Some movies are all about place, and Louis Malle's Atlantic City, a story set on the cusp of change in the resort town, during an in-between time when in real-time the boardwalk's grand old buildings were giving away to modern casinos, is one of them. Against this no man's land of dying grandeur, aging numbers runner Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) and Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon), a young divorcee and croupier-in-training who toils as a waitress in an oyster bar, fall into one another's sway.
Sally and Lou are neighbors in a crumbling building where Lou, lost in his own world of former grandeur, cares for (and is kept by) the widow Grace, a former beauty queen with nothing left but sumptuous memories. He clings to a self-image of himself as a real gangster, with a false savoir faire that impresses Sally. But his interest in her is rooted darker -- and strangely, brighter -- places.
When Sally's drug-dealing ex, Dave, now hooked up with her flower-child sister, Chrissie, shows up with a booty of pilfered drugs to sell, Lou gets mixed up in the deal, and Dave ends up dead. Sally becomes the target of Philadelphia gangsters looking for their stolen narcotics, and Lou feels a chivalrous need to prove himself as her protector.
Lou is boosted by his success in doing so, but he's also a gentleman. He knows his time, like that of the old Atlantic City, is over, even as the wrecking balls swing in the background. As viewers, we know inherently that Lou and Sally needed each other for a while, but were perhaps not meant for each other.
Outside of the leads, Louis Malle made Atlantic City with a largely unknown cast and a John Guare script, and filmed it on location as the resort was actually in the throes of urban renewal. The atmosphere is lovely and sad, and Lancaster's performance is lovely, too -- that of an older movie star who is also going through changes.
Susan Froyd, in another life, toiled for a few years in some of Denver's most beloved and belated repertory cinemas. She has also seen a lot of movies over a lot of years. In this weekly series, she'll recommend forgotten films, classics, cult favorites and other dusty reels of celluloid from the past. You might like it.