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Understated character study “Saint Jack” paints an American pimp in Singapore

Peter Bogdanovich’s New Hollywood drama from 1979 screens in a new DCP restoration at UW Cinematheque on July 6.
The titular Jack (Ben Gazarra, left) talks things over with the shady Eddie Schuman (director Peter Bogdanovich, right) in a scene from "Saint Jack."
The titular Jack (Ben Gazarra, left) talks things over with the shady Eddie Schuman (director Peter Bogdanovich, right) in a scene from “Saint Jack.”

Peter Bogdanovich’s New Hollywood drama from 1979 screens in a new DCP restoration at UW Cinematheque on July 6.

Each semester, UW Cinematheque highlights a particular director or genre in depth, allowing viewers to learn more about the artists and art at hand. This summer term, the six-film series Peter Bogdanovich: The Director’s Cuts promises to be an exciting in-depth exploration of the late filmmaker’s work, with a focus on his lesser commercial successes (or failures). Many cinema buffs may already be familiar with Bogdanovich hits like Paper Moon (1973) and The Last Picture Show (1971), but they’ll now have the chance to catch the hard-to-see The Thing Called Love (1993) and At Long Last Love (1975).

Bogdanovich was one of my all-time favorite directors from the New Hollywood canon, a model student of Orson Welles and Roger Corman. Few filmmakers of his era could capture the verité world of horny Texas teens, grifters, and people on the margins of society as delicately as Bogdanovich.

In Saint Jack (1979), the series’ second film, screening on Wednesday, July 6, at 7 p.m., he tells the story of a pimp with a heart of gold. The screenplay is based on a 1973 novel by Paul Theroux, but the more interesting origins of the film come from Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd, who were living together through much of the 1970s. Bogdanovich and Shepherd were involved in a Playboy lawsuit around this time, because the magazine published photos of Shepherd without her consent. As part of the settlement, Shepherd was able to secure the rights to Saint Jack, a novel that Orson Welles once gifted her, in order to help finance this film adaptation.

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Ben Gazzara plays Jack Flowers, an American pimp working the streets of Singapore after serving in Korea. He solicits American GIs on leave during their tours, CIA agents, British servicemen, and everyone in-between, all of them using Singapore as an adult playground of sorts. While Flowers’ initial goal was to become a writer, he didn’t feel that he had enough life experience, so it was off to the brothels of Singapore. Jack’s new goal, as the film depicts it, is to start his own club, but some sinister forces at play want to prevent this from happening. Jack ducks and dodges rival pimps while keeping his customers happy.

Gazzara should be considered a national treasure. Despite dominating the screen in some prominent roles, including in Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976), he never quite got the praise he deserved in his day. In Saint Jack, he is clearly not a man to be trifled with, and a convincing look of pain and anguish crosses his face when he finds himself in some compromising positions. His voice drips with equal parts honey and menace. However, Flowers is not a violent and depraved man. Quite the contrary. His moral compass primarily points north. He just wants to live a life free from being dogged by the triad and other worries. Gazzara shines the most when he is recalling a metaphor that explains how he ended up in this situation, figuring the best use of his people skills would be to carve out a little life as a pimp in the wild, wild East.

Ultimately, Saint Jack centers around ethics, sexual mores, and the main character’s strong set of principles. It’s kind of an honor-among-thieves story, if you will, but in this instance the thieves are hookers and johns. Singapore is known for having extremely strict laws, but at the same time, a seething underbelly of sex work directly fuels its tourism industry. Flowers is well-connected, and while he is a purveyor of flesh, he doesn’t judge. Even when he finds himself in a situation where he can make money catching a well-known john in the act, he struggles with the decision, railing against the hypocrisy of Singaporean society. People who outwardly condemn such behavior are some of his best customers.

To illustrate such hypocrisy, the film was actually banned in Singapore even though Bogdanovich did a great job depicting the grim realities of the sex trade, offering a masterclass in direction at the same time. (Saint Jack is shot entirely on location in Singapore—the only Hollywood film to claim that—and includes great establishing shots of the urban environments.) Long takes and general use of shots add depth beyond exposition. Several scenes show restraint, in which Flowers could react violently to those trying to intimidate him, but instead they are tempered by piercing looks—just as much of a gripping scold as any over-the-top violence.

Bogdanovich even has a bit role in the film, which he handles deftly. When he experienced some trouble finding an actor to play the role of Eddie Schuman, who approaches Flowers to get some dirt on a prominent senator, Bogdanovich ultimately put himself in the role. And he slips into Schuman’s shoes seamlessly. It was not a reach for him, as opposed to Tarantino’s cameos in a lot of his earlier features (like Jules’ friend Jimmie in Pulp Fiction), a director who was definitely influenced by this film (along with Wes Anderson).

Bogdanovich never shied away from controversial topics, and Saint Jack in particular refuses to bow to the pollyannaish establishment. Bogdanovich rarely uses professional actors in supporting roles, which only adds to cinema verité reality of his stories. He’s ultimately an actor’s director, trusting his cast to put forth their best performances. It’s a shame this was not one of his commercial successes. For any students who need a concrete lesson on a well-driven character study, Saint Jack is it.

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