Paramount // 1981 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dezhda Mountz (Retired) // September 17th, 2002
A city where dreams almost come true...
Two champions of the arts, director Louis Malle (Pretty Baby, My Dinner With Andre) and writer John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation), joined forces for this mafia/love saga set in the pathetic East Coast version of Las Vegas. Atlantic City circa 1980 was in a sort of rebirth -- a shaggy gray town where the pure, rollicking ocean is in stark contrast to the gamblers and druggies that litter its streets. Is Atlantic City really a magic land full of hope, or a ticket to nowhere? Paramount has released Atlantic City on DVD so you can see for yourself a portrayal of a boomtown before the boom.
For Sally (Susan Sarandon, Dead Man Walking), life in Atlantic City is her ticket to big money -- a seafood barista by day, she's taking dealer lessons in her spare time. She studies French, listens to classical music, and dreams of seeing the world in high style. As she unwinds from the day, her neighbor Lou (Burt Lancaster, From Here To Eternity) watches with his mouth watering. The only woman in his life is Grace (Kate Reid), an aging beauty queen whom he looks after. The you-know-what hits the fan when her estranged husband Dave (Robert Joy, Joe Somebody) and sister Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) -- the latter knocked up by said husband -- track her down all the way from their hometown of Saskatchewan. [Editor's Note: A rather irate Canadian pointed out that Saskatchewan is not a town, but a province. The characters' hometown was Moosejaw in the great province of Saskatchewan. Thanks for keeping us on our toes.] Dave's got some stolen drugs to sell. Lou, aspiring to become a big-time mob criminal, gets into the mix. Before long, trouble erupts and lives intersect.
Burt Lancaster's Lou is the emotional center of this story, representing both an innocence of dreams and greed that knows no morality. His attempts at becoming a crime king consist of dabbling in gambling and number running. He talks up his would-be dominance as a crime lord in days past in Las Vegas, but he knows he's just a nobody.
His hunger for the glamorous life reaches across financial lines. He often watches seafood server Sally through her kitchen window as she rubs lemons all over her arms and chest, to erase the scent of fish. He longs for her, but part of taking care of Grace is attending to the more Biblical needs of the woman. Lou fights disillusionment every step of the way; he's determined to show he's a badass, but remains a pathetic, lonely guy, claiming he's the number one man to see in Atlantic City when really...he's about number 430.
When Dave runs into him trying to sell his stash, Lou gloms onto him like a showgirl to a headdress. The goombahs from whom Dave stole the drugs are on his trail, however, and before long Dave's dealing days are over, permanently. Lou takes over, raking in cash from Dave's drugs and helping Sally with Dave's funeral arrangements. Despite herself, she starts falling for him, even as the bad guys remain in hot pursuit of Sally and Lou.
In a pivotal fight to escape the thugs, Lou not only dispatches them, but also fulfills his dream of being a cold-blooded fugitive gangster. Sally's affection for him falters, but she too may achieve her dream of traveling and experiencing culture. Is there truly a way out of the broken lives of Atlantic City? The intersecting paths of Atlantic City's characters never failed to fascinate. It's one of those movies where you wonder who all the disparate people are and how the hell they are going to come together -- but inevitably, like a string becomes tangled, they do. Sally falls for the authoritativeness and protection of Lou; Chrissie befriends Grace when their sister and lover, respectively, take off with each other; and even Robert Goulet gets caught up in it all in a wry cameo. Robert Goulet! Whoulda thunk.
The ending is somewhat uneasy but lets the characters a bit off the hook, free to begin new adventures but not necessarily better off than before. It's a complex character study that unravels with a couple major twists, a neat, clean manner of storytelling that I found very satisfying.
Visually, the DVD is just okay in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I spotted noticeable grain, especially in sky scenes that could be attributed to the older negative. White flecks were apparent but not disruptive. I kept in mind Malle's color palette of foggy gray in interpreting the grittiness of Atlantic City -- no vibrancy or sharp color here, rather, it looks like every scene was shot in overcast weather. Hence, the muted transfer overall was faithful -- flesh tones were faithful, blacks solid. Grain was a bit on the heavy side; otherwise this is a decent looking print of the film.
The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono and was nothing special, sticking with the front speakers in a nice even mix but not thoroughly representing the volume range. Soft tones -- sotto voce instructions, the thudding of running feet -- got swallowed in their own dullness. This isn't a movie that requires an intense sound mix, but the lack of crispness and clarity in a variety of sounds was indeed noticed. Also included on this disc are English subtitles.
Disappointingly, there aren't any extras on this disc. Well, there is a theatrical trailer, but that's it. No extras get no comment -- my mother told me if you had nothing good to say, keep your mouth shut! (And we DVD reviewers know complaining ain't gonna change a darn thing...)
A nice movie with a stellar set of creative talent, from the actors to the writer to the director. This story was involving, taut, and full of good characters, a recipe for cinematic success. A DVD success? Not likely. A veritable void of extras, so-so transfer and sound...I'm not expecting an Atlantic City "SE" to come out anytime soon, so if you're a Malle fan, pick this one up. If not, go for a rental. Great storytelling, crappy DVD transfer.
Sentenced to two years at the seafood bar in Atlantic City Casino! Maybe day after day of blue hairs throwing their poker chips at you will teach you a lesson: don't gamble on DVD features!
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 1981
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Theatrical Trailer
* Atlantic City Visitors Guide
* A.C. Poker