Atlantic City Review

Louis Malle's Atlantic City is a small film with quiet expectations. It's not particularly lengthy or overly ambitious. Excited screams don't emanate from the picture. The fact that it was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and individual nods for Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Malle, and screenwriter John Guare, seems remarkable. That it was up against Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Reds is closer to absurd.

After being completed in the waning days of 1979, with studio work done in Montreal because of tax incentives, the film was shelved by Paramount until a Venice Film Festival win gained some notice. A small spring release, befitting of a small-budgeted movie, was rolled out in 1981, but Atlantic City didn't fade away without a fight. By the time it picked up those Oscar nominations, Malle's film had already been honoured, along with Lancaster and Guare, by the National Society of Film Critics, as well as the critics' groups in New York and Los Angeles. Malle and Lancaster emerged as BAFTA winners, too.

Though it was only Malle's second English language effort, it and his follow-up My Dinner with Andre, released the same year, would be the director's most commercially successful in the United States. Atlantic City is a modestly good film, but certainly not something audiences would've rushed to see without a near-uniform stamp of approval from critics. Likewise with the Oscar voters, who ultimately have more say in a film's popular legacy than any other accolade, regardless of artistic merit or justice. The interesting thing to ponder, I suppose, is what effect, if any, such praise has had on the way Atlantic City is viewed presently.

Certain expectations go along with heavy endorsements and Malle's film has, over the years, enjoyed a status of modern classic that can be difficult to reconcile with the inherent quaintness of the actual movie. Guare's screenplay oscillates between being too forward and too obtuse. The themes are nearly catapulted into our consciousness by way of vague ruminations on the past. There's nonetheless a gentle nostalgia here that's easy to admire. The city of the title is drawn as representative of two different, very separate places. One exists in memories and now crumbles almost daily while the other is new, sterile, and gaudy, but rejuvenating to the area. Lancaster's Lou Pascal has seen both, and laments the passing of the earlier time. Susan Sarandon's character, Sally Matthews, has no point of reference and no attachment to the city. Her ambition reaches beyond New Jersey and into Monaco as a casino card dealer, a far cry from working at the oyster bar.

That it takes forty minutes, leaving just an hour more of film, for Lou and Sally to really interact with one another weakens the character study foundation of Atlantic City and makes it feel more slight than expected. The performances go a long way in establishing who these people are and their status as existentially lonely losers. Lancaster is particularly impressive, though if you believe some accounts Malle is largely deserving of credit since the legendary actor apparently persisted in playing the role with far less subtlety. It's those extra layers sewn into Lancaster's finished character that make the part stand out in his filmography, far removed from the caricature-ready leading man parts he found himself in all too frequently. What we see on screen from him is a sad, beaten down old man suddenly blessed or cursed, depending on the perspective, with a life he'd always wanted. His trenchcoat becomes a slick white suit and matching hat. The beautiful young woman he'd spied washing herself with lemons is now a conquest. His life of caring for a dead gangster's widow is replaced by one filled with excitement and daring uncertainty. When people discuss their love for Atlantic City, I suspect they're really enraptured with Lancaster and his magnetic portrayal.

Those who idolise or simply hold Lancaster in high esteem, including, potentially, the very film critics that so embraced the movie, will forever find much to hold dear in Atlantic City. Even now, it's difficult to argue with the elegance found in having such a lion of an actor start his initial descent into movie star fade-out with this film. I do think, however, that focussing too much on Lancaster can lead to ignoring the film's flaws, none of which would be that detrimental if not for the staggering accolades overdone on its release. Fair? Not really, but once a movie receives any kind of reaction at all attempts at complete objectivity become impossible. Part of the joy of allowing films to age is that they become ever further removed from their initial reception. Atlantic City may actually benefit from lowered expectations, as it's hardly Malle's finest work and probably functions more amiably as a small gem of a picture than a jewel encrusted crown.

Age has only damaged the film in regards to similar, possibly better, types of movies being released in the quarter-century plus time since its release. On its own terms, Malle's little drama has seen the years be kind to it, with nothing really dating the film to any degree of detriment. The story and characters are timeless, as are the ideas of aging, silently regretting what you haven't done, and hoping to make up for it late in life. Guare's basic plot feels as relevant today as it would have upon release. The geographical star, Atlantic City, has established itself as a miniature Las Vegas for the east coast and no longer needs any sort of legitimacy. The Lou Pascals are probably long gone, replaced daily by the Sally Matthewses. In some ways, the Atlantic City of Malle's film has now become New York City and Manhattan, it too formerly thriving with personality and crime, yet now sanitised with neon lights for our own protection. If that's the case, the relevancy of Guare's themes have proof of their endurance and there may not be a better testament to the continued appeal of the film.

The Disc

This comparison between the R2 Network release and an earlier R1 from Paramount isn't exact, but does give a good idea of what we're dealing with here. R2 is on the left and R1 is on the right. Clicking on each image will enlarge.

Atlantic City was released by Paramount in R1 back in 2002 on a single-layered disc with extra features limited to just a trailer. Network has now put the film back in print in the UK (following an earlier effort from Arrow), with a release for R2 that's also on a single-layered disc. I've done a somewhat crude comparison of the older Paramount R1 and this new R2 and the results are easy to see, with the R1 faring much better. Though some of the screen caps border on awful for the R2, it's maybe not as bad as it appears to be. The transfer is progressive and can look very watchable. Unfortunately, there are times when it can also look just as inept as one would imagine from these images. Detail is fuzzy, colours look off, and the framing, evidenced by the final capture of Lancaster, is at times too tight. Both discs use the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and are enhanced for widescreen televisions, but the R2 shows less information at the bottom of the frame. The image quality on the Network release is inconsistent, and inferior in all respects to Paramount's disc. Even the R1 shows substantial room for improvement, and is full of noise, so the fact that the R2 does look noticeably worse is quite disappointing.

Network has used a two-channel English Dolby Digital mono track as the only audio option. It sounded too hollow for my ears. The climactic gunshots seemed to ping around instead of making any distinct impact. Dialogue is clear, easily heard, and consistently vigorous in volume, but the track is still at the lower end in quality, even for mono. Network also isn't going to win any points for failing to provide subtitles on their release.

The lone bonus feature is the film's theatrical trailer (2:06), which looks very ragged.

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