For Canada Day: Is 'Atlantic City' the 'Forgotten' Canadian Film?

Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon star in Atlantic City
Happy Canada Day! Celebrate July 1st by taking in some great Canadian movies. This year’s Canada Day celebrations coincide with the Canadian Open Vault presentations of films selected for the Toronto International Film Festival’s recurring poll of the top ten Canadian Films of all time. Screening for free are Mon Oncle Antoine (introduced by Ingrid Veninger), Atanarjuat (introduced by TIFF’s Jesse Wente), and Jesus of Montréal (introduced by Jason Gorber). You can also rent top tenees The Sweet Hereafter at Canada Screens and Stories We Tell at the NFB.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.
Photo courtesy of TIFF Film Reference Library
The list got ample mentions when it was released in April, but the release also coincided with opening night of Hot Docs and didn’t generate much analysis at the time. Now that select films are playing for free at the Lightbox, the list is getting some smart assessments. Most notably among them is Adam Nayman’s analysis in Cinema Scope of the somewhat questionable dethroning of Claude Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine from the top spot in favour of Zacharias Kunuk’s excellent but not-entirely-worthy Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Did the old favourite lose its spot in a contrarian move like Citizen Kane fell to Vertigo in the Sight & Sound poll, or are the TIFF top ten poll results are a problem of sampling (even Steve Gravestock’s essay with the top ten release notes that industry votes skewed far more contemporary than votes from academics, programmers, and media professionals did). Alternatively, are lists reflective of our struggle to remember great Canadian films and include them in curriculua?
Mon Oncle Antoine.
Photo courtesy of TIFF Film Reference Library
Mon Oncle Antoine offers one example where a previous stalwart should have held its post. It’s not the single best Canadian film of all time (I’d place it third on my hypothetical ballot after The Sweet Hereafter and The Barbarian Invasions, which didn’t even make the list), but it’s a heck of a lot better than Atanarjuat both in terms of being a turning point for Canadian and Québécois film and as a stronger overall film. There’s really no excuse for Canadians not to have seen Mon Oncle Antoine since it’s freely available at the NFB’s website, and it holds up over time far better than top ten staples like Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road does. (Although the latter film remains great if one considers it from the perspective of its time.)

Now’s Norm Wilner also makes a good response that some of the older films that appeared previously on the list (I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, The Decline of the American Empire, The Grey Fox) simply haven’t aged well. I’d argue that Decline still holds up as a film from its specific place in time, but I agree that some of the films that lost out to contemporaries were among the best Canadian films years ago, but have been replaced by better films in the years since. The point that Nayman and Wilner both seem to imply, as does the TIFF poll, is that Canadian film is a relatively new national cinema. The nature of film production in Canada simply doesn’t account for many great dramatic films before 1970, and most of the best Canadian films that pre-date the 70s are documentaries, short films, and animation, which generally lose out to dramatic features in the list-making process. Many classic Canadian films are also difficult to find unless one can grab a copy that was transferred to a VHS in the 1990s and tucked away in an archive.
Susan Sarandon in Atlantic City
One film from the ‘classic era’ of Canadian cinema (i.e. the 1970s and 80s) that still hold up is Louis Malle’s unsung 1980 Canuck co-pro Atlantic City. It seems strange to say that the only Canadian film to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars is “underrated” or “overlooked,” but the Canada-France co-production Atlantic City never gets the credit it deserves from Canadian film buffs and critics. Perhaps Atlantic City is simply the most “forgotten” great Canadian film of all time. It’s arguably one of the ten best Canadian productions ever, yet only one ballot in the whole TIFF poll includes it. (Hat tip to Cineaste’s Michael Melski for remembering it.) Atlantic City is among the handful of films that deserves a shout out as Canadians consider the best films their country has ever produced. It also loosely inspired a full episode of The Simpsons, which is probably another claim to fame that none of the films on the list can make.

Atlantic City might not immediately seem Canadian in a cultural sense as one watches the impressive Burt Lancaster give the last great performance of his career as the aging gangster Lou. Lou makes a run for his last great score when down-on-her-luck oyster bar girl/wannabe Monte Carlo croupier Sally (a heartbreaking Susan Sarandon) finds her dream of making it big goes bust when her deadbeat husband returns with her pregnant sister and a string of troubles. Sally, now here’s your Canadian connection, is on the lam from life in boring Saskatchewan. Like Pete and Joey in Goin’ Down the Road, Sally dreams of a better life elsewhere. Where the boys of Goin’ Down the Road see Toronto as the escape from the Maritimes, Sally sees the glitz of America as the gateway to a better life and is seduced by the energy of the strange boardwalk empire of Atlantic City.
Al Waxman and Kate Reid in Atlantic City
Canadians probably forget that Atlantic City is Canadian because it doesn’t reflect an element of tangible Canadianness or self-representation. Nayman makes a point about the relationship with self-reflection in his look at Atanarjuat’s coup of the #1 slot, saying, “When it comes to cinema the quintessentially Canadian qualities of socially-conscious progressiveness and self-conscious image maintenance are so intertwined as to be basically indivisible.” Atlantic City isn’t set in Canada (the title gives that part away) and it isn’t even tangentially about Canada despite the name drop of Saskatchewan. (One could probably interpret the rebuilding of Atlantic City as some metaphor for the Canadian film industry rebuilding itself through commercial ventures, but that would be a stretch). Nevertheless, much of the film’s interiors were shot in Montreal and the film features a handful of Canadian actors such as Kate Reid (Death of a Salesman), Robert Joy (CSI: NY), Al Waxman (The King of Kensington), along with a producing credit for Canuck Denis Héroux, whose work in co-production and commercially-oriented work strongly characterizes this production, although Atlantic City feels like an anomaly on a résumé that includes Virgin Lovers and Naked Massacre among director credits. (As producer, he also has the Oscar-winning co-pro Quest for Fire.)
Robert Goulet, novelty factor.
Atlantic City might appear on more lists or on the-list-of-lists if, say, it starred Geneviève Bujold instead of Susan Sarandon and featured Paul Anka as a casino crooner instead of RobertGoulet, but it’s a great crime drama/romance that deserves to be remembered. Remember it for the great performances of Lancaster as the old school grifter, Sarandon as the hungry dreamy, and Reid (a hoot) as Lou’s bedridden sugar momma. Remember it for the thrilling set pieces and the precision of Malle’s direction (one great sequence in the scaffolds around the boardwalk construction sites has the pace and suspense of The French Connection). Remember the great connection between characters and their environment: Atlantic City might not be set in Canada, but it’s a great example for how a strong sense of place adds memorable character to a film. Remember to celebrate great Canadian movies on Canada Day, not simply because they reinforce one’s idea of what a Canadian film should be, but because they’re great films in their own right.

The absence of Atlantic City from the TIFF ballots and from Canadian film history in general (it doesn’t get a page on TIFF’s Canadian Encyclopedia, but it gets one at Historica Canada’s Canadian Encyclopedia) probably speaks of Canadians’ overall reluctance to accept and embrace the larger aspects of commercial filmmaking that often elude us. Atlantic City comes from a place in time in Canadian film history in which one looks at a notable divide between generic commercial films (Porky’s, Meatballs) and superficially “Canadian” films, often drawn from the canon of Canadian literature (The Wars, Surfacing, Marie Chapdelaine) that were made with the best of intentions, but don’t stand as the best products of that time. (There are also great counter-Canadian films of that era, like Videodrome or Crime Wave.) Nevertheless, Atlantic City stands as one of the few ventures of that era that found the right formula for artistic integrity and mainstream appeal(ish) using Hollywood stars, a strong director, and a lot of Canadians filling in the supporting roles and crew credits. What’s more Canadian than that?

Atlantic City is available on DVD, with a few copies on shelves at the TorontoPublic Library.
(None at the Biblio Ottawa, though.)

What other great Canadian films are worth remembering?


PS: Happy Canada Day!