Atlantic City
Theatrical release poster
Directed byLouis Malle
Written byJohn Guare
Produced byDenis Héroux
John Kemeny
CinematographyRichard Ciupka
Edited bySuzanne Baron
Music byMichel Legrand
Distributed byParamount Pictures (North America)
NPF Planfilm (France)[1][2]
Release dates
  • September 3, 1980 (1980-09-03) (France)
  • December 19, 1980 (1980-12-19) (Canada)
Running time
104 minutes
Budget$7.2 million
Box office$12.7 million[5]

Atlantic City (French: Atlantic City, USA) is a 1980 romantic crime film directed by Louis Malle from a screenplay by John Guare. It stars Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon in the leading roles, with a supporting cast featuring Kate Reid, Michel Piccoli, Robert Joy, Hollis McLaren, and Al Waxman. A co-production between French and Canadian companies[3] filmed in late 1979, it was released in France and Germany in September 1980 and in the United States later that year by Paramount Pictures.

The film opened to critical acclaim[6] and was nominated for the Big Five Academy Awards: Best Picture,[7] Best Director,[8] Best Actor (for Lancaster),[9] Best Actress (for Sarandon),[10] and Best Original Screenplay,[11] but did not win in any category. In Canada, it won Genie Awards for Best Performance by a Foreign Actress (for Sarandon), Best Supporting Actress (for Reid), and Best Art Direction, with three additional nominations. In France, it was nominated for the César Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Music.

In 2003, Atlantic City was among the 25 motion pictures added annually to the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, being deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and recommended for preservation.[12][13]


Sally Matthews is a young waitress from Saskatchewan, Canada, working at an oyster bar in an Atlantic City casino. She has dreams of becoming a blackjack dealer, going through dealer training under the tutelage of Joseph. Joseph, from France, encourages her to learn French and become a dealer in Monte Carlo.

Sally's estranged husband Dave and her pregnant sister Chrissie show up one day with the intention of selling a $10,000 (equivalent to $36,000 in 2022) bag of cocaine he had stolen from a mob dead drop in Philadelphia. Sally is outraged to see him, as he had impregnated Chrissie and run off with her. Dave meets Lou, an aging former gangster who lives in Sally's apartment building and runs a small time numbers game in poor areas of the city; Lou also acts as a caretaker for Grace, a seemingly bedridden, aging beauty queen whose gangster husband he used to work under, and who constantly berates and demeans him. Dave convinces Lou to sell the cocaine for him, but as Lou sells the first batch to Alfie, who runs an illegal poker game in a hotel room, Dave is attacked and killed by the mobsters from whom he had stolen the drugs.

Lou is left with the remaining cocaine and continues to sell it to impress Sally, whom he has long pined for, with money. Sally and Lou make love one day, but she returns to her apartment to find it trashed; she has been tracked down by Dave's killers, who beat her to find out if she has the drugs. They leave, but Lou laments not being able to protect her. Grace also reveals that Lou was a small-time crook and nowhere near as competent as he pretends.

Sally is fired from the casino when her late husband's criminal record is discovered. Lou sells most of the remainder of the cocaine, while both Sally and the mobsters discover Lou's affiliation with Dave. The mobsters corner them one night, but are killed when Lou produces a gun and shoots them. He and Sally then steal their car and leave Atlantic City. That night, from a motel, they watch the TV news reporting on the killing. A police sketch of the suspect is shown. It looks nothing like Lou. Lou is overjoyed with relief and pride. He confesses to Sally that this was the first time he has ever killed anyone.

At the motel the next morning, Lou takes the phone to the bathroom to call Grace and brag about the killings. Sally wakes and takes half of the money with the intention of sneaking off; Lou witnesses this, allowing her to leave and giving her the car keys so she can escape to France, rather than go to Miami with him. Lou returns to Atlantic City to be with Grace. Working together, they sell the remaining portion of the cocaine and walk off arm in arm with renewed respect for each other.


Other cast members in the film include Moses Znaimer (Felix), Angus MacInnes (Vinnie) and Sean Sullivan (Buddy) as a trio of mob thugs, Louis Del Grande as casino manager Mr. Shapiro, Norma Dell'Agnese as Jeanne, John McCurry as Fred, Cec Linder as the hospital president, Sean McCann as a police detective, and Harvey Atkin as a bus driver.

Wallace Shawn, one of the subjects of Malle's film My Dinner with Andre, makes a cameo appearance as a waiter.[14]


Burt Lancaster on set of Atlantic City. Director Louis Malle on left.

Atlantic City was filmed on location in and around Atlantic City and South Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City. Although filmed in the United States, the film was a co-production between companies based in France and Canada.

Development and writing

The production companies allotted Louis Malle the money to make a film with the stipulation that it be made before the year 1979 ended. Malle had a difficult time finding the right script to direct and with time running out his then girlfriend Susan Sarandon suggested using a story written by her friend John Guare, a playwright most notable for his plays House of Blue Leaves and Six Degrees of Separation. Guare suggested that the story take place in Atlantic City, which was still for the most part suffering from the urban deterioration that prompted the legalization of gambling as a solution to save the city. The three met over dinner in early 1979 to work out quirks in the script and began shooting within a few months.


Aside from Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, and local extras, most of the cast originated from Canada or France. The film allowed Canadian actors such as Al Waxman to successfully transition into American film and television roles.


Principal photography commenced on October 31, 1979, and was largely finished by December 30 (although a few exterior and location shots were filmed until January 5, 1980). Malle filmed at an opportune time in that he was able to capture old Atlantic City: gambling was still in its early stages there, with only two casino hotels open (Resorts and Caesars; Bally's Park Place opened on December 30 toward the end of the principal photography). Most of the city's old resorts and entertainment piers were still standing, albeit in a severe state of disrepair. Within a couple of years of the filming, most of these old hotels would fall victim to the wrecking ball as they were replaced with new casinos. To frame the picture, Malle foreshadows the great transition of the famous resort town in the opening credits by featuring footage of the implosion of the once-grand and historic Traymore Hotel on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.

The opening shot of the old Traymore Hotel being demolished is shown to convey the notion that the city's old hotels were being demolished to make way for the new casinos. However, the Traymore was in fact demolished in 1972,[15] years before the gambling referendum passed in New Jersey. The referendum passed in 1976 and the first hotel to open up was Resorts, formerly the Chalfonte-Haddon Hall, in 1978.

When Dave and Chrissie are seen hitchhiking into Atlantic City from Philadelphia, they pass a large model elephant on their way into town. The elephant, named Lucy, was a tourist attraction built in 1881 to lure potential land buyers to South Atlantic City (now called Margate), a small town south of Atlantic City. The model elephant had been left to deteriorate over the years; on the brink of its demolition in 1971, the residents of Margate had raised the money to have it restored. Today, Lucy still stands in Margate and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The club where Dave and Lou meet was Club Harlem, which opened in 1935 on Kentucky Avenue, and became the premier nightclub for black tourists visiting Atlantic City. The club opened and closed frequently from 1968 on and eventually closed forever at the end of the eighties. It was torn down in 1992.

Scenes also were shot in the Knife and Fork Restaurant and White House Subs, both landmarks in Atlantic City.


Louis Malle hired composer Michel Legrand to write a score for the film, which he did. In the end, however, Malle decided against using a score for the film, and opted for all the music in the film to be diegetic: the only music used is that which exists in the world of the characters (i.e. radios, musical instruments, etc.). The music that Susan Sarandon's character plays from her tape player is the aria "Casta Diva" from Vincenzo Bellini's opera Norma.


The film opened to widespread acclaim from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 100% "Fresh" rating out of 37 critics' reviews.[16] The critics consensus reads "Bittersweet and reflective, Atlantic City is a modest romance given raw power by Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon's heartfelt performances along with director Louis Malle's eccentric eye for detail."[16]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Recipient Result
Academy Awards[17] Best Picture Denis Héroux and John Kemeny Nominated
Best Director Louis Malle Nominated
Best Actor Burt Lancaster Nominated
Best Actress Susan Sarandon Nominated
Best Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen John Guare Nominated
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards[18] Best Actor Burt Lancaster Won
British Academy Film Awards[19] Best Film Denis Héroux Nominated
Best Direction Louis Malle Won
Best Actor in a Leading Role Burt Lancaster Won
Best Screenplay John Guare Nominated
British Society of Cinematographers[20] Best Cinematography Richard Ciupka Nominated
César Awards Best Screenplay, Original or Adaptation John Guare Nominated
Best Music Michel Legrand Nominated
David di Donatello Awards Best Foreign Actor Burt Lancaster Won
Best Foreign Actress Susan Sarandon Nominated
Directors Guild of America Awards[21] Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Louis Malle Nominated
Fotogramas de Plata Best Foreign Film Won[a]
Best Foreign Movie Performer Burt Lancaster Won
Genie Awards Best Actor in a Supporting Role Robert Joy Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Kate Reid Won
Best Foreign Actor Burt Lancaster Nominated
Best Foreign Actress Susan Sarandon Won
Best Art Direction Anne Pritchard Won
Bes Cinematography Richard Ciupka Nominated
Best Costume Design François Barbeau Nominated
Golden Globe Awards[22] Best Foreign Film Nominated
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Burt Lancaster Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Louis Malle Nominated
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards[23] Best Actor Burt Lancaster Won
Best Actress Susan Sarandon Won
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards[24] Best Film Won
Best Actor Burt Lancaster Won
Best Screenplay John Guare Won
New Generation Award Won
National Board of Review Awards[25] Top Ten Films 2nd Place
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Inducted
National Society of Film Critics Awards[26] Best Film Won
Best Director Louis Malle Won
Best Actor Burt Lancaster Won
Best Screenplay John Guare Won
New York Film Critics Circle Awards[27] Best Film Runner-up
Best Director Louis Malle Runner-up
Best Actor Burt Lancaster Won
Best Screenplay John Guare Won
Sant Jordi Awards Best Foreign Film Louis Malle Won
Venice International Film Festival[28] Golden Lion Won[b]
Writers Guild of America Awards[29] Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen John Guare Nominated


  1. ^ Tied with Fedora.
  2. ^ Tied with Gloria.


  1. ^ "Atlantic City". Library and Archives Canada. 12 May 2015. Retrieved 26 November 2021.
  2. ^ "Atlantic City (1980)". UniFrance. Retrieved 26 November 2021.
  3. ^ a b "This page no longer exists". Archived from the original on 2017-12-02.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "Atlantic City, Box Office Information". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved March 9, 2012.
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 4, 2005). "Atlantic City movie review & film summary (1980)". Retrieved 16 November 2023.
  7. ^ Chariots of Fire Wins Best Picture: 1982-Oscars on YouTube
  8. ^ Warren Beatty Wins Best Directing: 1982 Oscars
  9. ^ Henry Fonda winning Best Actor-Oscars on YouTube
  10. ^ Katharine Hepburn Winning Best Actress-Oscars on YouTube
  11. ^ Chariots of Fire Wins Original Screenplay: 1982 Oscars
  12. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-16.
  13. ^ "Librarian of Congress Adds 25 Films to National Film Registry". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-09-16.
  14. ^ Lloyd, Christopher (2021-04-05). "Reeling Backward: Atlantic City (1980)". Film Yap. Retrieved 2023-06-18.
  15. ^ Kent, Bill (July 22, 1995). "ATLANTIC CITY; The Town That Smiled". The New York Times.
  16. ^ a b "Atlantic City - Rotten Tomatoes". 1981-04-03. Retrieved 2023-06-18.
  17. ^ "The 54th Academy Awards (1982) Nominees and Winners". Archived from the original on 2014-11-11. Retrieved 2011-10-08.
  18. ^ "BSFC Winners: 1980s". Boston Society of Film Critics. 27 July 2018. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  19. ^ "BAFTA Awards: Film in 1982". BAFTA. 1982. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  20. ^ "Best Cinematography in Feature Film" (PDF). Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  21. ^ "34th DGA Awards". Directors Guild of America Awards. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  22. ^ "Atlantic City – Golden Globes". HFPA. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  23. ^ "KCFCC Award Winners – 1980-89". 14 December 2013. Retrieved May 15, 2021.
  24. ^ "The 7th Annual Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards". Los Angeles Film Critics Association. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  25. ^ "1981 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved July 5, 2021.
  26. ^ "Past Awards". National Society of Film Critics. 19 December 2009. Retrieved 28 December 2017.
  27. ^ "1981 New York Film Critics Circle Awards". New York Film Critics Circle. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
  28. ^ Louis Malle teams a young Susan Sarandon with an aging Burt Lancaster-AV Club
  29. ^ "Awards Winners". Writers Guild of America. Archived from the original on 2012-12-05. Retrieved 2010-06-06.