Atlantic City (Louis Malle,1980)
Perhaps the most celebrated of the entire run of tax shelter film of the late 70’s and early 80’s (at least as far as Oscar nominations go and not, of course, in regards to the crazed level hit by all those other brilliant Canuxploitation films that came out of the same Canadian incentive, such as David Cronenberg’s early exploding body-horror epics or Bob Clark’s disturbingly perverse Black Christmas and comically perverted Porky’s), French filmmaker Louis Malle’s evocation of an (ironically American) time and place follows the desperate, often delusional lives of the various remaining inhabitants of the once thriving titular sea side entertainment center, such as the aging one-time nickel and dime level gangster Burt Lancaster who constantly makes up stories of having once been a big shot mob leader, and the money-starved, transitional young hottie who lives next door that he peeps on whenever he can (played by Susan Sarandon, reminding yet again how drop-dead sexy she’s always been).
Atlantic City was going through a particularly transitional period at that time — gambling had just been legalized in order to save the deteriorating city and Malle and the film do a fine job creating an environment of underlying sadness, with one superficial world dying off and being replaced by a new perhaps even more crass and corrupt one.
As with so many of the great professional actors from his generation, Lancaster understands his persona and yet is willing to submerge his ego into the role, giving a completely unglamorous, yet entirely charming performance, as he stumbles upon a substantial wad of both drugs and drug money (through a deal gone bad, led by the Sarandon character’s low-life dealer brother, who ends up killed in the confusion) and, in a last hurrah, tries to convince the Sarandon character that he’s a rich man and she should take off with him (even though he hasn’t been off the city island in something like 40 years).
As heavy as the film could have gone, it remains more wistful than anything, caring and understanding of most of its characters and even ultimately granting the low-level Lancaster character who hoped and imagined something greater than will ever come (and perhaps even more than he ever deserved) a final dignified end.