Aging numbers-man Burt Lancaster yearns for the day when even the Atlantic Ocean “was something.”

Louis Malle does not confide in me and it is a little dangerous to speculate on the springs of a director’s imagination. Nevertheless I will guess that the idea for Atlantic City was conceived when Malle decided he could make a film star of that superbly situated, enticingly amoral resort, which for almost exactly 100 years (the Boardwalk was built in 1880) has boomed and busted and proved to have more lives than a cat. My hunch is supported, I think, by two emblematic shots that appear early in the film. The first is a view of the absurd cement elephant (as tall at the shoulder, I recall, as a two-story cottage) that used to be our preferred destination for a stroll on the Boardwalk, and which still survives. The second is the surreal sight of one of the great oceanfront hotels collapsing like a sand castle when dynamited to make elbowroom for still another casino at Las Vegas by the sea.

Having chosen his lead, if I am right, Malle turned to John Guare for a story that would display her to advantage, and the playwright (Landscape of the Body and Bosoms and Neglect, among others) responded with a script marvelously efficient for the purpose. It celebrates the flamboyantly vulgar facade of the place and carries the cameras (Richard Ciupka’s department) into the peeling clapboard slums that begin, and have always begun, two blocks back from the beach. The narrative interweaves ironic nostalgia for a sleazy past with present-day visions of pots of gold made slippery by vice and violence. It abounds in heroics, glories in coincidence, indulges in sentiment, laughs at Cupid’s bizarre sense of humor and provides sumptuous parts for the five leading players, who know how to seize their opportunities.

Burt Lancaster is Lou, a survivor from the days when the mobs ran Atlantic City, but now reduced-though he was never much more, whatever he remembers-to the role of companion/servant to Grace (Kate Reid). The widow of one of the capos, she is bedizened, bedridden, possessed of a strident voice and a pampered poodle. In the apartment across the air shaft lives Sally (Susan Sarandon), who plays Susanna to Lou’s elderly spying. She works as a counter girl in an oyster bar and is studying to be a croupier. Into town come two threats to her career: her ex-husband Dave (Robert Joy), a plausible drifter who has for sale a considerable parcel of hijacked cocaine and who is accompanied by Sally’s sister, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren), spouting zen balderdash as though the flower children had never faded, and eight months pregnant by Dave. The plot begins to spin with a satisfying hum. Before it comes to rest Dave is dead, Sally has skipped town, perhaps for Monaco, Lou has fired a pistol and bought himself a George Raft wardrobe, and Grace, cured of arthritis by the loving hands of Chrissie (now safely home in Saskatchewan), is last seen strutting along the Boardwalk on the arm of the resplendent Lou. It has been a splendid romp.

For all its extrovert breeziness, Atlantic City has a haunting fragrance that derives from Guare’s script. It is a compilation of situations and characters found in a warehouse of old Hollywood movies, but assembled with an appreciation of their antique charm and understanding of the vitality that can be restored to them by nicety of composition and workmanship. The analogy is to one of Joseph Cornell’s pensive, witty, somewhat sinister illuminated boxes. The text is ideal for Malle, who characteristically holds himself a little distant from his subject matter, keeping his own counsel as to the emotions, associations and values it may evoke. This manner lends his work a stillness, a sense of time suspended, that is gently beautiful, but can at times-as especially in Murmur of the Heart and Pretty Baby-seem disconcertingly uninvolved.

But that reservation does not arise with Atlantic City, it is Malle’s comedy of manners, its touch too light to bruise. It grins at the follies it has conjured up and, all but one, lets the scamps go their heedless ways.