Richard Gere puts on the dog, but frequently wears precious little other than his man’s pride in Paul Schrader’s fizzler of a thriller, American Gigolo (1980), heavily influenced by director, Paul Bresson’s 1959 French classic, Pickpocket. It is either a very brave or very foolish man who would attempt to emulate this existentialist ‘new wave’ classic. My vote leans toward the latter. Interestingly, American Gigolo was not a success when it came out; perhaps, too dark in its underlying threads of sadism and fatalism running concurrently in a conspiracy to prematurely snuff out luscious male escort, Julian Kaye – sinfully handsome and worldly in the ways of a cheap trick, tricked out in Armani, but utterly naïve and unprepared for the insidious plot to frame him for a murder he did not commit. Julian is, in fact, an elegant rube; just a guy who ought to have stayed in the Midwest, except his tastes lean more toward fine linens and silks than dungarees. Los Angeles can be a very tantalizing den of iniquity for a guy with Julian’s pro forma. He knows his way around Rodeo Drive and the ladies; older broads with plenty of dowager’s inheritance to spend having a better than average time with the young buck. Class will out. Alas, a hick – even one as good-looking as Julian, is still a hick. Julian has come a long way in a very short while, thanks to his alliance with Swedish meatball, Anne (Nina van Pallandt); his…um…manager? Agent? Pimp? Anne knows a hard man is good to find, and frequently sets Julian up on very high-profile ‘dates’ with some of her most discerning clientele. But it is Julian’s after hours pick-ups; ‘favors’ occasionally done for extra cash and low rent scum-bucket, Leon (Bill Duke)that will soon prove his undoing.
Herein, we must doff our caps to Paul Schrader who wrote and directed what is, in hindsight, one of the most iconic – if now, absurdly dated – cultural artifacts from the 1980’s. With its trendy techno score by Giorgio Moroder and Blondie belting out the smash single, ‘Call Me’ - every self-respecting male prostitute’s anthem - American Gigolo all but ushered in a decade of spend/spend like there’s no tomorrow, soon to permeate and catapult the eighties into veritable excesses of the distinctly capitalist ‘American’ pleasure-seeking ilk. And yet, what is often overlooked in quick critique is the film’s ability go beyond bottling this zeitgeist with an ingeniousness turning asunder our preconceptions of the ‘sex thriller’ (a sub-genre reaching its zenith in 1986’s 9 ½ Weeks). There is a queerly unsettling glamour to this piece of American super kitsch; California’s sun-filtered frolics, half naked, perky-bosom playthings, and Julian’s frequent trips to upscale, haughty and exclusive watering holes where the social elite meet, gradually giving way to earthy, then utterly seedy cesspools, populated by cruisin’ for a bruisin’ deviants; couples into pain and enterprising gay twinks.
Arguably, Schrader’s métier is not the ‘kink’ factor. Nor is the focus of his movie the sex – good, bad or just plain creepy. Given its title and subject matter, ironically there is not a single kiss in close-up; Gere’s cynical con much too sophisticated to be caught lip-locked with or without reprisals. Setting aside American Gigolo’s rather laissez faire attitude towards prostitution; fancifully presented as highly sanitized and profitable for only a few hours work, without even the hint of STD’s, Schrader’s dog and pony show starts off as a guilty pleasure with a lot of eye-candy on tap. Schrader leads his audience down the primrose with the power of suggestion built into his title; our titular hero, offering up some escapist beefcake as he practices Swedish in his snug-fitting Jockeys, hoisting weights and doing inversion exercises, dangling muscly, bare-chested and Nair-ed from his gravity boots.
‘American Gigolo’…it’s about prostitution for money gone wrong – right? Wrong! It’s about a guy fallen into a trap by his own design…with a little help. Julian Kaye does what he does because it’s his business. Even so, he has grown tired of the heavy lifting. Despite equally as hefty payouts and a lot of perks (an enviable ride, expense account, a closet-full of designer suits and shirts) Julian’s bored with ‘the scene’. Sex to Julian is a commodity he can peddle but cannot market without Anne and Leon’s help. Okay, I’ll bite: it’s tough to be hot and hired out like a prized Shetland. And truer still, it is a young man’s game with no future. After all, looks do fade; ability on the wane with the inevitable progress of time.
What American Gigolo does spectacularly well is to expose the sex trade for what it is; work and not necessarily with as many advantages as one might expect. Schrader might have had a genuinely sincere take on the ‘downside’ that comes from being a stud for hire. Except he cannot help but muck around with the premise, inserting a formulaic romance, as Julian falls for scissor-legged Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton in a role originally pitched to Julie Christie, then Meryl Streep), and later, a ‘who done it?’; presumably to spice up the mix, fast becoming more a gumbo than soufflé. It’s all fun and games until Julian is framed for the murder of Judy Rheiman (Patricia Carr); a gal he sexually brutalized against his better judgment, but with her complicity, and, at her husband’s (Tom Stewart) request. Everyone walks away from this encounter – a little hair and fibers rubbed off around the collar and cuffs, but otherwise unharmed. Afterward Julian is disgusted, telling Leon he is not into S&M. The Rheimans were his first to last. Too bad, Judy Rheiman is found asphyxiated and handcuffed after another apparent rough trade encounter; the kind for which Julian has expressed no stomach, and furthermore, with which he had absolutely nothing to do. Try convincing LAPD Detective Joe Sunday (Hector Elizondo) of as much.
The ‘sex’ in American Gigolo is remarkably subdued. Either running true to the convention of the times or Schrader’s artistic sensibilities, mercifully, we never bear witness to Julian’s encounter with the Rheimans after his initial promise to ‘take care of’ Judy; all the better, frankly, since the vicissitude of the moment suddenly shifts beneath Julian’s feet as Mr. Rheiman orders him to paddle-whack his practically comatose wife in her unmentionables. Schrader does this moment proud, more than suggestive of the orgy to follow it, but without actually brutalizing the audience with even more 'show and tell' of the situation getting wildly out of control.
Bondage for money aside, the passionate pas deux between Julian and Michelle is as deftly handled by Schrader to evoke a sense of genuine uncomfortableness. We are shown body parts in close-up, mostly arms and legs wrapped around each other, chests tightly pressed together, hands strategically placed to shield from a raw glimpse of breast tissue. As something of an afterthought, we do get to see Lauren Hutton’s perky cleavage, neither heaving nor fondled; rather lazily unguarded during a casual post-coital conversation. Interestingly, Schrader is sheepishly circumspect about showing us the female form divine. But he has virtually no compunction regarding male anatomy; Richard Gere posed in front of a window for an interminably long take, full frontal for his ‘confession’ to Michelle about taking nearly three hours to ‘get off’ another client. Yet, even the sight of Gere’s twig and berries has not been designed by Schrader to ‘get off’ the audience. In fact, there is something unwholesomely antiseptic and ‘matter of fact’ about the scene. Schrader doesn’t ‘go for the crotch’ even as we see the full flourish of Gere’s manhood.
Richard Gere’s star power received a minor boost from appearing as the hot-headed young con in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978); a performance heavily edited by Malick into a series of impressionistic vignettes to evoke its rather insidious lover’s triangle. There is something to be said of Malick’s technique. It masks one of Gere’s glaring shortcomings; namely, that he cannot act – or rather, act convincingly. With American Gigolo, Gere emerged a full-fledged ‘star’ – the sort of anti-heroic, turbo-charged sexpot; hitting a plateau usually reserved for women of the casting couch – not men. The movie also established Italy’s Giorgio Armani as a premiere designer of men’s suits in America. Interestingly, Gere had not been Schrader’s first choice for the role that ultimately made him a household word; actor, Christopher Reeve, first to shy away from tarnishing his ‘image’ as the Teflon-coated ‘man of steel’; then, John Travolta exiting stage left after already having shot a few scenes in his tailored wardrobe. Travolta’s sudden departure presented Armani with a minor quandary; having created Julian Kaye’s tailor-fitted suits to Travolta’s six foot slender build; now, forced to re-imagine and recreate an entirely different set of threads for Gere’s more stocky 5 ft. 11 inch muscularity.
In hindsight, Richard Gere owes considerably more of his career to John Travolta’s inability to perceive a winner; Travolta turning down not only Days of Heaven and American Gigolo, but also, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Chicago (2002). Gere has since gone on record saying what intrigued him most about taking on the part of Julian Kaye was American Gigolo’s ‘gay subtext’; interesting, considering how little homo-erotica there is in the finished film. While Leon is frequently trying to embroil Julian in mixed couple scenarios – with Julian staunchly refusing to do ‘fag tricks’ – and, apart from the rather tacked on finale, exposing a teen gay hustler to have ultimately committed the murder of Judy Rheiman at Leon’s behest in order to deliberately frame Julian; thus, getting one of L.A.’s most prominent escorts out of circulation; homosexuality is a non sequitur. As for Lauren Hutton; having built a reputation as a super model, at age 35, she was ready to cash in on the end of one career to kick-start another as the desirable face and figure. Intensely nervous, Hutton allowed herself to be guided by Gere’s already established presence in the industry. “There's a reason stars are called stars,” Hutton would later admit, “It's this incandescent quality that surrounds them. Richard has that. There was a real trust between us on set. We're still friends because of it.”
American Gigolo begins with establishing shots of Malibu and Beverly Hills, Gere’s cock of the walk, male escort Julian Kaye, unknowingly zooming along in his Mercedes-Benz convertible toward destiny as he shops Kurt Geiger of Bond Street to add to his hope chest of expensive fashion accessories. Clothes do make the man, and Julian has had plenty of experience getting in and out of his. With too much ego and too little taste, Julian’s Westwood apartment is riddled in an eclectic yard sale of expensive home furnishings he has neither the time nor the interest to properly display with as much attention as is paid to his immaculate wardrobe. We might look back on Julian Kaye as the first metrosexual, long before the phrase was coined; unapologetically acquisitive, self-absorbed and posturing to a fault. A quick pit stop at Anne’s to collect the dossier on his latest fling; a wealthy dowager from Charlottesville, Mrs. Dobrun (Carole Cook), and Julian is off again; negotiating a 60/40 split of the $2000 to squire Dobrun around town. “You want 50/50, go get Mike or one of those high school dropouts you’re so fond of,” Julian cruelly tells Anne. Indeed, Julian fancies himself above this pay grade and Anne, reluctantly – very reluctantly – agrees to his terms. After all, Julian is not your average boy toy and proves it by turning down Leon’s repeated offers to inveigle him in some quick and dirty cash for rough trade gay sex with clients only too eager and willing to pay. Julian does not need the pall or taint of Leon’s low-budgeted sex-capades to improve his fiscal solvency. Besides, he is in training for one of Anne’s biggest clients yet; soon to arrive from Sweden without speaking a word of English and, inevitably, looking for one hell of a good time.
Acting as Dobrun’s chauffeur, Julian drives the moneyed prune to The Beverly Hills Hotel; bungling his introduction to the services he can provide by offering Dobrun a tour of her bungalow. Next, he proposes to pop the cork off her complimentary champagne bottle; the inference a little too ‘on the nose’ for Dobrun, who subtly assures Julian, in her own uber-sophisticated way, she is a sure thing. Afterward, Julian hastens to change his mood in the Hotel’s lounge. From across the bar, he encounters Michelle Stratton seated alone and seemingly lonely. Assuming from her exchange with the waiter she speaks only French, Julian strikes up a conversation. However, Stratton is not French at all, but waiting for a friend who is helping her bone up on her old college French for a planned trip to Europe. Curiously, the friend never turns up, and Julian quickly discovers Michelle is the wife of prominent California senator, Charles Stratton (Brian Davies). Presumably, like most middle-aged women aligned to successful men who are never home, Michelle is not happy in her married life, playing the part of the devoted woman behind the throne, but secretly longing for a little excitement and a lot more passion to ignite her inner youth. Julian wisely assesses she is ripe and looking for an outlet.
After several awkward ‘cute meets’, Julian and Michelle become lovers; not what either imagined. Julian is tender and Michelle falls head over heels for him. In the meantime, Julian agrees to do ‘a favor’ for Leon; resulting in his S&M badinage with the Rheimans. Mr. Rheiman is a gross pig of a human being; a moneyed degenerate who can think of no better way to get his rocks off than by quietly observing as some other stud ravages his wife on his commands. Julian is appalled by this arrangement, but nevertheless complies. What else can he do? The Rheimans have paid for their show. It’s their party and he is just the featured ‘guest star’ expected to sing for his supper. Afterwards, Julian informs Leon he will not do any more rough trade for freaks who are into kink. But it is already too late. Julian has established his presence at what is soon to become the crime scene. Judy Rheiman is discovered strangled to death. Det. Sunday traces the last hours of her life back to Julian, thanks to some carefully planted evidence meant to infer Julian was the very last person to see Judy Rheiman alive; a sadomasochistic ‘good time’ had by all, gone horribly awry and ending unexpectedly, or perhaps deliberately, in death.
Julian attempts to fluff off Michelle, suggesting he is neither part of her problem, nor the answer to her prayers. Any alliance they might form can only end in tears, rejection, dismay and chaos. Michelle does not believe him. Moreover, and rather typical of a woman in lust, she buys into Julian’s newfound nobility meant to protect her from the scrutiny of prying eyes. Increasingly, Michelle begins to lean on Julian for emotional support. Unexpectedly, Julian finds himself reciprocating these affections. Although, Julian has an alibi for the night of the murder; another middle-aged client, Lisa Williams (K Callan), she absolutely refuses to corroborate his whereabouts to Det. Sunday, fearing her husband’s discovery of their ongoing affair. Previously, Lisa was seen with Julian at a Sotheby’s estate auction; Julian – rather badly – faking an effete fashionista’s persona to disguise the purpose of their rendezvous. Worse for Julian, someone has planted Judy Rheiman’s jewelry in his Mercedes. Sunday refuses to take Julian’s claim, that he is being framed, seriously. Frantically, Julian decides to rent a car and incognito go in search of the person responsible for the frame-up. What else can he do? His source of income – Anne – has dried up. With his celebrity as a suspected murderer, Anne cannot set Julian up on any more high-profile client calls. L.A.’s hottest trick in shoe leather has suddenly become persona non grata overnight. Even in the seedy underworld of paid escorts, Julian Kaye is considered a pariah.
After tracking Leon down at a gay nightclub and begging to be set up for any tricks – gay, straight, S&M, etc. et al, and being cruelly denied, daylight begins to glimmer for Julian. Leon is being paid by Rheiman; the pair orchestrating the perfect frame-up with the complicity of a third man; a gay hustler (Gordon Haight) who actually committed the murder and helped cover it up. Determined, though quite unprepared for the consequences, Julian goes to Leon’s fashionable high rise condo to confront him. He finds the blond hustler there; Leon, gloating over Julian’s near foolproof demise. There is nothing left for Julian Kaye. The police are connecting the dots to the crime with even more evidence planted in and around Julian’s Westwood apartment. It is only a matter of time before he takes the fall for Judy Rheiman’s murder. Realizing how low he has sunk, Julian assaults Leon on the patio of his high rise; Leon going over the edge and dangling precariously, with only Julian to prevent his imminent fall. Alas, Julian cannot stave off the inevitable. Despite his desperate attempts to hang on to Leon, his legs slip from his grasp. Leon plummets several stories to his death.
In a gracious whim of fate, a maid witnesses the fall and vouches for Julian’s attempts to save Leon. Thus, the police incorrectly assume Leon was in the process of taking his own life when Julian intervened. Too bad for Julian they have more than enough evidence to indict him for Judy Rheiman’s murder. In prison awaiting trial, Julian receives a visit from Michelle, the only friend he has left. She offers to pay for his defense. Julian refuses. Without his complicity, Michelle secretly hires a high-priced mouthpiece (Peter Turgeon), paying for the attorney’s fees under the table, and presumably, under the radar of both her husband, and, popular public opinion that has already tried and convicted Julian Kaye as a cold-blooded killer. Julian refuses to help in his own defense. Besides, if it ever comes out Michelle and Julian were lovers it would utterly destroy her marriage as well as her reputation in ‘polite society’. But Michelle will not allow an innocent man to go to jail.
And so, she confesses to Lieutenant Det. Curtis (David Cryer) the only unknown fact about the case certain to exonerate Julian. Julian Kaye could not have killed Judy Rheiman because on the night in question he was miles away from Palm Springs, servicing Michelle in an all-night passionate rendezvous. To this, Michelle is willing to testify in a court of law. A short while later, Michelle sits across from Julian in the visitor’s gallery, staring with panged adoration through the glass separating them. She can never go back to her former life as the senator’s wife. The press has already begun to swirl around the scandal, ravenously wanting to know more – to know it all. And yet, somehow, none of this matters anymore; Julian, humbled by the strength of sentiment, as Michelle presses her hand against the glass, leans his forehead against the other side, yearning for the moment when they can be physically reunited on the outside with no secrets, lies or false pretenses left between them.
American Gigolo is an intriguing deviation on the traditional thriller…with a little sex tossed in – very little. Paul Schrader’s slick direction gives the movie what little ballast it has; the performances, in general, unprepossessing and dull. Richard Gere has the lion’s share of intelligently written dialogue, but does the least with it; a sort of world-weary cynicism overtaking his every gesture. We are meant to believe in Julian Kaye as an oily snake in the grass, suddenly knocked down by outside forces conspiring against him. But the premise for the frame-up is woefully thin to the point of becoming utterly nonsensical – Mr. Rheiman, a jealous pervert, desiring to be rid of his nondescript and flaxen-haired wife, presumably reveling in her sexual humiliation, all the while insidiously plotted as prelude to a murder. Shortly before his untimely death, Leon informs Julian his motive for complicity in the Rheiman murder scenario was to put an end to Julian’s competition in the sex trade marketplace. Leon tried to buy Julian. He couldn’t be bought. So, instead, he set about to destroy him. Yet, the clientele Julian services under Anne’s management – the severely clichéd middle-aged ‘rich bitches’ of hoity-toity Beverly Hills and Bel Air – are of a different league apart from the what the market will allow with Leon’s teen and twenty-something rough trade sex workers, catering to street-level riffraff in the gay community. So, professional jealousies aside, there is really no point to any of the intrigue, except to say, it serves a loose purpose in this movie-land lore established by Schrader for the sake of telling his convoluted yarn. Does it work? No. Not at all, and even less convincingly upon repeat viewings.
Moving on: Lauren Hutton is a rather obtuse deus ex machina. She toggles between hot-blooded cougar on the prowl and virgin-esque savior or patron saint to the fallen. Hutton is convincing enough in a role never stretching her abilities beyond soft-spoken sincerity. At her most base, she is the redeemer of Julian’s lost soul; a Christ-figure resurrecting Julian’s soiled reputation as Lazarus from the dead. She can offer him freedom, security, salvation and love; the latter, the only commodity Julian Kaye has repeatedly denied himself for far too long, and, according to Schrader’s screenplay, exactly what Julian needs to be rescued from the brink of his self-imposed and piteous despair. In fits and sparks, the love affair unexpectedly blossoming between Julian and Michelle feels genuine, if fractured. After all, how can two drowning people save each other? Despite her accomplished façade as the senator’s wife, Michelle is as distraught, fragile and lost as Julian later becomes; the balance of power shifting from his arrogance to her compassion; embers of passion singed with blind devotion.
There are some competent and seasoned performers scattered throughout American Gigolo; Hector Elizondo, Bill Duke, K Callan and Carole Cook. None ever go beyond the ‘hook and worm’ stage of Schrader’s fishing expedition into this secretive netherworld lurking just beneath the surface of L.A.’s superficially glossy glam/bam. Schrader’s ‘murder mystery’ is the sideshow that becomes the whole circus. But it is fraught with some nice touches, sun-drenched and later, moodily lit by cinematographer, John Bailey. In the end, the picture’s sheen is just that and far less revealing as all the pieces predictably fall into place. The narrative tautness increasingly relies more – if less refined – on the level of puppy-dog pang and panic caught in Richard Gere’s eyes; the unconvincing counterpoint to that cocky confidence evaporated in an instant as the biggest name in the sex trade underworld is reduced to a quivering and fearful mass of contradictions, begging for even the smallest scrap of his former life denied him. American Gigolo won’t win any awards for high art. Even so, it has lasted as an intriguing ‘time capsule’, strangely impervious to changing times and cinematic tastes. Gere’s ‘drop dead’ handsomeness holds up even when his performance does not; a sort of elegant mannequin beholding to a certain type of masculine ideal that, for the briefest wrinkle in time, became all the rage to emulate in American pop culture, circa 1980-89; big-haired, broad-shouldered and immaculately tailored.
Never assume: American Gigolo comes to us via Paramount Home Video – or rather, a Paramount Home Video 1080p transfer from a very dated archival source, distributed via Warner Home Video. It appears to be an identical transfer to the European region free release kicking around for at least a half dozen years…and looks it too! I suspect this hi-def mastering effort to be from the old regime at Paramount, before the studio began taking Blu-ray seriously. For there can be no other reason as to why this disc is so inconsistently rendered and marred by a litany of age-related artifacts. It would have been gratifying to see a little more effort poured into this release. Colors on the whole have a decidedly dated characteristic; flesh tones looking slightly pasty pink or ruddy orange. There are no true reds here; a telltale sign of an older master being employed. The opening credits are softer than the rest of the feature, presumably due to the opticals being used for the main titles.
Close-ups sport some fairly impressive fine detail, but the image falls apart in medium and long shots; softly focused, moderately fuzzy and with film grain adopting an ever so slight digitized look. The image harvest here is most likely derived from a print rather than an original camera negative; the generational loss in sharpness and overall lack of image clarity, compounded by inconsistently rendered colors belying the original source. The 5.1 DTS is equally disappointing, exporting limited range; music cues, the biggest recipient of the upgrade. As with its Euro counterpart, this North American Blu-ray contains NO extra features: Paramount once again gone the quick and dirty route. Bottom line: if you like the movie, this Blu-ray cannot help but satisfy and disappoint in tandem. It marginally improves on the tired old DVD, but where it should have popped with bold – if dated – eighties colors, it otherwise fizzles and flops with a homogenized appearance of an up-converted and very tired video master. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)