Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) thought she was rid of her husband for good. She works in a fish bar and is self-conscious about the way it makes her smell, but so far her biggest problem is trying to complete a course that will see her secure a job at one of the city's new casinos. That is until her estranged husband Dave (Robert Joy) turns up at her place of work with her now pregnant sister, who he had run off with about a year before, asking for money and somewhere to sleep. Exasperated, Sally feels she has no choice, but what she doesn't know is that Dave has stolen a packet of cocaine that he hopes to sell - and the Mob have sent someone after him...
One of the most low key gangster movies ever filmed, director Louis Malle's Atlantic City was scripted by playwright John Guare (who went on to write Six Degrees of Separation and its subsequent film) and despite the crime background, and foreground for that matter, is more content to explore its characters in clear eyed but sympathetic terms. In an excellent cast, it was Burt Lancaster playing ageing hood Lou Pascal who stood out as giving one of the best performances of his career as a man who constantly looks back to the past and regrets his present.
In truth, Lou was never much of a gangster, but he used to dream he could be, representing the times when Atlantic City was prosperous, but riddled with corruption. We see buildings that have had better days, almost everywhere is a place being pulled down, and the new casinos are a legitimate way to fleece tourists of their money. However, if Sally, Lou's neighbour in his apartment block, was meant to stand in for the new revitalised city, it's not a comparison that is really successful considering the rotten time she has trying to get by; perhaps she is supposed to be the city struggling to escape its problematic past.
Sally washes herself in lemon juice by her kitchen window each night, unaware that Lou longingly gazes at her from his window across the way. When Dave, on the lookout for a method to get cash for his stolen drugs, strikes up a conversation with Lou he spins a line about having heard of the old man in Las Vegas, flattery that blinds Lou to the fact that he's being drawn into an unglamorous crime. Dave takes the drugs back to Lou's place, mixes them with baby laxative to make them go further, then sets out to sell them to a contact. Unfortunately for Dave, while he sends his new friend up to drop off the merchandise he is found, chased and murdered by two Mafia men.
This gives Lou a chance to both keep the money and get to know Sally, and all the while the drama becomes more painful to watch as it's patent that Lou will be caught out and Sally is heading for a further fall by acquainting herself with this man. There's a brilliant closeup of the crushed and impotent Lou when the two hoods beat up Sally in the street to look for the drugs and the profits, and for a stretch it seems as if none of these characters will catch a break. And yet, Lou's dreams of being a proper gangster, pathetic as they may be, do come true after a fashion, and even the hapless Sally gets a try at happiness by the end. Atlantic City is reflective but unsentimental when it comes to depicting the depressing lives of its put upon cast, but Lancaster and Sarandon made for a fine and unusual screen couple whose luck you want to change almost as much as they do.