Revival House: Atlantic City (1981)

Atlantic City (1981)
Atlantic City (1981)
The Revival House: Shining a light on underrated crime films. The coulda beens and shoulda beens you ought to know about.

Tonight’s Screening: Atlantic City (1981)

Why is it so often foreigners have a more astute vision of America than Americans do? When French director Louis Malle took on the decaying also-ran gambling world of Atlantic City, he created a portrait of America in decline, in love with a romanticized vision of its past, and a population with a yearning to escape to better worlds. And yes, I mean that Louis Malle, the man best know for a film involving two people doing nothing more than sitting and talking at dinner for two hours. My Dinner With Andre came out the same year as Atlantic City and it baffles me why one and not the other has remained in the public consciousness.

With the screenplay help of New York playwright John Guare, Atlantic City is a revisionist crime film much like the westerns to come out of the 1970s like The Shootist or High Plains Drifter. It was revising a genre that didn’t know it needed a revision. 

Burt Lancaster plays Lou, an aging gangster who pads his resume and exaggerates his big shot status in the long lost heyday of AC. He’s really nothing but a washed-up numbers runner who enjoys watching Sally (Susan Sarandon), the comely young waitress across the way, as she washes up at night. He’s not a creep or a pervert, just a guy out of his time and staring down the inevitable with nothing to show for it.

Enter Sally’s ex-husband and a load of stolen cocaine. Lou’s exaggerations get him in hot water when Sally enlists him to help her estranged husband (now shacking up with Sally’s hippy-dippy sister) unload the coke to some local mob tough guys. Things do not go well from there.

Don’t always trust a pretty lady with a nice smile...
Don’t always trust a pretty lady with a nice smile…
Atlantic City is a movie out of time too. It looks back to classic film noir and the casting of Lancaster is no accident. You can’t help but see his classic noir roles in The Killers, Criss Cross, and Rope of Sand in his performance. It makes you start to believe Lou when he talks of his days as a boardwalk mover and shaker. Then you realize, much like a movie, it is all artifice.

And yet, in this new opportunity Lou sees a chance to become the man he always claimed to be. 

New York Times critic Vincent Canby said the film was a ghost story taking place, “not in a haunted castle, but a haunted city.” We watch as Atlantic City literally crumbles around the cast as the old is torn down to make way for the new.

Of course, some things never change. Like the guy who wants that one last big break to make a name for himself, or maybe recapture some old glory. The woman who uses her sex appeal to get what she wants and we can never be sure if she means her pillow talk or not. The plot is straightforward, but with enough twists to keep it interesting. Mostly, the inner lives of these small time characters make the film so endearing. For a movie about gangsters and drug thieves, it has a surprising amount of heart.

Atlantic City is filled with great performances. Lancaster had a great late-career run with cameos in things like Field of Dreams and starring roles in fun diversions like Tough Guys. Atlantic City stands as his transition film into the elder statesman he would become. Sarandon is great at the beginning of her career, fresh off Malle’s controversial Pretty Baby. Sally’s broken dreams echo Lou’s, but she has a chance to get out and move on, to live her goal of becoming a blackjack dealer in Monaco. Whatever manipulations she has to pull or crimes she must commit, she does in the service of nothing less than the American dream to pull herself up by the bootstraps. And what is more quintessentially American than getting ahead through crime? 

Looking for a chance to shine, to get the girl, to get the bad guy one last time...
Looking for a chance to shine, to get the girl, to get the bad guy one last time…
Lou seems to be looking for one more chance to shine. To get the girl, to act the tough guy, to be respected. He hits the real world struggles of his advanced age and the new, more brutal criminal world head-on. But when he has Sally now to impress, Lou can sometimes live up to his own ideal.

At the start of the ’80s, crime films had gone the way of the vigilante a la Dirty Harry or Death Wish. Gangster stories had been done definitively with The Godfather one and two. The idea of a down and out ex-gangster and his reluctant female sidekick didn’t quite click with audiences. Critics adored Atlantic City for the deep emotional undercurrents. Roger Ebert pointed out that the stolen cocaine plot almost serves as the background, not the forefront to a story about characters and about a chance at redemption. But moviegoers were still in a Star Wars hangover. The age of the blockbuster had begun. Only a year later in 1982 we would see one of the greatest years ever for science fiction and fantasy films. 

A movie as crumbling at the seams as Atlantic City didn’t seem to cut it anymore. 

Atlantic City deserves to be rediscovered and praised for the way it pulls you in to a story about people you can root for, despite all their shortcomings. And for a film made over 30 years ago, it is surprisingly undated. The Atlantic City in Malle’s vision is timeless.


Eric Beetner is the author of Dig Two GravesSplit Decision and A Mouth Full Of Blood, as well as co-author (with JB Kohl) of One Too Many Blows To The Head and Borrowed Trouble. His award-winning short stories have appeared in Pulp Ink, D*cked, Grimm Tales, Discount Noir, Off The Record, Murder In The Wind, Needle Magazine, Crimefactory, The Million Writers Award: Best New Online Voices and more. For more info visit

Read more posts by Eric Beetner for Criminal Element.


  1. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days…” Oh yes, this one’s a classic, especially because it so beautifully documents Atlantic City before its “rennaissance.” Excellent choice for the Revival House!

  2. Laura K. Curtis

    I must admit, I didn’t enjoy Atlantic City, but I suspect it was because for some incomprehensible reason my mother and I decided to go to an all-day Louis Malle film-fest. Three Malle movies in a row…six-plus hours of “middle”, since his movies don’t so much have beginnings and endings.

  3. Terrie Farley Moran

    I adored this movie, partly because I fell in love with Burt Lancaster forever more when I saw him in Vera Cruz when I was about 9 or 10 and partly because that is EXACTLY the seamy Atlantic City I remember in the immediate years before and after the first casino opened. The town doesn’t seem that different even now.

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