In the film, Atlantic City looks like a stubborn floater in the toilet. There’s graffiti everywhere and buildings being demolished left and right. A build board on a rundown apartment building pokes fun at the city’s embarrassing decline, reading, “Atlantic City, you’re on the map again.” If it were not for the people who are too old go anywhere new, the city would be a ghost town. They keep the casinos in business and gives the younger people, who must have steered wrong at some point to land in Atlantic City, jobs in those casinos.
Sally (Susan Sarandon) works in the oyster bar of a casino, but she’s training to become a dealer. When her bohemian looking husband, Dave (Robert Joy) and sister, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) (who is pregnant by Dave) arrive unexpectedly, Sally is less than welcoming to them. They’ve traveled a long way, and though the back story is never fully revealed, it seems that Sally owes Dave for helping her leave their hometown in Saskatchewan, Canada. Along the journey to Atlantic City, Dave has found some drugs he plans to sell. Problem is, Atlantic City seems to have some standards about how drug dealers should dress for success and Dave looks like a hitchhiking hippie.
Enter Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aging man who lives in the apartment next to Sally’s and considers himself a big time gangster, though he only occasionally pulls some small deals. He’s a kind old man, who takes care of the elderly lady downstairs, Grace (Kate Reid). Dave strikes up a little friendship with Lou, and has Chrissie take care of Grace for a while so Lou can sell the drugs for him. But while Lou is making the deal, Dave is murdered. Now that Lou is making wads of cash thanks to Dave, his odd sense of chivalry tells him that he is obligated to help Sally.
In the beginning of the film, we see Lou watching Sally through her kitchen window as she does an odd routine. She rubs fresh lemon juice all over her neck and chest while listening to opera music. At first, we assume Lou is an old creepy man watching for kicks. In a scene later, after the relationship between Lou and Sally has grown and see understand Lou’s need to protect beautiful young women, he confesses to watching Sally. What he says, and the way he says it is not creepy, he has a real sense of admiration. The way he describes what she does in detail shows that he watches her in this private moment in an attempt to understand her in a soulful way. The fact that Lancaster can pull that conversation off perfectly and convince me that he’s not a creepy old man watching from his window, deserves his Oscar nomination.
In the end, Atlantic City is a well written tale of small time crime and passion. The characters are likable and the situations don’t get too far fetched for our imaginations. Best of all, the film shows us how people can get stuck in the crumbling world of Atlantic City and how fitting it is for them.
“You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean back then.”