American Gigolo: What’s Behind The Mask?

Rating: 7.5 out of 10.

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

30 thoughts on “American Gigolo: What’s Behind The Mask?

  1. Gere can be very good, e.g., Days of Heaven, Arbitrage, An Officer and a Gentleman, Bloodbrothers, Unfaithful and, yes, American Gigolo. Even when he’s bad–Breathless–he’s interesting. I’ve always liked what he brought to the table. American Gigolo is relentlessly brooding. Gere’s character is realistically unlikable. For me, he never redeemed himself. He got himself into a tight squeeze, broke a sweat and hollered when he got really scared. To me, that’s not a let down, it’s just consistency of character and so I was left wondering, why was this film even made? Then again, that’s Paul Schrader for you. He’s obsessed with hollowness, I think.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree, although Pretty Woman and co. are a bit dire. I love antiheroes, and Kay fits the mould to perfection. Archetypal! It’s praise to Schrader that he creates an unlikeable man that we can still enjoy watching and (mostly) empathise with. Part of that, for me at least, is I think there’s almost an element of respect – he’s a master of his craft. It’s like watching Picasso paint. He’s really good at being a gigolo. Anyway, hollowness is a key theme of the film, and it’s fascinatingly done, really. I enjoyed this one.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Surprisingly similar, I think.

      It’s a great song, and really well used throughout. Reminded me of Altman’s The Long Goodbye. Some similarities between Gigolo and that film as well too, I think.

      Like

      1. It’s a really interesting one. It was actually quite big at the time – well, considerably. It did have fans, but after that, it’s really been forgotten as a bit of a dodgy cult film. But it’s much more than that, so I’m glad you’re compelled. Has my seal of approval!

        Like

  2. Never thought of Gere as a perfect specimen of nice looking bloke, he has a great smile in Pretty Woman, but on the whole he is not what I consider to be attractive facially. Alan Delon though, drop dead gorgeous. IMHO of course. Cool review Otsky.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ‘Le Samourai’ is one of my favourite films. Those set features and deliberate coolness of Delon are used to perfection by Melville. I don’t think it has ever been bettered in the genre.
    I wouldn’t really compare this to it though. I saw AG on release at the cinema, and liked the way it always teetered on the edge of ‘sleaze’ throughout. But I never thought it was memorable, and have never watched it again.
    As for Schrader, I generally like his casting, and his somewhat depressing films. I was pleasantly surprised by how good ‘Dog Eat Dog’ was, also ‘Auto Focus’.
    But ‘Light Sleeper’ shines for me. It is simply a modern masterpiece, in my not so humble opinion, and a world of class away from AG..
    Cheers, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, Pete – love Le Samourai too. When I get more time (hopefully in the winter, or maybe next summer), I’ll be sure to get around to French Crime week, and Samourai will most certainly be involved. I haven’t forgotten Orson Welles week either, Pete! But after perhaps a little more Huston, I’m hoping to slowly transition into some classics from the giant…
      Of course, American Gigolo is nowhere near the level of Le Samourai, but I think there are some similarities there, especially as Schrader is so influenced by films like that. He’s made some really good, underrated stuff. I would love to do more of his too, but too many films and not enough time!

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  4. Not sure a guy as handsome as Gere would not get his pick of the women. I thought the idea of getting paid for what he might do for nothing was more to do with getting rich the easiest way he knew. Once you look at his accumulated wealth and the entry that sex gives him in society it becomes a different picture altogether and one I think most critics wanted to ignore. Rich but lonely is such a cliche compared to exploiting the system. He may not be able to become a senator or a big businessman but he can shag their wives and that is not just a nice revenge but the first Hollywood picture to look at sex workers in a way that wasn’t hooker-with-a-heart or all-I-want-is-a-nice-man.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Completely agree, Brian – that’s a great interpretation. Overall, it’s really refreshing to see such a dark, nihilistic film like this rather than the misunderstood, beautiful prostitute in a rom-com. Would love to read a full review from you on this from what I’ve read so far! Fascinating insight as always.

      Liked by 2 people

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