Saint Jack

Ironically, I have the government of Singapore to thank for introducing me to a movie banned in Singapore. Years ago, the Singapore music/pop-culture magazine BigO approached me to write something about Saint Jack, a 1979 Peter Bogdanovich drama apparently deemed unworthy of Singaporean eyes because its depiction of the seamy, vice-ridden underbelly of Singapore does not reflect positively on the land. For my part, I’m sorry to admit I had only the vaguest of awareness of the film, an ignorance shared by many of my fellow Americans, who are generally not in the market for a subtle, ambiguous drama starring an erstwhile member of the John Cassavetes acting stable as, let’s say, a main character not without flaw.

But Saint Jack — adapted by Bogdanovich, Howard (Jaws) Sackler, Paul Theroux, and (reportedly) an uncredited Cybill Shepherd from Theroux’s novel — is a surprisingly fine and forceful character study, one that could really only have been made in the ’70s, financed by a group of rich people who didn’t mind losing a little cash (including co-executive producer Hugh Hefner and producer Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures distributed the film). It is a non-sensational, compassionate portrait of a potentially seedy guy and his seedy world. And, parenthetically, the reason Singapore looks so sleazy in this film is that the world of whorehouses and bars is its chosen milieu; we do get some glimpses of what looks like a beautiful country, but for the most part we are with the protagonist in his stomping grounds. To object to the film for laying bare this side of Singapore is like objecting to Taxi Driver for showing the grotesque side of New York. In both cases, the focus is on a man who either succeeds or fails to adjust to an unwholesome environment.

Jack Flowers (Ben Gazzara) looks like a success, at first. A low-level procurer of exotic entertainment for tourists, Jack drifts through his days and nights with an air of nonchalance. He knows the territory, he knows the people, he knows the business. He always has a kind word for the working girls he encounters on the streets (they always seem happy to see him, even when he doesn’t slip them some money or, in one case, a watch right off his wrist); he deals with his Singaporean connections mostly without condescension — at first he acts a little too superior around a frizzy-haired guy who helps out around the office, but as the film goes on we realize it’s just good-natured ribbing born of years of familiarity. Jack could be described as a pimp with a heart of gold, except that he isn’t really a pimp — he’s more of a go-between, the guy who can get it for you, like Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption — and he doesn’t really have a “heart of gold.” He’s just easy-going and amiable, with a vague sense of melancholy over paths not taken (we learn he used to want to be a writer).

Saint Jack is broken up into three sections, each taking place a year apart, though Bogdanovich never gives the date (the consensus is that the story spans from 1973 to 1975). The first act finds Jack in an optimistic, hustling mode; he’s trying to start his own house of ill repute, despite resistance both from “the competition” (thugs follow him around everywhere) and from friends who warn him against it. By the second act, Jack is well-established in his new pleasure dome, but the idyll is not to last. In the third act, Jack has been given a new lease on life by a mysterious American, a military man named Schuman (Bogdanovich himself, in a sly performance that seems modelled on studio execs). Schuman offers Jack a job supervising an Army-sponsored whorehouse catering to hundreds of soldiers enjoying R & R during their tour of duty in Vietnam. What was once fun and a decent day’s work for Jack has become squalid and indecent — he is now truly a pimp, officially sanctioned by the U.S. government. When you think about it, this movie is far more harshly critical of America than it ever is of Singapore.

I can say with some confidence that Ben Gazzara has never been better than he was here. In the smallest of gestures — handing a customer a wallet he’s dropped on the floor, and then smiling bitterly as the customer checks the wallet to make sure all the money is there; opening a music box in his room; proudly displaying his forearms to the gangsters who had tattooed obscene words on them, showing them that he has covered up the obscenities with flowers — Gazzara paints this man for us while never pushing anything too hard or having any big speeches to explain his character. (About all we learn about Jack’s past is what Schuman rattles off to impress Jack.) There’s a brilliant sequence in which a soldier in Jack’s “Army cathouse” freaks out and attacks one of Jack’s girls; Jack attends to the hysterical girl first, makes sure the other girls will take care of her, then walks quietly into the room where the soldier sits numbly on a bed, with several other soldiers in the room. Jack stares at the soldier wordlessly, and we can read not only Jack’s thoughts and feelings but also the entire theme of the movie on Gazzara’s face. Jack turns and quietly leaves the room; soon, Schuman will be offering him a much more unsavory job.

Saint Jack isn’t for everyone. It never quite explodes; it proceeds calmly and realistically from scene to scene. The lurid environment is seen in a matter-of-fact way, the way Jack would see it; when a midget gangster shows Jack a porn magazine he allegedly wants Jack to buy — complete with a very X-rated image, which I was fairly shocked to see in an R-rated movie — you see just enough to be sure it was what you thought you saw. Bogdanovich, working again with his former mentor Roger Corman, delivers an understated and solid piece of direction, disputing those who think he peaked with The Last Picture Show and has been good for nothing since except hanging out with Orson Welles and playing a shrink on The Sopranos. If this is what he was capable of back then, I wish Corman and Hefner would team up again and give Bogdanovich money to make another complex indie film like this.

If you are in Singapore and reading this, perhaps one day the government will see it has nothing to fear from Saint Jack and allow its people to see one of the finer overlooked American pieces from a fine decade; failing that, if you happen to be sightseeing out of the country, put this on your “to see” list. If you are anywhere else — say, America — and you haven’t seen Saint Jack, what’s your excuse?

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