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- This article first appeared in the September 1999 issue of Sight and Sound.
I discovered Peter Bogdanovich’s 1979 film Saint Jack several years ago when I picked it up on video. The cover had a fantastic painting of its star Ben Gazzara – it looked like artwork for a James Bond movie. So I watched the tape and realised it was a great film. From then on I’ve always wanted to sponsor a screening, to introduce it to as many people as possible – and to invite Bogdanovich along because he’s so eloquent when he talks about movies, including his own.
The film is based on a novel by Paul Theroux, who adapted it for the screen with Bogdanovich and Howard Sackler, and features Gazzara as Jack Flowers, an American living in Singapore in the early 70s. Flowers is a shady character, a Korean War veteran and a small-time operator who takes care of American and English businessmen during their stays in the city. But he also has a more profitable sideline as a pimp: his dream is to run his own brothel, his own “house”. Ultimately he achieves this, though not without running into some trouble.
Saint Jack was produced by Roger Corman, with whom Bogdanovich worked on the film The Wild Angels (1966); Playboy tycoon Hugh Hefner was one of Saint Jack’s executive producers. But there’s nothing exploitative about the movie: a sequence where two prostitutes dance for one of Flowers’ clients to a recording of Shirley Bassey’s ‘Goldfinger’ is more surreal than seedy; and Bogdanovich shows real sensitivity in the scene where Flowers supplies prostitutes to a group of US soldiers returning from Vietnam, making you realise how disturbed these young men have become by their wartime experience.
There’s something admirably old-fashioned about Saint Jack. It was shot entirely on location in Singapore, on quite a tight budget – which lends it a documentary feel – yet it contains some marvellously stylised camerawork by German cinematographer Robby Muller. The sequence where we see Flowers running his house for the first time, for instance, reminds me of the party scene from The Magnificent Ambersons – Flowers wanders around his new brothel, effortlessly solving his clients’ little problems, and it’s here that he meets the shady Eddie Schuman (played by Bogdanovich). Their brief conversation, along with so much of the dialogue, is more like the snappy repartee you find in a movie from 1939 than one from 1979.
I particularly like the way Bogdanovich stages a later scene between Flowers and Schuman. The two men get out of their car and walk through a park, discussing a deal, while the camera pulls back with them. At the end of their conversation they tum around and return to the car; the camera, however, remains fixed, just watching them walk away. I liked this scene so much I stole the shot in my first film Bottle Rocket (1996). It’s kind of stagey, but you don’t mind at all because it’s such an elegant idea.
Gazzara’s performance anchors the movie. He’s probably best known for his work with John Cassavetes; I spoke to him once on the phone and he remembered Cassavetes with great affection. (The same is true of Seymour Cassel, another Cassavetes veteran, who plays Bert Fischer in Rushmore.) But much as I love Cassavetes’ films, they can sometimes feel a little indulgent; Gazzara’s performance in Saint Jack is much tighter, more reined-in: it puts you in mind of the well-honed professionalism of Bogart, say, or Robert Mitchum, the only two other actors I can think of with enough grandeur to pull off the role of Flowers.
You can’t help thinking of Bogart’s pairing with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca in Flowers’ poignant relationship with one of the prostitutes. She’s from Sri Lanka, which the determinedly anachronistic Flowers insists on calling Ceylon. In a typically wistful scene she goes back to her homeland to find a husband, telling Jack, “I look for you in Ceylon.” But perhaps the most touching relationship is the one between Flowers and Denholm Elliot’s anxious Englishman William Leigh, a genteel, awkward man who hangs around the bar with his fellow countrymen, arrogant colonial braggarts who endlessly needle him without his ever realising it.
After years in Los Angeles, Bogdanovich is now based in New York. I think the move for him is part of a plan to return to a more independent, personal kind of film-making. I am very excited that this may lead to a new Bogdanovich movie in the spirit of Saint Jack.
- Wes Anderson was talking to Edward Lawrenson
Hitchcockery: Truffaut and Bogdanovich, under the Master’s influence
In our Autumn 1968 issue, Penelope Houston compared The Bride Wore Black and Targets to the work of Alfred Hitchcock – and Bogdanovich lamented the cuts made to the English version of his film
By Penelope Houston