'Scatman' Crowthers and Jack Nicholson in The King of Marvin Gardens

Certain films, from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) to Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), are as much about the cities in which they are set as they are about the plots they narrate and the characters they create. It could even be said that the city is the main character of these films. Human characters are secondary, in that they are defined by the city, representative of the city and in many cases metaphors for the city. Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980) cast Atlantic City, New Jersey in the role of central character. Possessing a unique spatiality, Atlantic City is further defined by the two films’ distinct temporality: the beginning and end of the 1970s. Even before it became the East Coast’s Las Vegas, Atlantic City stood apart from other beach resorts in its singular traditions and identities (the famed and seemingly endless boardwalk, the Miss America pageant, and the homage bestowed by the Parker Bros.’ boardgame Monopoly.) It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine these films’ stories set in any other location, nor during any other time than the 1970s. Most fascinating is each films’ narrative characterizations as they reflect and are shaped by the Atlantic City setting.

The King of Marvin Gardens was Bob Rafelson’s melancholy, mature follow-up to the irreverent debut features which had launched his career, Head (1968) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). Jack Nicholson plays the emotionally aloof David Staebler, host of an AM talk radio program, who is lured from his bleak Philadelphia existence to the wintry off-season of pre-revival Atlantic City by a promise from his grifter brother Jason (Bruce Dern) that, ‘Our kingdom has come.’ David is greeted at the railroad station by Jason’s companion, the aging beauty Sally (Ellen Burnstyn) and soon after is reunited with the dangerously charming Jason, behind bars at the Atlantic City lock-up on petty theft charges. Jason implores David to seek bail from Louis (Benjamin ‘Scatman’ Crowthers), a local racketeering boss. Upon arriving at Louis’ stately beachfront home, however, David becomes uneasy when he interrupts several sinister-looking men conferring in low tones and so departs, only to find Jason magically sprung from jail and roaming the boardwalk with Sally and her beautiful step-daughter Jessica (Julia Anne Robinson) in tow.

Taking up residence in one of the decaying palatial hotels along the boardwalk, Jason reveals to David his scheme to acquire a tiny Pacific island called Tiki, with the purpose of developing an opulent offshore gambling paradise. He requires the help of the respectable David, who initially seems completely lacking in business finesse, to reassure Japanese investors to put up the remainder of capital allegedly being fronted by Louis. Over the next two days, David is drawn into Jason’s deceptive web of shady financial dealings amid Atlantic City’s underworld. Strangest of all is Jason’s relationship with both women, a dangerous concoction of deviant family circle and doomed love triangle.

Alone in the hotel room one evening, David is accosted by two thugs and delivered to Louis, who warns that his influence will return Jason to jail if he overreaches himself again. Undeterred by this warning and still clinging foolishly to his plans for paradise, Jason makes a last-ditch effort to persuade David to accompany him west. No longer swept away by his brother’s blue-sky exhortations, David pleads with Jason to wake up to reality. Yet, in a sudden and shocking interruption, Sally – driven to derangement upon seeing that Jason intends to abandon her in favor of the youthful Jessica – brandishes a gun and shoots him. The film culminates with David carrying his brother’s remains back to Philadelphia, where in the final image a home movie shows the brothers as children, at play on a beach vacation.

Entering his fourth decade of filmmaking, Louis Malle revisits this boardwalk Xanadu in Atlantic City, again in the desolate off-season but several years later, as the grand beachfront hotels are being demolished to make way for the newly licensed casinos. Young waitress Sally (Susan Sarandon) lives alone in a dingy apartment and trains to be a croupier with the dream of one day working in Monte Carlo. Her neighbor Lou (Burt Lancaster) is an elderly numbers runner who tends to nagging downstairs widow Grace (Kate Reid) and amorously watches Sally through his kitchen window. When Sally’s deadbeat husband Dave (Robert Joy) resurfaces with her pregnant hippie sister Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) in tow, another unconventional family triangle is formed in Atlantic City. ‘I think of this baby being ours,’ says the oblivious Chrissie, ‘Dave’s and mine and yours.’

Sally angrily turns them away, saying ‘I’m not taking care of either of you this time.’ But Dave, who has just intercepted a Mafia drug conveyance in Philadelphia, bullies Sally into letting them stay and strikes up an acquaintance with old-timer Lou, whom he flatters into fencing the stolen cocaine. When the burned dealers discover Dave and kill him in a harrowing scene atop a moving parking deck, Lou is left with the loot. Meanwhile, when her marriage to the deceased criminal Dave is discovered, Sally is fired by the casino and disgraced by her would-be sugar daddy Frenchman (Michel Piccoli). Guilt-ridden, Lou befriends Sally by handling the funeral arrangements and charming her with an expensive dinner. After he confesses to watching her through his window, Sally gives herself to Lou in a gesture midway between generosity and pity.

Soon after, the two dealers trash Sally’s apartment in search of their missing stash, and then viciously attack her in the street. Lou shoots both men and – giddy with pride at having protected Sally – takes her along as he heads out for Florida. But in a motel room along the way, Lou watches regretfully as Sally sneaks out with a chunk of the loot, leaving him to return to Atlantic City and enlist Grace in selling off the remaining dope. The film closes on the older couple, arm in arm, strolling jauntily down the boardwalk.

‘Things are pretty weird around here,’ David tells Jason soon after arriving in Atlantic City, in The King of Marvin Gardens, and he’s right. In a 1972 New Yorker piece titled ‘The Search for Marvin Gardens,’ John McPhee describes the spatio-economic geography of Atlantic City circa the early 1970s:

The physical profile of streets perpendicular to the shore is something like a playground slide. It begins in the high skyline of Boardwalk hotels, plummets into warrens of ‘side-avenue’ motels, crosses Pacific, slopes through church missions, convalescent homes, burlesque houses, rooming houses, and liquor stores, crosses Atlantic, and runs level through the bombed-out ghetto as far – Baltic, Mediterranean – as the eye can see.”(1)

Long after the beach resort boom of the century’s first half had faded, the Atlantic City of Rafelson’s film remains nearly a decade away from its rebirth by way of the November 1976 referendum which would legalize gambling and bring profit-hungry developers scurrying to erect flashy casinos. From his perch within a Sky Tower observation car, Jason gazes out over a coastline cluttered with rusting amusement rides and tacky concession stands. ‘This could’ve been a fantastic island right here,’ he laments. ‘It was full-out class ’til about 1930.’ Looking on, David cynically responds, ‘Look at it now.’

Writing in 1970, a New York Times reporter disparagingly termed Atlantic City’s boardwalk ‘The Great Wood Way,’ noting its ‘peculiar admixture of crass vulgarity, rampant commercialism, and vestigial gentility.’ (2) The once majestic hotels had fallen into disrepair and stood deserted, save the few old-timers loitering in near-empty lobbies, prompting Jason to remark contemptuously, ‘Pathetic – half of them don’t know whether they’re standing or sitting.’ Growing old will be a central theme of both films, in part a reflection of the city’s considerable number of senior citizens. Atlantic City at this time had the second-oldest population in the country, after St. Petersburg, Florida; one-fourth of its permanent residents were over the age of sixty (3).

Vacant hotels stretched along the Atlantic City waterfront during the 1970s, forming a chain of white elephants (the Brighton, the Traymore) waiting to be unloaded at figures far below their construction costs. Those remaining unsold (the Ambassador) filed for bankruptcy and were sold for dismal prices at federal auction. One by one, each of these Victorian-era landmarks was felled, ‘leav[ing] a vacancy as jarring as missing teeth in a beautiful woman…They told the onlooker that the sky was no longer the limit: it was more often only two stories from the ground.’ (4) Jason calls the Essex Carlton, where he squires a two-room suite by credit of his association with the feared Louis, ‘the oldest and finest accommodation on the boardwalk…Woodrow Wilson used to stay here.’ Now, however, the vast lobby is eerily silent save a single discordant chord struck repeatedly by a piano tuner or the menacing echo of a thug striding down the marbled hall. Similarly, in the neglected hotel where Atlantic City’s high rollers buy Lou’s cocaine, desolate corridors are blocked with stacked chairs and mattresses are leaned against walls.

It is interesting to note that both films contain prologues set in Philadelphia, the only locale outside of Atlantic City used by either director. Malle’s film depicts Philadelphia as the site of a drug deal on a gritty urban street, while Rafelson takes care in establishing David’s initial habitat among the cold city plazas and deserted subway tunnels of the city’s downtown. Lou tells Dave that Atlantic City used to be known as ‘the lungs of Philadelphia’ – ‘You should’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days!’ – but the sea air has been sullied. Atlantic City’s natural beauty was formerly a saving grace from its contamination by humans, as Lou remembers cleansing his conscience in its waters: ‘Sometimes things would happen and I’d have to kill a few people. I’d feel bad for awhile but then I’d jump into the ocean, swim way out, and come back smelling nice and clean and start all over again.’

No longer a bucolic getaway, Atlantic City is portrayed as largely similar to urban Philadelphia: both bleak and desolate, both pervaded by corruption and pollution. This correlation is emphasized in a sequence towards the end of The King of Marvin Gardens, as David returns to the hotel after his meeting with Louis. A succession of shots show him as he walks from left to right through the frame, in a manner reminiscent of the opening credits’ Philadelphia scene. In both sequences David strides through deserted nighttime streets, hands burrowed in the pockets of his trench coat and his head bent against the wind.

During the initial incident that foretells of her final breakdown, Burnstyn’s Sally erupts in hysterics when the hotel’s bathtub tap emits rusty water – ‘You come out dirtier than when you went in!’ she gripes to Jason. Sally’s comment is one which relates to Atlantic City itself, as both Rafelson’s and Malle’s films portray people whose moral character tarnishes and erodes in the city’s salt air. Yet there pre-exists in each character, before crossing the bridge connecting the New Jersey Pinelands to Atlantic City, a component of deceit and corruption. Perhaps for this reason each is drawn to the East Coast’s city of sin. While this predilection is baldly obvious in the characters of Jason Staebler and Dave, both of whom are consummate con men, it is also revealed in the natures of seeming innocents David Staebler, Jessica and Sarandon’s Sally.

In the masterful six-minute opening shot of The King of Marvin Gardens (one of the longest close-ups in the history of American film), David delivers a radio monologue in which he recounts how, as children, he and his brother watched passively as their grandfather choked to death on a fish bone. Yet when David (whom we later learn has spent time in what his brother terms ‘the loony bin’) returns home after his radio program we see that his grandfather is alive and well and sharing David’s house in Philadelphia. Though he initially seems to be the decent-hearted yin to his conniving brother’s yang, David’s initial misleading of his radio audience (not to mention the film’s spectators) hints at this subtle propensity for the smooth-talking hustle of Atlantic City. As the film reveals, David shows himself to be highly capable as a confidence man, enthusiastically joining his brother in auctioning junk to an elderly tour group and weaving tales about Tiki to rope in the Japanese investors.

Susan Sarandon in Louis Malle's Atlantic City

In Atlantic City, Sarandon’s character is trained in the tactics of gambling scams during her croupier lessons: ‘They have a million clever ways of trying to cheat you,’ warns her teacher. Soon afterward, her wallet is stolen right under her nose by the unscrupulous Dave; by the film’s end, Sally herself will pilfer money from Lou’s wallet. Lou himself makes money running small bets for a local mobster and hawking various trinkets (a silver cigarette case) that he’s lifted from Grace, who tauntingly calls him ‘Mr. Mastermind, Mr. Ten Most Wanted.’ Atlantic City, these narratives instruct us, attracts deceit, breeds deceit, even necessitates deceit.

Rafelson’s and Malle’s characters are all, to varying degrees, at home in Atlantic City, for each of them possesses that streak of deceit which, as Jason notices, pervades the town. ‘I love all the hustle around here,’ he exclaims. ‘It’s out in the open. Down here everybody’s hustling all the time.’ Surviving in Atlantic City is dependent on deceit; it is inevitable and therefore matter-of-fact, though not without shame. As Jessica tells David, ‘I wish you didn’t think I was a part of all this,’ to which David replies, ‘Aren’t you?’ She answers simply, ‘Of course I am. We all are.’ Jessica goes on to tell David that ever since she became old enough, she and Sally have ‘gone as a team.’ In order to get by in this tough environment both women trade on their looks, a time-honored strategy for Atlantic City women that has been institutionalized along a spectrum, stretching from the city’s numerous vice establishments to the revered Miss America pageant.

Not only does Atlantic City compel women to hustle their looks but the stigma of age is magnified in a duality between young and old as strict as that between winners and losers. When succumbing to her defeat against age, Burnstyn’s Sally plaintively pleads to her stepdaughter, ‘I want you to stay as beautiful as you can, as long as you can. Now you’re the meal ticket. You won’t forget ole Sal, will you?’ In Rafelson’s poignant scene of the beach bonfire, a resigned Sally ceremoniously buries her make-up in the sand and then, in a frenzied act of misery, hacks off her hair and tosses long strands into the flames. Perceived to be without beauty or youth, Sally loses her capability for survival and thus becomes a liability – as outmoded and useless as the hotel where Jason plans to abandon her.

Like Sally, Atlantic City‘s Grace is a shrill, unstable aging beauty, grasping at her fading identity as an erstwhile big-timer’s widow. Her obstinate protest that ‘I’m still a very important woman in this town. I’m Cookie Pince’s widow!’ is proven otherwise by her reclusion in the crumbling apartment building. A bedridden hypochondriac, Grace is wholly dependent on Lou (once a lackey for her late husband), even as she furiously reminds him of his reliance on her: ‘You work for me, Lou,’ she says bitterly. ‘The cigarette you put in your mouth I paid for.’ This discourse on aging extends to Malle’s male characters, beginning with his casting of two cinematic legends in their twilight years, Burt Lancaster and Michel Piccoli. Lou’s memories of his past, when he ran numbers ‘for the dinosaurs,’ and briefly shared a jail cell with Bugsy Siegel, are nostalgic for Atlantic City’s glory days. ‘Now it’s all so goddamn legal,’ Lou complains, ‘Howard Johnson running a casino.’ Lou’s yearnings are principally motivated by the losing streak of his old age, for in successfully fencing the cocaine he is able not only to buy a new suit but to recapture, albeit briefly, his youth. Reminiscing with a past cohort who now works as a bathroom attendant, Lou tells him that he ‘lives too much in the past.’ Furthermore, Lou’s relations with Sally give him the confidence to answer Grace’s demand of ‘If I’m an old lady, what does that make you?’ with the elated exclamation, ‘I’m a lover!’ Though Atlantic City hands out hard indictments to those on the downswing, it does allow for comebacks.

It also allows for rags-to-riches stories. Atlantic City’s longest lasting attraction, the annual Miss America pageant, has answered America’s longing for royalty since 1921, long before the casinos tantalized visitors with the prospect of becoming rich overnight. Dreamers in search of a Cinderella story flock to Atlantic City in the off-season, where each year a new queen is crowned. Rafelson’s film re-creates the eerie hollowness of the ritual pageant within the deserted convention center where, each September, the spectacle is staged. In a scene which seems half-fantasy, half-dream sequence, pageant-hopeful Jessica performs a jerky, childlike tap routine on a spot-lit stage and is crowned Miss America by ‘last year’s queen’ Sally. As Jessica takes her congratulatory walk down the runway, the fantasy comes to an abrupt halt – the technicians whom Jason has hired turn up the lights, casting the performers back into the harsh glare of reality. Furious that their daydream has been deflated, Jason yells ‘Nobody down here’s got any sense of pageantry anymore – no one even wants it anymore.’

Yet the quest for royalty continues with repeated references in both films: David’s brother refers to him as ‘the Philosopher King’ and presumably Jason himself is the king to which Rafelson’s title refers. Malle, too, demonstrates Atlantic City’s ability to transform people with the dubious crown of royalty. Lou refers to Sarandon’s Sally as ‘a regular Princess Grace,’ and as Dave persuades a local gangster, ‘Clean me up and I’m a fucking Prince Charles.’ And elderly widow Grace reminisces on coming to Atlantic City long ago as a contestant in a Betty Grable look-alike contest: ‘I never had to look after anybody. I was a princess.’

In Rafelson’s depiction of the American Dream in the off-season, Jason’s plans for what he calls ‘the Staebler Brothers’ renaissance’ is for naught – in 1972, it’s too late for dreamers in Atlantic City. Jason is playing a high-stakes game of chance not unlike Monopoly, which is directly referenced in the film. ‘You notice how it’s Monopoly out there? Boardwalk, Park Place, Marvin Gardens…’ Jason asks David from behind bars at the lock-up. ‘Go directly to jail?’ David replies, and Jason plays along gamely, ‘That’s me – don’t pass Go, don’t collect $200.’ Even before its transformation into a gambling town, life in Atlantic City is a game for Jason, with play money and unreal consequences. The irony, however, is that Marvin Gardens is the sole Monopoly property not to be found in Atlantic City – the name refers to a secluded middle-class planned community some distance away from the city proper. Rafelson’s title thus alludes both to the elusiveness and essential vapidity of the ‘kingdom’ which Jason seeks to claim.

In Rafelson’s film, Jason alone still regards life as a game to be won – he is the film’s sole optimist and dreamer. The film’s other characters have given up long ago: David resides in the solitary cocoon of his radio studio, content with his lonely nocturnal existence. Jessica is a pragmatist who is resigned, as David tells her, to ‘sleepwalking along on someone else’s life.’ And ‘middle-aged Kewpie doll’ Sally has grown old waiting for her ship to come. Like Jason, she has arrived in Atlantic City too late in the game. Apologizing to David that the brass band hired to greet his arrival at the railroad station was delayed, Sally tells him, ‘It was supposed to be a whole lot better. Things don’t always work out like you plan, right?’

Malle’s Atlantic City also depicts this unmistakable gloom of regret for missed opportunities. An opening scene shows the elderly Lou alone in his meager apartment, stooped over an ironing board and smoking cigarettes through a hacking cough. He watches furtively and with longing as Sarandon’s Sally sensuously spreads lemon juice over her neck and shoulders, a ritual which Lou finds alluring and mysterious but turns out merely to be Sally’s futile attempt to rid herself of the fish stench acquired on her long shifts at a hotel oyster bar. Furthermore, the decade-long shadow of dismal employment and insidious crime still hangs over Atlantic City. On an errand for Grace, Lou is told by a pet groomer that there is ‘no sense in playing the numbers anymore,’ and in the window hangs a sign which reads, ‘We are sad to go – everything on sale.’

Both Rafelson and Malle locate the boardwalk as the spatial nucleus of Atlantic City within their respective narratives, but each director also ventures into the shabby low-income neighborhoods of Atlantic City’s underbelly. David’s trip to the city jail, located in a dingy indistinguishable downtown, reveals the other Atlantic City. The jail itself, as McPhee notes, is a dense labyrinth of cement cellblocks located in the city hall’s dungeon-like basement (5). Clifton’s Club Harlem, on Kentucky Avenue, figures in both films as the city’s anti-boardwalk, where gangsters and lowlifes congregate to negotiate illicit deals (David Staebler is brought to meet with Louis in Clifton’s deserted kitchen, while Dave negotiates his drug deal in the establishment’s bathroom). Furthermore, both films juxtapose the still-impressive luxury of the waterfront with glimpses into the graffiti-strewn slums of Atlantic City’s largely black (45% of the total in 1970) population, the result of a decade-long white flight in which the city lost one-third of its white population (6). McPhee describes Atlantic City’s vast ghetto, circa 1972: ‘…It looks like Metz in 1919, Cologne in 1944. Nothing has actually exploded. It is not bomb damage. It is deep and complex decay. Roofs are off. Bricks are scattered in the street. People sit on porches, six deep, at nine on a Monday morning. When they go off to wait in unemployment lines, they wait sometimes two hours.’ (7)

Though the spatio-temporal atmosphere depicted in each film is unique to Atlantic City, it nevertheless serves as a metaphorical representation of America itself at the beginning and end of the 1970s. The King of Marvin Gardens is shrouded in a post-’60s hangover of regret and defeat, what Thomas Elsaesser terms a ‘pathos of failure’ in his writings on American films of the 1970s. The pessimism and malaise pervading early ’70s American society as a result of the failed peace movement, the faltering economy and revelations of government corruption (namely in Vietnam policies and the Watergate affair) was manifested through a newfound cynicism and ‘post-rebellious lassitude’ in American films of this period (8). Two standout examples are Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1973), both of which revert to a Depression-era setting to illustrate its similarity to the contemporary cultural landscape. Rafelson’s bleak portrayal of desperate living in purgatorial Atlantic City is a stand-in for the country at large, and the film’s conclusion is prescient of the nostalgia and fatalism endemic throughout the decade to come.

Produced at the tail end of the ’70s (and released in 1980), Atlantic City is weighed down by a decade’s worth of despair, in many ways painting a darker portrait of humanity and society than The King of Marvin Gardens had done. And yet, Malle’s film contains the burgeoning seeds of progress and hope that would sprout full-forced into narcissistic greed during the Reaganite ’80s. With the arrival of legalized gambling to Atlantic City came job opportunities as well as renewed hopes for prosperity, as indicated in the opening pan of Malle’s film through a bustling casino, where a girls’ trio sings an old-fashioned melody:

‘Goodbye, little chicks, we are leaving the sticks,
We are catching the train at a quarter to six,
So if anyone should drop around, won’t you please tell them that we can be found
On the boardwalk, in Atlantic City, we will walk in a dream,
On the boardwalk, in Atlantic City, life will be peaches and cream…’

Even the most worn-down residents retain a paltry hope in hitting the jackpot, making fifty-cent bets with Lou and imploring him, ‘Make me a winner, man!’ In the Frank Sinatra Wing of the local hospital, Robert Goulet sings another rendition (‘Atlantic City my old friend, I’m glad to see you’re born again…’) and a billboard overlooking the boardwalk proclaims, ‘Atlantic City, you’re back on the map again!’ Indeed, boardwalk construction is well underway in Malle’s film, with wrecking balls demolishing the stately Victorian relics in favor of more modern casino resorts developed by Merv Griffin and Donald Trump.

This renewed vigor allows for a transformation in the way that Atlantic City is perceived by the films’ characters. Rafelson’s images of the bizarre and downright tacky become merely amusing kitsch in Malle’s film. Witness a shot of the city’s oddest monument, a massive elephant statue, pictured as preposterous in The King of Marvin Gardens but a beacon for Atlantic City‘s hitchhiking hippies Dave and Chrissie, who exclaim joyfully at seeing it upon their arrival. Finally, whereas The King of Marvin Gardens ends in tragedy, Atlantic City‘s conclusion contains a note of hope for the future as Lou and Grace amble together, money in pocket and hand-in-hand.

Like the casino patrons to whom it opened its doors, Atlantic City has over its 150-year history enjoyed upswings and endured downswings. In Malle’s final shot, a massive wrecking ball strikes like a pendulum at the slowly crumbling facade of a boardwalk hotel. A bittersweet image, yet the soundtrack provides another tone by rapidly switching among tunes (Bellini’s Norma, the boardwalk melody, Robert Goulet’s crooning, a mod jazz score.) It is a progression which is discordant yet anticipatory, much like Atlantic City’s checkered history and uncertain but infinitely hopeful future.

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This article was refereed.

Endnotes

  1. John McPhee, ‘The Search for Marvin Gardens’, The New Yorker, September 9, 1972, p. 48
  2. Wade Greene, ‘On the Boardwalk: What a Difference a Century Makes!’, New York Times, July 12, 1970, section X, p. 7 pursuit for royalty
  3. Charles E. Funnell, By the Beautiful Sea: The Rise & High Times of That Great American Resort, Atlantic City, Knopf, New York, 1975, p. 142
  4. ibid., p.143
  5. McPhee, p.46
  6. Edward C. Burks, ‘Atlantic City Watches County Grow’, New York Times, May 21, 1972, p.84
  7. McPhee, p.48
  8. Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Notes on the Unmotivated Hero, the Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 70s’, Monogram no.6, October 1975, p.14

About The Author

Maria San Filippo, Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College, is author of The B Word: Bisexuality in Contemporary Film and Television (Indiana University Press, 2013). She writes on 21st century film and film-going on her blog The Itinerant Cinephile (www.itinerantcinephile.com) and on Twitter @cinemariasf.