Coming of old age

Never too late to make good

Published: Nov 04 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, May 1,1981
ATLANTIC CITY. Written by John Guare. Music by Michel Legrand. Directed by Louis Malle. Running time: 104 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some violence,  occasional nudity and coarse language.
LOU IS A GENTLEMAN of the old school. He remembers when gambling was illegal in Atlantic City, and when being a gangster was glamorous.
    Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) is not so much a has-been as a never-was. In the old days, the days of the Boardwalk, the Cakewalk and clean water, he aspired to the role of big time badman.
    Instead, he's become old without ever "making his bones.'' He's living out his days looking out for Grace Pinza (Kate Reid), a long-ago beauty contestant, telling stories to Dave Matthews (Robert Joy), a punk drug dealer, and peeping at Sally (Susan Sarandon), Dave's estranged wife, who lives across the air shaft and neglects to draw her drapes before stripping off to wash.
    Under the direction of Louis Malle, Atlantic City is a rite-of-passage tale. Despite his age, Lou knows in his heart of hearts that he's yet to become a man.
        Unlike his previous pictures, Pretty Baby (1978) and Lacombe, Lucien (1974), Malle's concern here is not for sexual initiation. Lou is impelled by a more primitive urge: the need to prove himself as a protector, provider and, yes, a powerful killer.
    Lou's chance comes when dumb Dave is killed by the mobsters whose cache of narcotics he stole. Unbeknownst to the hoods, old Lou has the stuff hidden away.
     When they attempt to lean on Dave's widow Sally, all of Lou's best bad instincts come to the fore.
    Although Lancaster narrowly missed the 1980 Academy of Canadian Cinema's best foreign actor award, his flawless performance may yet attract an Oscar nomination. As it is, the Franco-Canadian co-production (a 1980 release here, but a 1981 picture in the U.S.) picked up three well-deserved Genies, including the foreign actress prize to Sarandon, and a supporting actress trophy for Reid.
    Like director Michael Mann (in his current film Thief), and Bruce Beresford (in Breaker Morant), Malle takes filmgoers into a world where killing is a necessary part of being a man. In an oddly sweet way, Lou believes that his life is a failure until he's managed to mete out death.
    To the elderly, Malle seems to say, past times are golden times. What he has produced here is a lovingly nostalgic tale about an old shark attempting to live by a code that he honestly believes was better, applying it to times that can't help but get worse.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1981. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Burt Lancaster did indeed attract a 1981 Oscar nomination, as did Susan Sarandon, director Louis Malle and screenwriter John Guare. A best picture nomination brought the total to five, a respectable showing for a picture with Canadian nationality.
     Kate Reid, who played Lancaster's bedridden old girlfriend, was best known as a stage actress. A Stratford Festival regular in the early 1960s, she famously traded off playing Martha, in the original Broadway production of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), with her acting teacher Uta Hagen. Playwright Edward Albee later wrote the part of Claire, in A Delicate Balance, specifically for Reid, a part that she played in the 1973 film adaptation. In 1966, Tennessee Williams wrote an entire play for her, The Mutilated, one of two one-act plays that made up his Slapstick Tragedy. The same year she made her Hollywood feature debut, playing opposite Natalie Wood and Robert Redford in Sydney Pollack's adaptation of Williams's This Property Is Condemned (1966). After that, she divided her time between stage and screen appearances. Science-fiction film fans remember Kate Reid as one of the genre's early "strong women" for her performance as Dr. Ruth Leavitt, a key member of the research team assembled to deal with The Andromeda Strain (1971). She died in 1993 at the age of 62.