When I was 16, I had a poster of American Gigolo on my wall; Paul Schrader’s cool thriller seemed like a cause worth following. A tough noir thriller set in one of L.A.’s myriad sexual underbellies, it’s a forerunner for Bret Easton Ellis branded nihilism, but also draws heavily on French New Wave style. That cinematic approach helped, but so did attention to the feel of the film, with clothes by Armani and music by Giorgio Moroder. It’s to a blast of his production of Blondie’s Call Me, a tune reworked as a motif throughout the film, that we meet first meet Julian Kay (Richard Gere) as he drives his Mercedes sports car between Westwood and Malibu along the Pacific Central Highway.
Like Chevy Chase, originally mooted for this role after John Travolta and Christopher Reeve turned it down, Gere has undeniable sex appeal, but Julian Kay is not looking for sex at all, male prostitution is his place of work, and he’s about to find that whatever trappings he’s acquired, sex workers worldwide generally are denied their rights by design. It’s 1979 and posters for Phantasm and The Warriors adorn the streets, and Kay works West Hollywood hospitality circuit rather than turning trick on the boulevard, but he’s still turning tricks, however well he uses the cash to refine his mind, body and self-knowledge.
A point is made of watching Julian turn on the charm for older women, and that’s not the worst of it; his pimp Leon (Bill Duke) sends him on some ‘rough’ tricks (‘Oh, you got scruples now?’ he mocks Julian). That’s until Kay falls foul of latent political malfeasance; his encounter with the wife (Lauren Hutton) of a prominent politician with dubious politics (‘Free America from the grip of fossil fuels!’ is his prophetic promise) is paralleled by his gradual implication in a murder. With alibis unreliable and the worldly-wise police (Hector Elizondo, of course) unhelpful in figuring out exactly whose toes he’s stood on, Kay attempts to uncover the forces who are taking advantage of his lowly, vulnerable status to frame him as the noose tightens around his mirror-tanned neck…
‘These bitches will turn on you,’ warns Leon, since for all his sexual ease, Kay does have a problem with women; the question ‘How do you get pleasure’ leaves him scurrying for the door. ‘Giving pleasure to women… am I supposed to feel guilty about that ?’ Kay attempts to justify himself, but that holds no water with senator Charles Stratton, who humiliates Kay, grandstanding to his snooty friends ‘You know what HE is don’t you?’ Kay starts near the top, or at least top-adjacent, a privilege we can see from his casual way with hotel staff (“Got my other suit?’ he murmurs to a coat-check). But Kay is a victim of sexual violence himself, with attendant self-doubt; ‘You still don’t understand who I am,’ he says, and time is running out to gain such self-knowledge…
‘It doesn’t matter how much, Julian, the other side will always pay more…’ is part of the downbeat punch-line here, but Schrader arranges his existential icons effectively. Some critics derided American Gigolo as style over content at the time, but Schrader’s story strips back the glamour from Julian Kay’s designer lifestyle and lays bare some real drama; from matching shirts and ties in a perfectly ordered life, Kay ends up apart his apartment and car like Harry Caul in The Conversation, a realisation of internal disorder, the trappings no more than a distraction as he tries to figure out who he is from the negative space his enemies leave. Kay speaks French on a date because he thinks his client does too; he’s a human chameleon incapable for feeling love. Julian is redeemed, in a fashion, by a damaged woman who recognises how similar his predicament is to her own, and that unexpected tenderness helps American Gigolo maintain a reputation as a truly ground-breaking movie for consenting adults.
I realised that I do have ‘Schrader on Schrader’, the faber interview book from 1990 on my shelves. Is that what you are using? He discusses all the Bresson references and admits one scene uses visual imagery taken from Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her from 1967. But his main point is to state that he was trying to make a film about surfaces and was looking to make a film displaying an LA style. To do this he turned to Germany and Italy for Moroder’s music and Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), which he sees as the most influential film for himself and contemporaries such as Coppola and Scorsese.
I’ve got that book, but appreciate the steer. Got The Conformist on blu ray, will take another look at it to follow up this direction. I get that he’s a cinematic magpie, without Tarantino quite marks, but I do think Schrader qualifies as an auteur, he does filter them into his own personal vision. And I do appreciate that he takes a more cautious approach to depicting violence than most. He gets his thesis across.
I can’t honestly remember much about this film from its 1980 release, except for the music and Gere posing in various suits. I think mainly I was disappointed because I was such a huge fan of Blue Collar, his first directorial effort. I don’t think I’ve seen anything by him since except a few scenes from Cat People, though I do know there is support for several of his later films. Your New Wave reference is interesting and that had been evident in several West Coast thrillers, but perhaps this film looked forward to the ‘cinéma du look’ that arrived a few years later in the 1980s?
All I can remember is Gere working out upside-down.
I was impressed by Schrader’s First Reformed. Hadn’t thought of him for a while before that.
That’s how I work out, don’t you?
Schrader makes something good every so often. Seriously talent filmmaker on this day.
Yes, I heard good things about that film.
My understanding was that most of that 70’s auteur US directors were influenced by French new wave, and Schrader tried harder than most to find a US analogue. Bresson is the specific reference point here, and I think this film rewards patience. I think it’s not as noir as critics would have liked, but it manages to have its cake and eat it in terms of showing a glamorous world that’s morally rotten to the core. But we can agree on the merits of Blue Collar, a very fluent film. I actually prefer Schrader’s work to Scorsese, more cerebral and less violent.
Hmm! ‘French New Wave’ was never a style/approach as such – the so-called auteur directors from the 200+ new directors of the ‘New Wave’ had individual styles. You might argue that someone followed Godard or Rohmer or Truffaut but they were very different in approach and by 1980 following their own particular paths. In France the New Wave was over by 1970 never mind 1980? Schrader was an academic writing about noir before he was a filmmaker. He is clearly a talented cineaste with his own take on ideas about moral questions. I’ve seen several Bresson films over the years but I’m not sure I appreciate his work to the extent others do. Probably the fault is mine.
Or possibly it’s a form of cultural appropriation, film like Breathless maybe typified was Hollywood wanted to take from French cinema. I take your point about diverse style, I’m using a very broad label to describe the influence of French cinema of the 60’s on Hollywood in the 70’s. I feel that it’s visible in the mid 70’s, but never quite created the sense of cool that was hoped for. Schrader give it a good try, but modern noir was a hard sell by the mid 80’s.
Just seen they’re making a TV series with John Bethnal in the rôle Geer played. Not sure about him.
I can’t picture anyone by Chevy Chase in this role now, the tv show is meant to see the character age, so Chase remains my first choice…
He’s 79 years old for buntys sakes! And he looks way older, infact quite decrepit. No woman would be shaking the sheets with THAT! for free let alone paying!
He’ll be digitally de-aged to classic 1979 Chase. Every girl’s dream.
With an extra helping of crope…
Oh, they’d be shaking in their sheets alright . . .
I generally do shake them, sheets that is.
Oh man, if Chase HAD been in this, it would have been a hilarious comedy. Even I have to admit that. But they took that away from us. Those hollywood execs who rule with an iron hand, who give and take with no thought for the repercussions. It’s like they are the mafia!
I hear you, and yes, Chase would be a dream in this role. I blame Biden.
Huh, me too!
We’re practically twins 😉
So alike in almost every way!
Now, if only I had a full head of hair n you were good looking, no one could tell us apart!
Fortunately, I’ve got so much of the latter that there’s no real comparison, but I’ll mail you a tub of hair restorer so you can feel included.
Would that be the (in)famous Ol’ Bunty’s Miracle Restorer?
Airdropped on your condo in twenty mins…
No rush. I don’t get home for another 6 or 7 hrs.
Drop me a line when you do and you’ll be hairy forever!
They seriously thought Chevy Chase could be sexy??? Hahahahaha!
Hopefully a remake with Chevy Chase in the central role will show us all what we missed.But maybe you’re right, a sex-bomb like Chase is probably too much of a powerhouse, serious actor to work in a lighter role so early in his career…
How well does this hold up alongside Deuce Bigalow?
A worthy prequel.
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