With Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter set to get its theatrical release here in the UK on the 5th of November, marking the return of the giant after 2017’s First Reformed, is it not surely time to return to one of his most underrated, cult classics? Clear the floor people: here comes American Gigolo.
The 1980 pic concentrates on a consummate, high-class gigolo, Julian Kay (Richard Gere), who becomes emotionally entangled with a politician’s wife, Michelle (Lauren Hutton). When he discovers he’s a suspect in a murder case after taking an unsavoury job from pimp Leon (Bill Duke), he searches desperately for an alibi.
How American Gigolo always come across to me is Le Samouraï with a prostitute. Whenever Schrader writes, you can always sense a European artistry behind the work – usually with an American character, there to reflect the cultural shifting of the time, shoehorned in as a protagonist. The plots are practically carbon copies, with two seemingly stoic, mute characters forced to lay all their cards when they’re forced knee deep into complex, viscous investigations.
But that’s not the only similarity between Jean-Pierre Melville’s French 1967 classic. Both are heavily layered with probing examinations of their isolated heroes. They are, in their essence, character studies. Beneath Jef Costello’s robotic, unflinching coldness, are there feelings? Beneath Julian Kay’s charm, narcissism and Armani suits, is there a real person? American Gigolo confronts many of societies unquestioned conventions: is there anything deeper, anything of meaning, behind the guise of materialism and style? Does sex and affluence always seem to have half its face in the shadows? Mainly: what is behind the mask?
And, in the seedy mind of Schrader, it appears that beneath the show, there’s nothing. Kay is faced with losing his life as he scrambles for an alibi in an industry where nothing else is of concern but digression. It’s perhaps his greatest fear. See, being a gigolo suits his expensive taste; he can own a flashy Mercedes, don sophisticated clothes, head to expensive bars to pick up classy foreigners with his five or six languages, get into esteemed country clubs with elegant women – be someone more than he is. Without his expensive taste, who is he? As Roger Ebert quite rightly points out:
The whole movie has a winning sadness about it; take away the story’s sensational aspects and what you have is a study in loneliness… If women weren’t paying this man to sleep with them, he’d be paying them.Roger Ebert
He’s empty, a forgotten soul purchasing tailored suits to plug a glaring black hole: his lack of human connection. The inconsistent relationship between Michelle and Julian, perhaps one of the most glaring issues with Schrader’s troubled script, is probably what makes American Gigolo a redemption story. These are two unhappy loners who find fulfilment and solice in one another, and while Kay may originally come across as self-centred, you feel it’s really only a ploy to disappear into the crowds. When he finds the respect of another individual, his more grating qualities slip away, and it give us hope that there’s more to see than just a smooth smile.
Gere is perfect casting for the role. American Gigolo was his breakout film, and while it’s worth remembering that he’s made some God awful baloney, it’s clear from this film alone that he’s a talented actor. In a very different world, he could have gone on course to become so much more than a pretty face. If Gere had had his own version of 1998’s Out of Sight, he’d be George Clooney right about now. ’90s Internal Affairs may have been it, but after another inevitable splutter of Hollywoodisation, and he was back to more rom-com mediocrity.
But that’s not important – a brilliant performance by the man is. He’s so fascinatingly apt for the role of Kay it’s mind boggling. Once again like Le Samouraï, Gere and Alain Delon are both almost curiously too good looking. Their features are so perfectly formed that there’s an artificiality to them, like mechanical aliens trying to conform to civilisation, but too flawlessly designed that they’re dauntingly unnatural. Gere makes Kay feel inhuman, and that’s perfect for the character – a man constantly veiled to try and fit in to an avaricious, egocentric society.
And the gay subtext is equally compelling – it only adds to the sense of a man forced to live in solitude. Whether it be his dedication to his designer clothing, or his particular angst against working with ‘f*gs’, or even a scene where he feigns homosexuality to escape an awkward situation. It makes his relationship with Michelle almost tragic. If the attraction only goes one way, it just seems to stress his undying need for acceptance, for the feel of human flesh, than any sexual pleasure.
American Gigolo is flawed. While it appears to have some parallels to a French classic or two, it’s no where near their quality, and Schrader’s clinical direction is far superior to a stodgier screenplay with a tacked on ending. As the film fades in to the brilliant Blondie song ‘Call Me’ as Julian flows over the roads of Los Angeles, sunglasses to boot, there’s a precarious moment where you fear the film will fall apart as soon as the montage ends. But there should be no such doubts. With an excellent leading performance by Gere, playing an even more tantalisingly intricate character in Kay, Gigolo will have not only the quality to entertain, but fascinate too.
American Gigolo – 7.5 out of 10