Atlantic City, U.S.A. Review

Old-time hood Lou gets mixed up with the hippie husband of would-be croupier Sally. The husband is killed by the gangsters he’s ripped off, and Lou enjoys his late-in-life wealthy streak, having an affair with Sally and finally becoming the killer he alw

by Kim Newman |
Published on
Release Date:

01 Jan 1981

Running Time:

104 minutes



Original Title:

Atlantic City, U.S.A.

Louis Malle’s drama of petty crime and faded dreams observes the effects of a cache of stolen drugs on the lives of a group of leftovers from both the organised crime of the 1940s and the counterculture of the 1960s as they struggle to escape the crumbling, redeveloping former gambling capital of America.

Lancaster, in his last great starring role, is infinitely patient long-time loser Lou

(his gangland nickname was ‘Numb-Nuts’), still looking after his mob boss's widow (Reid) and running numbers, watching from his shadows as Sally goes through a provocative nightly ritual of rubbing lemon into her breasts by an open window.  The reason for this is that she works at a seafood counter and has to kill the fish stink, suggesting how skewed Lou's fantasies are.  Sally's useless husband (Robert Joy) and dippy pregnant sister ('I want acid, so we can learn from the baby’s wisdom … and I want his face to be tattooed') show up with stolen cocaine and Lou shifts the merchandise as the rightful owners violently close in.

Like The King of Marvin Gardens, this makes great use of America’s east coast gambling  capital in decline, with Robert Goulet serenading at a benefit in the hospital’s Frank Sinatra wing as Sally tries to place a reverse-charges call to her murdered husband’s uncaring parents.  Beautifully written by playwright John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) and played by a superb cast (Hollis McLaren is memorable as the fractured waif sister), this is wry, sad, erotic, funny, shocking and thoughtful.

A well observed and deeply tender tale.
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