none of it is true—unless you count spending one hour with Siegel in a community holding pen as being his cellmate. In truth, Lou was never anything more than a toady for the Atlantic City mob. Never killed anyone. Answered to the nickname “Numb Nuts.”
And as the movie Atlantic City gets underway, Lou—now in his seventies—is still the lowest of the low men on the organized crime flow chart. He’s reduced to taking 50-cent bets from old ladies for the local numbers runner. He earns a few bucks by walking the yapping poodle belonging to the widow of his boss, Cookie Pinza, and a few more by performing sexual favors for the old crone in her apartment stuffed with kewpie dolls and pink feather boas.
That’s the setup for this fine, albeit slow-paced movie. The wonderful Burt Lancaster portrays the schlepper who never made it; he’s kind of like Al Pacino’s Lefty Ruggiero in Donnie Brasco—but even more pathetic. He imagines a past that never was. Even now he lives behind the façade, eagerly buying the nonsense when a young thug patronizes him by saying, “The guys in Detroit said you were the man to see in this town.”
Then the mob guy who never gets his chance.
Lou stumbles upon a pile of cocaine and an eager customer. For the first time, he’s got real money in his hands, enough to replace his frayed old outfit with a sharp white suit and $200 fedora. He also latches onto Sally (Susan Sarandon), a young and beautiful but weary import from Saskatchewan who wants to be a blackjack dealer but is stuck shucking oysters at a casino raw bar.
Through a series of plot twists, Lou ends up as Sally’s protector and, briefly, as her lover. And the bottom-rung bum whose responsibility was once limited to fetching condoms for his boss now gets that late-in-life chance to amount to something.
Without giving away too much, we’ll tell you to notice the elation in Lou’s eye when he finally gets to gun down a few bad guys. The old man’s got a teenager’s delight at popping his cherry. And the May-December romance between Sally and Lou—unimaginable at the start of Atlantic City—seems to make sense, although you know it cannot last.
Lancaster, as always, is terrific. Even playing this lifelong loser, he carries himself with dignity. In one scene, as he is about to be roughed up by a mobster from Philadelphia, he gracefully brushes away the hood’s arm, saying, “Don’t touch the suit.”
Sarandon is also great in the role of the young woman trying to escape her hick town and a bad marriage. She studies French on a tape recorder and dreams that she’ll end up as the first female croupier in Monte Carlo. She’s desperate for worldliness. “Teach me stuff,” she implores Lou at one point.
Sarandon’s character of Sally represents the future of Atlantic City, where the first casino opened two years before this movie was released. Lancaster’s Lou represents the past when the mob knew how to inject some vice into the seaside vacation town. “I don’t like these new casinos,” Lou gripes. “Too wholesome for me. Nuns, for Chrissakes.”
Of course, he cannot reverse time. But Lou does get that one last opportunity to stand up and act as he perceives a real man should act. And Sally gets that chance to escape (in a car stolen from mobsters, no less), although odds are slim that she’s going to make it all the way to Monte Carlo.
HIT: Lancaster and Sarandon are great. But the real star of the movie is the actual Atlantic City, the once-bustling tourist town that had declined into decay and destitution—clearly serving as a metaphor for Lancaster’s character. All around are vacant lots strewn with debris, graffiti, and bulldozers. Tall cranes and construction signs promise a better tomorrow.
Atlantic City was optimistic about that future in 1980. Three decades later, glitzy hotels dot the skyline. But the rubble and poverty remain, making it questionable whether legalized gambling really did much to save the downtrodden town.
MISS: The hippy-dippy character of Sally’s sister Chrissie seems an outdated cliché. Weren’t flower children gone by 1980? We just roll our eyes when the foot-rubbing mystic spouts about reincarnation or declares that she doesn’t use seatbelts because “I don’t believe in gravity.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The film portrays the town of Atlantic City as a place of myth, of legends and dreams, most of them pretty tacky. It’s beautiful and squalid and, like the movie itself, sometimes rueful and sometimes funny.”—Vincent Canby, New York Times
BEST LINE: Lou, harkening back to the era when gambling had a little sin to it: “Now it’s all so goddamn legal. Howard Johnson’s running a casino. Tutti Frutti and cards don’t mix.”
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Given the slow pace and depressing tone, we’d recommend it about once a decade.
PIVOTAL SCENE: The one you’ll remember comes early when Sally, home from her job at the casino’s clam bar, stands in front of her kitchen window, washing off the scent of seafood by rubbing her arms, shoulders, and breasts with lemon halves. As the camera pulls back, the viewer becomes aware—as Sally must be—that she is being spied on by Lou from his scruffy apartment across the way.
It’s an erotic moment. And it sets up the connection between Sally and old Lou, even though they haven’t yet met. Later, as they are becoming friends, he admits to peeping. “What did you see when you looked?” Sally asks, and Lou recounts her nightly routine in stunning detail. When the camera returns to Sally, she has unbuttoned her blouse, initiating their brief love affair.
In more ways than one, Lou gets the opportunity to be the man he never was back in his prime.
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: Lou and Buddy, the aging men’s room attendant, have a nostalgic conversation about the days when they ran errands for Nucky Johnson.
“Remember the time Nucky sent us out to buy 100 boxes of rubbers for the party?” Buddy says. “The look the clerk gave us. A hundred boxes of rubbers for two guys? He couldn’t get over it.”
Nucky Johnson was the racketeer who ran Atlantic City from 1911-41 under the cover of serving as Atlantic County’s treasurer. He is also the model for Nucky Thompson, the character played by Steve Buscemi in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire series.
CASTING CALL: Robert Mitchum was the favorite for the lead. But director Louis Malle reportedly was so put off by Mitchum’s recent facelift, that he turned to Lancaster.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Low, except for a gory stabbing and one scene where a mob guy smacks around Sally.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Atlantic City was nominated for each of the top five Oscars, but won none. It lost Best Picture and Original Screenplay to Chariots of Fire. Malle lost Best Director to Warren Beatty for Reds. And Lancaster and Sarandon lost the top acting awards to Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: The over-attentive restaurant waiter is played by Wallace Shawn, a five-foot-two, rubber-faced bald guy who is rarely confused with Burt Lancaster. You may recognize him as Vizzini the Sicilian, the badest bad guy in The Princess Bride. Your children more likely know him as the voice of Rex the Dinosaur in Toy Story and its sequels.
BODY COUNT: Three. And you won’t mourn for any of them.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”