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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (July)

Escape from New York
The Fox and the Hound
Blow Out
Eye of the Needle
Escape to Victory

The Summer of ’81’s run of solid releases continued in July with another diverse lineup that included comedies, thrillers, an animated feature and a dystopian action film, though the month’s films didn’t match the box office success or the critical acclaim of June 1981’s releases. Comedy was king of the notable films for July 1981 with Arthur, starring Dudley Moore in the title role, raking in $95 million at the domestic box office, but the rest of the top five grossing films each didn’t crack $40 million. Disney’s animated classic The Fox and the Hound was #2 at the box office with almost $40 million domestic, followed by Endless Love ($31 million), Escape from New York ($25 million) and Under the Rainbow ($18 million).

Two films that didn’t make the month’s notable cut had over the top humor, disappointing box office and lukewarm to negative reviews in common. Hopes were likely high that Zorro the Gay Blade (July 17) starring George Hamilton could match the success of his 1979 comedy hit Love at First Bite which had earned over $40 million. But Zorro the Gay Blade ended up as July 1981’s biggest flop, earning only $5.1 million in North America against its $12 million budget. It probably didn’t help that it shared its opening weekend with the smash hit Arthur. The film has some witty dialogue despite it’s purposely over the top humor and overly flamboyant performances by Hamilton (in a dual role) and Ron Liebman, but it doesn’t age well forty years later and is grating by today’s standards and tolerance levels. Director Steve Rash’s comedy Under the Rainbow (July 31) starring Chevy Chase and Carrie Fisher is loosely based on a Hollywood legend that the actors who portrayed the munchkins in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz trashed their hotel during the production (it’s been debunked by actor Jerry Maren who was in both The Wizard of Oz and Under the Rainbow). Under the Rainbow’s uneven story is filled with gags that rely too much on racial and cultural stereotypes and old fashioned short jokes (written by five credited screenwriters no less). While it does have a few funny lines, it has a weak main plot involving international intrigue with two spies from Germany (Billy Barty) and Japan (Mako) stopping at nothing to retrieve a map of the America’s defenses, and the subplots of the trashed hotel and the assassination attempts on a foreign dignitary barely string the film together. Lead actors Chase and Fisher are underutilized, though Chase’s performance as Secret Service Agent Bruce Thorpe shows some flashes of his future role as Fletch.

I was initially unsure as to whether Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. and Franco Zeffirelli’s Endless Love should be included in July 1981’s notable list. One one hand the reviews were lackluster, but on the other hand the production value and performances were much better than the month’s duds. S.O.B. was a solid movie with a great cast, but barely made a profit. Endless Love received mixed reviews but proved popular and earned over $30 million. While S.O.B. and Endless Love don’t make the notable cut, ultimately I think they’re each worth a second look.

After his successes with the Pink Panther franchise and 1979’s erotic comedy 10 starring Bo Derek and Dudley Moore, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B. (July 1) brings together a cast of old Hollywood favorites including Robert Preston, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters and the great William Holden for an over the top ensemble comedy about the “Standard Operational Bullshit” of making movies in Hollywood. Director Felix Farmer (Robert Mulligan) proves you’re only as successful as your last movie as his latest release Nightwind starring his wife Sally Miles (played by Julie Andrews) flops at the box office. Catatonically depressed, Felix snaps out of it with the realization Nightwind should be reshot to turn Sally’s pure cinematic reputation on its ear with a more sexed up version. With all of the characters and tangents that form out of Felix ‘s subsequent desire to reshoot and re-release the film (with his own money!), Edwards’s directing keeps it all glued together, even the scenes that run off the rails (which is most of them). Each member of the cast plays this to perfect effect even though the first half of the film stretches way too long. But Edwards picks up the pace with a chase scene, a shootout and caper. S.O.B. is fun watching if you’re a fan of movies about making movies, especially with its great old guard cast (and sadly the great William Holden’s final film before his death). So invite some fellow film fans over, pour a round of scotch and enjoy.

Endless Love by director Franco Zeffirelli is practically the anti-Romeo and Juliet. As I screened this film for the first time since the 80’s I was preparing myself for a dated cringe fest that would romanticize obsession. It was a relief to see this film holds up as it should: as an example of the perils of obsession and immature, misguided love. Martin Hewitt plays David, a bright high school student who is dating the younger Jade played by Brooke Shields. Martin spends as much time as he can away from his work obsessed parents and with Jade’s more liberal pot smoking family. But their relationship sends warning signals to Jade’s father Hugh Butterfield (Don Murray) when David and Jade get too close even for his more open minded comfort zone. They’re practically inseparable (David openly spends the night with Jade in her room) and their late nights affect Jade’s performance in school. The breaking point for Hugh comes when he catches Jade trying to sneak amphetamines to stay awake. David tries to abide by Hugh’s request to stay away from Jade for 30 days, but soon realizes that her brother Keith (James Spader) is trying to set Jade up with another boy. David’s desperate attempt to play the hero to get back into her life tragically backfires, with consequences that derail his promising educational path and the stability of the Butterfield family. Martin Hewitt didn’t have many mainstream leading man roles after his debut in this film, which is a shame because he held his own as the obsessed David to Brooke Shields’s Jade (though he did star in the cult favorite Yellowbeard alongside Graham Chapman and Madeline Kahn two years later). Watch for early performances by James Spader and Tom Cruise, and the talented older cast that includes Shirley Knight.

Disney’s The Fox and the Hound (July 10) was one of only two animated features released during the Summer of ’81. The film begins when a young fox loses its mother and a group of birds (Big Mama the owl voiced by Pearl Bailey, Dinky the finch, and Boomer the woodpecker) lead the Widow Tweed to find him. She takes the young fox in, names him Tod and raises him with the rest of her animals. While trying to keep out of trouble on the widow’s farm, Tod wanders to the property next door and meets a young hound dog named Copper, striking up a friendship. But Tod runs afoul of Copper’s owner, hunter Amos Slade, and Widow Tweed releases Tod into the woods for his protection. But as Tod and Copper become full grown and follow their natural course of instincts, their bond of friendship is tested when they face each other as hunter and prey. The Fox and the Hound was one of two children’s films released in the Summer of ’81 along with June’s The Great Mupper Caper. The film doesn’t have the humor or emotional power of earlier Disney films, but that may have been a product of production issues. Production of the film began in 1977 but its release delayed by a year due to the infighting among original director Wolfgang Reitherman and the younger team of animators, leading to the resignations of thirteen of them including Don Bluth (who would go on to direct The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and The Land Before Time). The Fox and the Hound was also the end of an era as the last Disney animated film to have been worked on by any of the company’s Nine Old Men, a group of animators that had worked with the company since 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It shared its opening weekend with the dystopian thriller Escape From New York (talk about counter programming!) but ultimately won the box office vs. Snake Plissken with a $31 million return.

John Carpenter’s dystopian classic Escape from New York (July 10) starring Kurt Russell is one of the more memorable films of the Summer of ’81 and is still a go-to action thriller today (a full review was written on Fante’s Inferno back in 2014). The film takes place in an imagined 1997 with Russell as former war hero and now federal prison inmate Snake Plissken, drafted by government official Hauk (Lee van Cleef) to find and extract the President of the United States (played by Donald Pleasence) after Air Force One is hijacked and his escape pod lands in Manhattan, which is now a maximum security prison island. Plissken is given an offer he can’t refuse: get the President back within a specific time or an explosive implanted in his body will blow his head off. After silently making his way into the city, Plissken’s job becomes more difficult than he anticipated when finds an empty escape pod and has to take on the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes) who is holding the President hostage. Snake Plissken is one of Kurt Russell’s most recognizable roles, bringing a calm cool to a situation that may literally get his head blown off. Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau and Harry Dean Stanton round out an excellent cast, and Russell and Carpenter would team up with cinematographer Dean Cundey a year later in 1982’s classic horror film The Thing. Escape from New York earned $25 million against its $6 million budget (which looks like a lot more on the screen) and its sequel Escape from L.A. was released in 1996.

Arthur (July 17), written and directed by Steve Gordon, has become beloved comic actor Dudley Moore’s best known role after years on British television and on film with comedic partner Peter Cook. Two years removed from Blake Edwards’ classic erotic comedy 10 opposite Bo Derek, Moore plays Arthur Bach, a trust fund bon vivant who drinks his way through life with his expenses covered by his uber rich family, and his personal needs taken care of by his ultra professional and incredibly patient butler Hobson (John Gielgud in an Academy Award Winning role). His upcoming arranged marriage to Susan (Jill Eikenberry) and his eventual inheritance are thrown for a loop when Arthur meets and falls in love with the working class Linda (played by Liza Minelli). Arthur earned $95 million at the domestic box office, behind only Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, On Golden Pond, and Superman II which each earned over $100 million in 1981. Steve Gordon crafted a heartwarming comedy that was lightning in a bottle (no pun intended) from the perfect casting (it’s hard to think of Dudley Moore without thinking of his performance as Arthur) to its memorable theme song. Sadly his directorial debut with Arthur would be Gordon’s only film as a director. He died one year later at the age of 44. If only he and Moore could have followed up Arthur with a quality sequel.

Eye of the Needle (July 24) starring Kate Nelligan and Donald Sutherland is an underrated, throwback World War II spy thriller. The film was based on Ken Follett’s novel of the same title, with screenwriter Stanley Mann (Damien: Omen II, Firestarter) and director Richard Marquand (who would later direct a small film called Return of the Jedi) crafting Eye of the Needle in a style reminiscent of a classic 1940’s war era thriller to great effect. Sutherland plays Henry “The Needle” Faber, a stoic yet ruthless German spy who while in England obtains information on the allied invasion of Normandy. His effort to sneak back to Germany is thwarted when weather strands him on a small island with only a handful of inhabitants. While he waits to be picked up by a German U-Boat, he charms a neglected housewife played by Nelligan. But its only a matter of time before suspicions are raised about him, and Faber will stop at nothing to complete his mission. The direction, score and acting in Eye of the Needle add up to a film that at times borders on the melodramatic, but that ultimately lends to the charm and old school drama of the film (I envision Eye of the Needle as the type of story that could have been produced forty years earlier with Gregory Peck and Barbara Stanwyck in the lead roles). Despite its modest box office of $17 million domestic, Eye of the Needle is an engaging, exciting and enjoyable film with strong performances by Sutherland and Nelligan.

Blow Out (July 24) written and directed by Brian DePalma is a contemporary noir thriller set in Philadelphia starring John Travolta and Nancy Allen. Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound editor for a low budget horror film who while recording audio on an empty stretch of road witnesses and records a car accident. Jack saves the woman in the passenger seat, but the driver is later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. While there, Jack realizes the driver was Governor (and potential presidential candidate) George McRyan and the woman he saved was an escort named Sally (Nancy Allen). Jack tries to piece together the events leading up to and through the accident with his audio recording and magazine photography, unraveling layers of intrigue that put both his life and Sally’s at stake. Blow Out was released at the height of Travolta’s career after Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy, and was DePalma’s third film after Carrie and Dressed to Kill. While DePalma’s first two films earned critical praise and over $30 million each at the domestic box office, Blow Out didn’t break even, only earning $13 million against its $18 million budget in a crowded July 24th weekend that included two other thrillers in Wolfen and Eye of the Needle. But despite the disappointing box office Blow Out is one of the best thrillers of the year. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Paul Hirsch’s editing perfectly complemented DePalma’s story and direction, capturing the dramatic weight of the performances of Travolta, Allen and an especially memorable role played by John Lithgow. Pair Blow Out with March 1981’s Diva and you have a great double feature.

Wolfen (July 24) directed by Michael Wadleigh (Woodstock) is a contemporary horror thriller set in the derelict, burned out city blocks of early 80’s New York City. The film begins with a beautiful shot of lower Manhattan (there are a few of those in this film) where a mysterious figure walks along the top of the Brooklyn Bridge and stalks a limousine headed to Manhattan. Millionaire Christopher Van der Veer and his wife make a late night stop in Battery Park to see the art installation he sponsored (and enjoy the effects of cocaine) while his bodyguard watches them from a distance. All three are quickly and savagely murdered by an unseen beast. Albert Finney plays Dewey Wilson, a former New York City Police Captain who is brought back on to the force to lead the murder investigation with the help of Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), a criminal psychologist brought in to investigate potential terrorist links to the Van der Veer murders. Dewey tracks down Eddie Holt (Edward James Olmos), a Native American activist he arrested years earlier, working a construction job on the Manhattan Bridge. Dewey climbs to the top of the bridge (this sequence still amazes me 40 years later) and questions Eddie, who’s eerily calm demeanor fits his “confession” as a shape shifter. Dewey tails Eddie and later finds him under the influence of psychedelic drugs, taking on the mannerisms and persona of a wolf. A string of subsequent murders in the Bronx seem random, but coroner Whittington (played by Gregory Hines) and zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan) find similarities in the methods of the victims deaths and determine the non-human hairs found on the bodies belong to the wolf family. Dewey and Rebecca soon realize they’re dealing with forces more powerful than they can imagine. Wolfen is a solid, well cast werewolf thriller that uses shots of the very real derelict city blocks of the Bronx (you have to see them for yourself to realize how destroyed parts of New York City were in the 70s and early 80s) along with innovative photography used to create a heightened sense of suspense throughout the film. It’s a more subdued film than February 1981’s The Howling, putting it more in the vain of Cat People, with a great on screen team up of Finney and Hines.

Victory, aka Escape to Victory (July 31) is the guilty pleasure of the month as a sports themed World War II drama…or World War II themed sports drama (think The Great Escape meets The Longest Yard). There is a lot of talent associated with this film, especially Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow and director John Huston as well as the international footballers including Pele who make up the film’s German and Allied teams. Set in a German prisoner of war camp in 1941, Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) is a former professional football player tasked by Major von Steiner (Max von Sydow) to put together a team of Allied prisoners to play an exhibition match against a German team in France. While Colby is in it purely for the sport, his superiors want to use the match as an opportunity for an escape. Captain Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), has his own personal (and hopefully permanent) escape plans thrown for a loop when he’s drafted into using his escape to contact the French Resistance, to plan the team’s escape, and then get re-captured and returned to the POW camp. Colby gets Hatch out of the cooler by making him the Allied team’s starting goalie, and the match is on. With dramatic overtones in a World War II setting, Victory also turns out to be a fun movie where even the somewhat fantastical elements of the story (namely the football match between the camp prisoners and the German team) can be enjoyed at face value. But the scenes are occasionally clumsy and the first two acts uneven, which make the script feel very first draft-ish. Regardless, I’ll still add this to the notable list for the talent involved (including the football stars), the fact it’s still very enjoyable despite its flaws and earning $25 million against its $10 million budget. I really would like to take a deep dive into what inspired the great John Huston (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King) to make this film.

Next Up: Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of August 1981!

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A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (April)


Atlantic City (4/3/81)
Nighthawks (4/10/81)
Excalibur (4/10/81)
The Howling (4/10/81)
Knightriders (4/10/81)
The Last Chase (4/10/81)
The Hand (4/24/81)
Ms. 45 (4/24/81)

While March 1981 could be considered the month of noir, April 1981 had something for everybody with eight notable films that included two gritty New York City action thrillers (Nighthawks and Ms. 45), two horror films (The Howling and The Hand), two very different but immensely enjoyable films with knights battling in armor (Excalibur and Knightriders), a crime drama (Atlantic City) and a hard to find dystopian film that barely made a blip upon its release but developed a cult following (The Last Chase). While Excalibur and Atlantic City had the most acclaim of April’s lineup, each of the other films are must sees forty years later.

Even though April 1981’s comedy releases recouped more than their individual budgets, none make the notable list. Hardly Working, written and directed by Jerry Lewis, was a forgettable comedy about a guy that just can’t get things right at numerous jobs. It grossed $25 million domestically (plus $24 million international) despite the terrible reviews and having been shelved for almost two years prior to its release. Carl Gottlieb’s comedy Caveman (April 17) starring Ringo Starr, Shelley Long and Dennis Quaid almost quadrupled its budget with a $16 million gross, but even with the film’s charm and the cast’s on screen chemistry, forty years later it’s a curiosity piece built on slapstick that wears on an adult audience. The comedy Going Ape! starring Tony Danza as the inheritor of three circus orangutans earned $5 million at the box office, but based on the film’s quality it’s safe to say its budget didn’t come close to that amount. Writer/director Jeremy Joe Kronsberg also wrote the successful films Any Which Way You Can and Every Which Way But Loose starring the beloved orangutan Clyde and a guy named Eastwood, but Going Ape! was unable to sustain the late 70’s/early 80’s orangutan craze (sarcasm), falling flat upon its release and barely rating as a guilty pleasure forty years later.

Cop thriller Nighthawks directed by Bruce Malmuth stood out in a crowded April 10th weekend, with Rutger Hauer as an international terrorist taking his wares to the crime ridden early 80’s New York City, and Sylvester Stallone and Billy Dee Williams as the NYPD cops tasked with catching him. Early in the film undercover sergeants Deke DaSilva (Stallone) and Matthew Fox (Williams) showcase their unorthodox methods in the decoy unit as they take out New York City’s street crime one thwarted mugging at a time. Meanwhile in London, Wulfgar Reinhardt (Hauer) is Interpol’s most wanted terrorist, planting bombs in support of “the cause” (which is actually not specified in the film). But Wulfgar’s misguided zeal has made him a loose cannon, with little thought of the children killed in the London bombing, and killing one of his own contacts without realizing he was carrying a passport with Wulfgar’s picture. Now he needs a new face and a new territory to earn the terrorist network’s trust as well as the money owed to him. But Interpol is one step ahead of him, banking on Wulfgar’s ego bringing him to New York City to capitalize on the press coverage in the world’s largest media market. DaSilva and Fox are assigned against their will to the new anti-terrorism unit (ATAC) in anticipation of Wulfgar’s arrival in New York. As they grudgingly work their way through the thorough but mundane training by Inspector Hartman (Nigel Davenport), Wulfgar arrives in NYC with a new face and new targets in mind.

For a police thriller set in the crime ridden, early 80’s New York City starring Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer (in his American film debut), Nighthawks is a pretty restrained film. Unfortunately it drags in the second act, overdoing it with Hartman’s classroom anti-terrorism training, but director Bruce Malmuth makes great use of the New York City locations, especially the scene at the Roosevelt Island tram. Cinematographer James Contner catches every layer of dirt on the buildings, every piece of garbage on the street, and New York City’s depressed haze from the rooftops. Hauer’s performance as Wulfgar (great name…) is a primer for his signature role as Roy Batty in Blade Runner one year later. Stallone and Williams make a great and believable team as they confidently walk where most wouldn’t as an army of two, knowing their street smarts (and the shotguns under their coats) give them an advantage over the street thugs of NYC. Williams is always cool and badass (though under utilized at times in this film), but it’s a really muted performance for Stallone, which makes Deke DaSilva the anti-Cobretti when compared to Stallone’s 1986 over-the-top cop thriller Cobra.

Ms. 45 (April 24), directed by Abel Ferrara from the screenplay by Nicholas St. John, is a hard hitting revenge film starring Zoe Tamerlis as Thana, a mute garment worker who uses the gun of one of her attackers to take her revenge on the lecherous men of New York City. The opening title, accented by five loud, clear gunshots prepares the audience for an hour and twenty minutes of Death Wish inspired vengeance, but nothing can prepare the audience for the brutality of first ten minutes of the film, which are very hard to watch. Thana’s daily life involves the gauntlet of men harassing her and her co-workers in New York’s Garment District, but her stoic innocence and vulnerability is shattered upon her return home from work when she is brutalized in two separate attacks outside and inside her home. She kills her second attacker, and in the process of disposing of his body uses his gun to protect herself and ultimately hunt the seemingly endless string of sleazy, dangerous men that draw themselves to her. Ferrara’s in your face directing style pulls no punches, but what is the line between a scene shot in an unflinching manner and a gratuitous one? Or between hard hitting drama and exploitation? But it’s a hard hitting, well shot independent film, making Ms. 45 noteworthy for 1981. Ferrara skillfully films the city streets in Thana’s thirst for revenge, from daytime shots of abandoned lots and buildings to stylized night shots that showcase Thana’s own personal transformation from meek seamstress to stylish killer (especially the scene shot at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park). But make no mistake, Ms. 45 is a film that is endured as much as enjoyed, but can still be respected for its overall cinematic merits.

In director Joe Dante’s classic horror film The Howling Dee Wallace plays Karen White, a Los Angeles news reporter dealing with severe trauma she suffered after going too deep undercover to unmask a sexual predator. At the advice of psychologist George Waggner (played by Patrick MacNee), Karen and her husband Bill Neill (Christopher Stone) visit his Colony for patients to continue her therapy, which they will find out is not what it seems. Bill is attacked by a werewolf and himself undergoes a transformation during a moment of infidelity with Colony resident Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks). Dee Wallace carries the emotional weight of the film from the opening scenes, but The Howling takes awhile to get to the crux of the horror, meandering through Karen’s psychological trauma and her strained marriage with Bill before living up to its title as a werewolf film. Dante got a lot of production value out of the film’s $1.5 million budget, highlighted by the locations, production design and Rob Bottin’s makeup effects for the werewolf sequences. Despite the limits of the horror make-up effects of that era when (unfairly) compared to today’s standards, there is something the latex, slime and fur brings to the screen that is missing from a flat, lifeless CGI effect, and shows the difference between “lifelike” (practical) and “realistic” (CGI). But Joe Dante’s The Howling is not a nostalgia piece for special effects comparison, but rather a layered story that’s part horror, part psychological thriller and just the right amount of camp. Definitely worth revisiting.

Martin Burke’s dystopian The Last Chase (April 10) shows its age forty years later (if you can find it), but its dated veneer shouldn’t discount it from the list of notable films of 1981. Since its cinematic blip on the radar and subsequent run on cable TV, The Last Chase hasn’t exactly worked its way up to “forgotten classic” status, but the theme of this film and the great cast makes it more engaging today. Lee Majors plays former race car driver Frank Hart, who twenty years after his career ended for causing an accident that killed two drivers, lives a tired, solitary life working as a spokesman for a now auto-less Boston’s transportation authority. Fed up with pushing anti-car propaganda by day, at night he works on a secret project reassembling his old race car for a cross country “escape” to California with the help of prep student Ring (played by Chris Makepeace). But they’ll have to outrun former Korean and Vietnam War fighter pilot J.G. Williams (Burgess Meredith) to get there. Read my full review here.

To include Oliver Stone’s The Hand (April 10) in the list of Michael Caine’s questionable film choices back in the 80’s (see Water and Jaws: The Revenge as examples) is both unfair and an inaccurate assessment of a very effective psychological thriller and diamond in the rough for 1981. Caine plays Jon Lansdale, successful cartoonist of the newspaper comic strip Mandro, who loses his drawing hand in a car accident. The loss of his livelihood takes a toll on his relationships with his wife and daughter (played by Andrea Marcovicci and Mara Hobel), and he moves to California to start over in a teaching position at a local college. But he’s haunted by his severed hand, now with a life of its own and back to hurt those around him. The Hand is an underrated film, with a chilling, understated performance by Michael Caine. My full review can be found here.

Atlantic City

Release Date: April 3, 1981 (U.S.)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Robert Joy, Hollis McLaren, Kate Reid
Directed by Louis Malle; Screenplay by John Guare; Cinematography by Richard Ciupka; Editing by Suzanne Baron

Director Louis Malle’s drama Atlantic City is technically a 1980 film, having premiered in France (September 3, 1980) and Canada (December 19, 1980) due to their co-production of the film, but I’ve included it in 1981’s list of notable films not only for its April 3, 1981 U.S. release date, but also the $12.7 million U.S. box office and the five Academy Award nominations it earned that year (Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor and Actress).

The film begins with former gangster Lou Pascal (Burt Lancaster) watching Sally Matthews (Susan Sarandon) perform her evening ritual of rubbing lemon juice on herself in front of her kitchen window.(there’s a good reason for this) from his modest apartment near the Atlantic City boardwalk. It’s a serene moment to open the film, but Malle (My Dinner With Andre, Au Revoir Les Enfants, Vanya on 42nd Street) took screenwriter John Guare’s script and crafted a drama that expertly transitions the ebbs and flows between the quieter character driven scenes and the violent crime moments in an Atlantic City that has seen better, and rougher days.

Cut to a Philadelphia phone booth where a scruffy David (Robert Joy) scopes out a stash of cocaine left for a drug deal and swoops in to swipe it just before the intended recipients can pick it up. He takes it on the road with his pregnant girlfriend Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), making plans for when the baby arrives, even if those plans are not born out of good judgment. But their car breaks down on the highway and they’re forced to walk and hitch a ride in the back of a flatbed truck to an Atlantic City that is in a state of decay and irrelevance, evidenced by the demolition of one of its once classic hotels. David and Chrissie walk the boardwalk to one of the casinos lugging their gear like two old school hobos, standing out among the more decently dressed gamblers as they look for Sally, who’s none too happy to see them at her work and their latest attempt to mooch off of her. But yet again she falls prey to sympathy for her pregnant sister and takes David and Chrissie to her apartment just as a dapper Lou leaves his next door apartment to start his day’s work.

Lou’s job is taking care of the bedridden former beauty queen Grace (Kate Reid) by cooking her meals, walking her dog and doing her shopping. She treats him horribly but he takes it in stride (can anyone else besides the great Burt Lancaster play it this cool?). Meanwhile at Sally’s apartment, David has no problem taking her for granted, pushing another guilt trip and stealing the wallet from her purse. Her connection to the hopeless couple goes farther a strained sisterly bond: David is Sally’s ex-husband who left her for Chrissie.

Lou catches Sally on the boardwalk running back to her job. He drops off Grace’s poodle for a grooming and begins his rounds collecting small change bets for a numbers game. Sally takes a blackjack class under the watchful eyes and lecherous hands of her strict teacher Joseph, hoping to one day work her way up to dealer. As Lou drops the days bets off at a local club, an anxious David tries to cut the owner Fred in on the sale of his recent score of cocaine. Fred knows where the stash came from and refuses to do business with David, but gives him the number of a potential customer. David schmoozes Lou into letting him use his apartment, and back at Lou’s place he cuts the cocaine with powdered laxatives to double the day’s score from $2,000 to $4,000.

Lou shows David around Atlantic City, the stomping grounds he never left since he worked for the men who worked for the likes of Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. He’s an understated, charming old man, but he’s not in David’s game to fill a desperation for conversation. Lou wants back into bigger action than the quarter bets he collects for Frank. They walk into the hotel where the deal will take place, but David asks Lou to take the stash up for him and collect the cash while he waits in the lobby. Lou is suspicious of a set up but David convinces him his shabby attire would work against him in the deal. He reluctantly takes it, but more as a kind uncle than a hardened dealer. As Lou walks into a smokey poker game to close the deal, David walks the streets but he’s stopped and chased by the dealers he stole from in Philly (Vinnie and Felix), sold out by Frank. He climbs up a car parking rack (a very good sequence) but is unable to get away and stabbed.

Lou surprises himself by closing the $4,000 deal and washes his face to regain his composure. He’s recognized by his old friend Buddy working as a bathroom attendant and they reminisce about their old organized crime days over a shoeshine (complete with a story about Atlantic City’s former kingpin Nucky Johnson). He leaves the hotel to the sound of sirens and flashing police lights and sees David loaded into the back of an ambulance.

Sally is working in the oyster bar when a police detective brings her wallet that was found on David. They rush to the hospital but arrive just as David is pronounced dead. Sally is neither heartbroken or surprised, and when she tries to make a collect long distance call to David’s parents in Saskatchewan they won’t even accept the charges (does it get more Atlantic City than making a phone call as Robert Goulet croons outside of the phone booth?). Lou is there to walk her home, but they stop into a diner where Lou makes the call to break the news to David’s parents. As they walk into their crummy apartment building, they finally introduce themselves and call it a night.

Lou tries to wind down with a shot of whiskey and counts the $4000 in his pocket. He watches Sally through their windows as she starts her nightly routine of rubbing lemon juice on her skin to remove the smell from her work at the oyster bar. Inspired, or rather (ahem) invigorated, he pays Grace a visit. The next day he brings Sally the paperwork for David’s services and then treats himself to a new suit before dropping off another stash of cocaine to the poker players in Room 307. With renewed confidence Lou shows that he’s in control of the transaction by firmly not accepting anything but the cash. But that newfound swagger doesn’t diminish his loyalty to his old friends, and Lou celebrates in his new fortune by helping Buddy.

He meets Sally as she gets off work to let her know David’s body will be returned to his parents in Canada. She’s suspicious to his motives but he convinces her he’s on the level. Over lunch she tells Lou her dream of moving to Monaco to work as a blackjack dealer. Intrigued by Lou, she asks him to teach her things about life and the world, but draws a line when he asks to see her again. They return to their apartment building to be met by Vinnie and Felix hell bent on reclaiming their stash. They pay Lou no mind, but manhandle Sally as they search her for the missing cocaine. Lou stands helpless, his “old school” quasi gangster persona nothing more than a shell. Sally’s apartment has been broken into and ransacked, but Lou’s was untouched so he takes the stash, packs a bag and gun, and he’s out the door.

No spoilers here. Atlantic City weaves a story that lays just the right amount of sympathy for the aged hero and nostalgia for a long gone era without compromising the crime and suspense. As the third act plays out, we begin to see Lou for who he really is, rather than who he portrays himself to be. Burt Lancaster is a gem in each of the films he starred in throughout his career, and it’s hard to imagine another actor that could have brought the same pathos and resilience to the screen in Atlantic City. He and Sarandon are perfect opposite each other as two boardwalk working stiffs developing a realistic May/December relationship, and the supporting cast brings the additional emotional weight that engages an audience in the ramifications of their actions: from the ne’er do well David’s thirst for the quick big payoff with no regard to the dangers it poses to the mother of his child, to Chrissie’s naivete and inability to take full responsibility for stealing her sister’s husband. This film is a near flawless crime drama with Richard Ciupka’s cinematography representing the bleak day to day of a near forgotten city that lost hope for better days ahead, seamlessly cut together by editor Suzanne Baron. But the main theme of Atlantic City is more than nostalgia, but also the desire and sometimes desperation to hold on to one’s own relevance in a changing world.

Next up: We round out April 1981’s notable films by revisiting old school and new(ish) school Medieval times with John Boorman’s Excalibur and George Romero’s Knightriders!

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