Criterion Prediction #25: Atlantic City, by Alexander Miller
Title: Atlantic City
Director: Louis Malle
Cast: Susan Sarandon, Burt Lancaster, Kate Reid, Michel Piccoli, Hollis McLaren, Robert Joy
Synopsis: Susan Sarandon plays Sally, a dismal croupier in Atlantic City whose life is disrupted when her ne’er do well ex-husband, Dave (Robert Joy), returns with Sally’s pregnant sister and a large quantity of stolen blow. Sally’s neighbor (and admirer) Lou (Burt Lancaster) fancies himself as a retired mafia hotshot, but he’s a small time hood who runs numbers and looks after the widow of his former crime boss Cookie Pinza. Dave is trying to unload the stolen coke to someone in Atlantic City, without any connections he befriends Lou, by feeding into his romanticized and embellished past as a wiseguy in order to make a drug connection.
Critique: First of all, the acting in this film is terrific. Burt Lancaster is stellar as the aging hoodlum. Susan Sarandon is terrific and Kate Ried is wonderful as Grace Pinza, the fading beauty queen/moll. Atlantic City is one of those rare cases of a film that’s almost perfect. Louis Malle’s pragmatic direction combines the (literal) reconstruction of the boardwalk and the transformation of the people who look to the past as well as the future. As an expert storyteller and documentarist Malle utilizes the transitional habitat of the city enhancing this revisionist noir with an old school aura of dreamy romanticism that could only have come from a director at the height of his creative powers. Atlantic City reveals a fleeting time and place that symbolize the bittersweet palate of American culture and iconography, a sophisticated and accessible yarn that’s rewarding as both art and entertainment.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Along with prominently featured directors in the collection, Louis Malle is in the same league with the likes of Bergman, Fellini, or Kurosawa, who are credited with multiple classic and influential contributions. Having said that, Atlantic City is easily one of the director’s best works. Criterion features a great variety of the director’s films-his early new wave efforts like Elevator to the Gallows, a bulk of his documentaries featured in the loaded Eclipse set, and his late-era English language films. The inclusion of Atlantic City would bring the Louis Malle canon full circle, and surprise those who might find his later work (My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street) a bit slow or stagey. Despite high critical acclaim Malle’s film seems to have fallen by the wayside, and the Paramount DVD can’t be much help since the cover art is (for lack of better words) stupid, selling the movie as if it were a romantic comedy. The current transfer is decent, but once again I’m defaulting to the “it’s good because it exists” line of thinking. Having said that, Atlantic City would benefit from a digital upgrade as long as it doesn’t compromise the hazy cinematography. Since Criterion can distribute higher profile titles like Rosemary’s Baby, and Nashville licensed from major studios like Paramount getting the rights to Atlantic City shouldn’t be an issue. Seeing as Louis Malle is a staple director featured in the collection and that Atlantic City is one of his most acclaimed films, its addition to the collection would likely be an assured success.