By Koraljka Suton
When acclaimed French New Wave director Louis Malle was approached by producer Alexandre Mnouchkine with the idea for a Canadian production certified by the CRTC (the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission), little did he know that the picture he would end up making would later be regarded as his most “American” film, as well as one of his finest movies. With a budget of under five million dollars and a seemingly impossible deadline to meet—the movie had to be shot by December 31st, 1979 and it was already August—Malle was supposed to adapt American author Laird Koenig’s crime thriller The Neighbor, but the director ended up not particularly loving the novel. Luckily, he managed to talk the producers into allowing him to make another film, which would be similar to Koenig’s work in terms of genre. Malle’s then-girlfriend Susan Sarandon—who would soon become his female lead–suggested Malle meet with their mutual friend John Guare, a playwright famous for House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. And so they met. Malle thought the story should be about “America today,” which is why, during their brainstorming session, the topic of Atlantic City came up quite naturally: “In the preceding winter, literally every day, The New York Times had something about what was going on in Atlantic City. They had just legalized gambling there. It was very controversial, and there were all these stories about ‘Will the mob move in?’ Two casinos had just opened and they were building several more… I said, ‘Maybe this is something we should look into.’ And John said, ‘I couldn’t agree more and it so happens that one of my parents’ old friends is the manager of the first casino to open, Resorts International.’ We called him, we rented a car, drove down to Atlantic City and spent something like twenty-four hours there. I don’t think we slept at all. His friend took us around, explained what was going on, and we saw for ourselves all the contrasts, all the gloss. The rest of the town was literally a slum. Before they legalized gambling, Atlantic City, which had had a glorious past in the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, had almost become a ghost town.” As it turns out, Malle wanted to capture the shift that was constantly happening in the USA and found that Atlantic City, “this absurd place with nothing but buildings going up and buildings going down” as he once called it, was just the right metaphor for that. And so were the different kinds of people they came across during their short stay, many of whom were so idiosyncratic, they decided to turn them into characters. In Malle’s words, he and Guare wanted to “put together a story very hastily,” one which would permit them to make a sort of fictional documentary. And thus, Atlantic City was born.
With John Guare as the screenwriter and Susan Sarandon as his leading lady, Malle was still sans a leading man. He originally wanted Henry Fonda to play the part, but the producers were against the idea due to the actor’s poor health. Burt Lancaster got the job instead and immediately understood what a great role he had been offered: “A part like that, especially at my age, happens every ten years, if you’re lucky.” The factor of luck could be debated, but it is a fact that it was his craftsmanship that ultimately earned him an Academy Award nomination (ironically enough, the award went to the amazing Fonda for his last role in On Golden Pond). But Lancaster wasn’t the only one to have got a well-deserved Oscar nod: Atlantic City was also nominated for best picture, best director, best actress and best screenplay, thereby becoming one of the 43 movies to have been nominated for all “Big Five” Academy Awards and, unfortunately, one of merely eight from that group not to have won a single one. Nevertheless, the movie received other awards and accolades, one of which was the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1980, back-to-back with John Cassavetes’ Gloria.
Shot by Canadian cinematographer Richard Ciupka, Atlantic City turned out to be the result of a lot of improvisation, seeing as how cast and crew had to adjust to what was going on in the city itself at the time. This meant that if a building was being demolished, Malle would decide to move a scene he was about to shoot, so as to have the demolition in the background. And what better way to reinforce the movie’s themes of construction and deconstruction, renewal and decline, than with visuals that could provide such a symbolic backdrop—and one that Malle didn’t even need to intentionally search for, but which presented itself to him of its own accord. Nearly the same thing happened when it came to the choice of music—although Michel Legrand wrote a score for the movie, the director ultimately decided against it and instead went for sound effects that were an intrinsic part of the characters’ worlds, e.g. instruments, radios, tape players. This makes Atlantic City seem even more organic, enabling the viewers to feel the throbbing heart of the city and its inhabitants for themselves, with nothing being glossed over. It is precisely that constantly beating ever-changing heart of the city that thus becomes one of the main characters of Malle’s film, if not the main one—all of the characters, their trajectories and relationships are in fact merely microcosmic reflections of the city at large and its juxtaposition of old and new. It could, therefore, be fair to say that as much as Atlantic City provides a backdrop for the characters, the characters provide a backdrop for Atlantic City. Representing the new is Sally (Susan Sarandon), a young waitress at a casino who dreams of becoming a croupier in Monte Carlo, whereas her spying aging neighbor Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) stands as the epitome of the old. Lou presents himself as a former gangster, who was once at the top of his game, while the truth of the matter is that he was never even close. Their nuanced relationship starts evolving after a series of unpredictable events involving Sally’s ex-husband Dave (Robert Joy) and his pregnant girlfriend (also Sally’s sister) Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), who return to Atlantic City harboring stolen drugs and looking for a place to crash.
And while Sally feels a desperate kind of yearning for an unforeseeable future that remains ever so slightly out of reach, Lou’s character is immersed in the same type of nostalgic longing, although his is for days long gone and the city as it was, before gambling was legalized: “It’s all shit now. Now it’s all so God-damn legal… It used to be beautiful, the Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen it then. You should have seen the Ocean in those days.” Their dream-like delusions are what keeps them caged in both the city and their own minds, with Sally day-dreaming about and striving for a future in Europe she is, implicitly, getting nowhere near, and Lou purposefully “misremembering” his own history of being a bigger shot than he actually was, because that lie is the only thing that enables his own self-image to remain intact. This character trait of Lou’s is what ultimately accounts for the choices he makes and the ways in which he reacts and behaves, which often seem counter-intuitive or illogical in and of themselves. But the fact that, in the context of Lou’s (hi)story and overall persona, those choices and reactions manage to come across as extremely plausible, is a testament to the complexity of his character, as well as to Guare’s nuanced writing—in a desperate attempt to re-write his own history, Lou’s main driving force is his need for significance, no matter how, by which means and at what cost that significance is achieved. All of these subtle character complexities, along with the aforementioned prevalent themes of juxtaposing renewal and deterioration, the past and the future, masterfully conveyed by Malle’s vision, Guare’s skill and the cast members’ craftsmanship, are merely some of the reasons why Atlantic City deserves to be remembered as one of the greats.
Written by Koraljka Suton. Koraljka is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »
Playwright John Guare was born February 5, 1938 in New York City. He attended Georgetown University and graduated with an MFA from the Yale School of Drama in 1963. His most notable plays include The House of Blue Leaves, Marco Polo Sings a Solo, Six Degrees of Separation, Four Baboons Adoring the Sun, the musical Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the screenplay for Atlantic City. John Guare was interviewed by Mike Wood in February of 1999, in New York City. The interview segments are courtesy of the William Inge Center for the Arts in Independence, Kansas.
Here’s a rarity: John Guare’s screenplay for Atlantic City [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Wallace Shawn talks with Louis Malle about Atlantic City.
Talking to Louis Malle (1991). Philip French in conversation with Malle about his career, his work in France and his recent successes in the USA, includes extracts from his films.
An interview with Louis Malle for NBC from 1985.
Filmmaker Louis Malle talks about love and obsession, the subjects of his film Damage, and describes meeting his wife, Candice Bergen.
Parlons Cinéma: interview with Louis Malle.
The Silent World (Le Monde du silence) is a 1956 French documentary film co-directed by the famed French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau and a young Louis Malle. The Silent World is noted as one of the first films to use underwater cinematography to show the ocean depths in color.
Filmmakers don’t work for posterity. We create with celluloid and chemical pigments that don’t last very long. They fade away. In 200 years there will be nothing left of our work but dust. —Louis Malle
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Louis Malle’s Atlantic City. Photographed by Attila Dory © Paramount Pictures, International Cinema Corporation, Selta Films, Canadian Film Development Corporation, Cine-Neighbor, Famous Players Limited. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
If you find Cinephilia & Beyond useful and inspiring, please consider making a small donation. Your generosity preserves film knowledge for future generations. To donate, please visit our donation page, or click on the icon below:
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in