Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: American Gigolo

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Here’s the problem: (1) American Gigolo has just garnered a set of bad reviews of a kind that tell much more about reviewers, their blind spots and complacent assumptions, than they do about the movie. One would love to rub their professional faces in it, except that (2) American Gigolo is not a good movie, no matter that it’s a different kind of ungood movie than they suggested. Your basic consumer-reports journalist watches the bad guy open a window high above L.A. just before contemptuously dismissing the hero, and advises his readership that this is a very bad movie because the bad man is so obviously set up to fall to his well-deserved death. Basic c.-r. type has not noticed, save perhaps as a bewildering distraction, that most of the setups and movements in the film have involved people making pilgrimages from one frame-within-a-frame zone to another (against or outside windows, in or adjacent to doorways, against bookshelves, in cars, on beds; moreover, most of the time slashed, crisscrossed, and/or boxed by bold shadows). That another such frame-within-a-frame should figure so prominently, even flout plausibility, at such a crucial juncture in the narrative pilgrimage is—far from being a weakness—essential to the film’s design.

Trouble is, design is all the film’s got going for it. Paul Schrader is a critic-turned-filmmaker who thinks style instead of just doing style. He clearly wants his American gigolo to follow in the cinematic footsteps of Robert Bresson’s pickpocket, at the same time he deploys film noirish shadows (and at least one explicitly Bertoluccian wash of shadowwork and vertical camerawork) as a stylistic intermediary for getting to a high-octane contemporary-American-scene orgy of greased traveling shots and pumpy Giorgio Moroder music. Or no, reverse that: the film itself begins with an emphasis on contemporary-fetishistic camera style, always having to catch up to Julian Kay (Richard Gere), striding in color-coordinated threads or driving his Mercedes sports convertible with which the very credit titles have been color-coordinated; by the final reel this always-beginning-scenes-in-motion compulsiveness has been replaced by selfconsciously rigid frames, and sequences separated by complete fades. The sense of stylistic itinerary is there in abundance, yet the trip hardly seems worth making.

Julian Kay (the name is never seen spelled out, just Kafkaesquely heard) never takes hold as a character, for all his assertions of selfhood and ethical standards; his defense of himself as the priapic salvation of sensually deprived older women seems as coy as the peekaboo games Schrader is playing with Gere’s genitals at the time (to the audibly scandalized delight of some Julian Kay client-types in the audience), and his naïveté about the unreliability of his friends in the sex-for-sale underworld makes no sense at all. As for the sex, Schrader at one point adopts a Long Goodbye–like attitude toward nudity as an aspect of California-casual lifestyle, and elsewhere goes for a Bressonian catalogue of body parts as the flesh and blood of some blessedly earthy sacrament. Bresson’s own stylistic asceticism has a way of transubstantiating into an order of cinematic experience that is highly sensual, even erotic. Schrader’s sex remains cold and theoretical; the warmest transactions between Julian and the neglected politico’s-wife (Lauren Hutton) who takes up with him are typified by a tender/funny flirtation in public, when each pretends not to notice that the other has noticed that she is following him in the street. The implication is that when the lovers eventually make their way into a blatant reenactment of the ending of Bresson’s Pickpocket (the sinning male on the other side of prison bars—here, glass—from the woman who has elected to stand by him says, “How long it has taken me to come to you!”), the achievement is a trifle redundant: spiritual kinship is what they’ve had all along, and nothing else; the voluptuousness of Julian’s sinning, unlike that of Pickpocket’s Michel, has been little more than a theoretical encumbrance. As for Julian’s other flirtation with salvation, in the form of a Porfiry-like detective (named Sunday!—after Billy, or Joe Friday?), Hector Elizondo’s performance is so facetious it scarcely seems to belong in the same film, as if Schrader had been trying to overcome a sense of obligatoriness in including that particular Bressonian prototype.

© 1980 Richard T. Jameson

Screenplay and direction: Paul Schrader. Cinematography: John Bailey. Art direction: Ed Richardson; set decoration: George Gaines. Visual consultant: Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Editing: Richard Halsey. Music: Giorgio Moroder. Executive producer: Freddie Fields.
The players: Richard Gere, Lauren Hutton, Bill Duke, Hector Elizondo, Nina van Pallandt.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.