Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Atlantic City

"Atlantic City" (Louis Malle, 1980) I've made no secret of my prejudices against the directorial style of Louis Malle: He's one of the handful of directors I know who can make salacious subject matter dull. In college, after seeing "Lacombe Lucien " and "Pretty Baby" in a period of three weeks, I started repeating the same joke whenever any person dared mention his name. I'd say sneer that the perfect Louid Malle film would be two guys in a room talking and Malle using three cameras to film it.

And what happens? He makes "My Dinner with Andre."

And...I like it!

So, I don't seek out Louis Malle films, though I've endured a handful of them. And he's the exception that proves the rule. I approach his films with caution rather than openness. "Alright, prove me wrong!" is in my head before I watch a Malle film. Or, in Hitchcock's words: "Enchant me."*

Not fair, I suppose, but I went through that same ritual when I popped "Atlantic City" into the DVD player. But that's how it is with me.

And hey, "Atlantic City" is a pleasant surprise. An English language film (written by playwright John Guare) with an eye toward the sordid side of American life, set in a transitional Atlantic City before it was "Trumped" up into "Vegas-East." The crumbling facades make an apt back-drop for the toothless lions and hapless turks trying to score The Good Life.

Burt Lancaster and Kate Reid turn in terrific performances: he, a retiree living a fantasy life as a former High Roller that never was; and she, a bed-ridden glamor queen in crumpled disarray, entombed in her boudoir.

Then, there's the gal he anonymously peeps at night as she ritualistically cuts lemons and squeezes the juice on her skin. To him, it's a stolen moment of sensuality. For her, she's trying to remove the stink from working at a Casino fish-fry. She's Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) and she's just recently been hit up by her ex, who shows up in town with a wad of stolen heroin in the shape of a nest-egg, and Sally's kid sister--who just happens to be carrying ex's kid. Messy. Complications ensue.

What's marvelous about the movie is the perfect setting for the parade of wannabe's and neverwas's in a tourist city whose seedy veneer is being stripped away to the crusty rebar underneath. Of course, it's to be replaced by just another false-facade. but, like the city, eveybody's in transition: to a better life, to a better understanding of life: to a shallow grave.

It's pleasant and seamy, but then Malle's always been attracted to the under-belly of civilization and the psyche; here, the psyche's are good impressions deep, and there's just the faintest whiff of good intentions in the air, that despite the squalor gives the movie an almost sunny disposition.

There are things that made me wince—a too-long stutter of a reaction shot in an unexpected farewell scene, and a too-cute End Crawl with Michel Legrand's poppy chansons being demolished out of existence by a wrecking ball. But, a nicely done film from one of my least-favorite directors.

* Said to Anthony Perkins on the set of "Psycho" when the actor told Hitchcock he had an idea for walking up the Bates staircase, but he had to show it to him: Perkins walked up the stairs with a feminine gait to his hips, Hitchcock roared with laughter, and that's how it appears in the film.

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