Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
Ben Gazzara delivers a brilliant performance as a pimp in Singapore during 1973 to 1975 who is deeply bothered by the hypocrisy he sees around him.
Saint Jack is a film which avoids cliche's. It goes so far as to avoid even on screen titles like: ‘Singapore' or ‘1973', or ‘one year later', when such titles might make the film a little more audience friendly. We know it's 1973 because in an early scene we see Nixon/China news articles from 1973 at an airport news stand. William Leigh (Denholm Elliot) is a businessman who shows up in Singapore once a year. So, when he leaves in one scene and re-appears a couple scenes later we realize one year has past. There are three such transitions in the film.
Most audience members will expect the good natured Jack Flowers (Ben Gazzara) to eventually lose his temper and perhaps go on a Travis Bickle like bloodbath. That isn't going to happen. If you expect something like that from this film you will be very very disappointed. This film is a portrait of a fairly like-able almost regular kind of guy. He's not Clint Eastwood, he's Jack Flowers a pimp with a heart of gold. He's a nice guy-- though not a hero. His morals are much different than most people, but he's a mostly well liked businessmen trading in vice.
In 1973, Jack goes to the airport for two Chinese businessmen to meet an associate William Leigh (beautifully played by Denholm Elliot) who is arriving in Singapore to look over the books. Jack runs errands for the businessmen to keep his Visa active so he can stay in Singapore. Jack's full-time job is as a pimp and his reputation is being able to deliver whatever non-violent, sexual fun a john desires. William isn't interested in a 'good time' but he's impressed with how much Jack knows about Singapore and they become friends almost immediately. Jack notices that William has some health problems and is very uncomfortable with Singapore's stifling heat.
Jack lets William tag along with him as he does his thing which includes making money off of a businessman who wants two women. He sets the entire show up for the john: two Asian women are soon making out with each other while Shirley Bassey sings Goldfinger on the stereo and the john, Jack and William watch..
As the women strip down and begin to put on a show for Jack, William and the john..., Jack leaves the room and gets his Scotch from the House Madame.. He's got a lot on his mind. He's about to start his own prostitution house and not merely set johns up with women at existing houses (epinions won't let me use the word w(h-)ore). Several characters have warned him that setting up his own house, especially as an American is not a good idea. There has been a real crackdown on prostitution because the Chinese government does not want Singapore known as a vice capital. William soon joins Jack as the two prostitutes have turned their attention to the john.
The john is finished and Jack puts him into a cab and wishes him luck. Someone is following Jack through the pre-dawn streets of Singapore. Apparently, Jack is in someone else's territory and to avoid being roughed up, William and Jack wind up running through some streets and back alleys of Singapore. The film is avoiding cliche's remember so this is not a typical thrill a minute chase scene–though there is some suspense and tension to the scene. Jack and William avoid direct confrontation with the men chasing them as the enter William's hotel. Jack is then introduced to a beautiful black woman from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with whom he will have a long term relationship with.
Next we meet Jack in what looks like a speak-easy which has been made out of the first floor of a Southern Style mansion. We'll soon realize a year has gone by, Jack has started his own House of prostitution and things are pretty good.
Not for long though. He meets a mysterious stranger named Schuman (played by director Bogdonavich) who works for the Army. William is in town, but he is very weak and can not party with Jack. Good thing because before the night is over, Jack's place is under attack by what we presume to be the Triads, Chinese gangsters, two of them we recognize as the men who chased Jack and William earlier. They take Jack for a rather nasty ride which includes forcing Jack to have insulting words tattooed on his arms.
They have destroyed his House of prostitution. William shows up and sees what has happened to his friend Jack. Jack meets up with Schuman, who turns out to have a proposition for Jack. He wants Jack to run an unofficial house of prostitution for the U.S. Army. It seems like a good idea.
Another year has passed and we realize that Jack is running a very busy operation taking care of hundreds of soldiers. But things are different. Jack doesn't feel good about the work he is doing like he used to. He sees the hypocrisy in it and it makes him feel sordid and dirty. He even comments to Schuman that he's helping to ‘fatten up the lambs for the slaughter' . Meaning a lot of the servicemen are going to die very soon. Jack isn't having fun like we've seen him having in the past.
William arrives for his yearly visit and the events that take place in the final part of the film affirm what is most important to Jack. He is asked to perform a sting operation to catch a left-wing Democrat Senator (George Lazenby) in a compromising position. Jack doesn't like this proposition at all, but a lot of money is put on the table to tempt him.
The very end of the film will disappoint a lot of people who are expecting the film to explode into a blood-bath or result in a stunning or shocking epiphany for the character. It doesn't end that way. It's a film that avoids such cliche's.
The film is a character study. In the end the message of the film is ambiguous. You figure out, what it has meant to you. The film's style might at first be a little difficult for the audience to follow since the film is told through one year leaps over a three year period tied to supporting character William Leigh (Denholm Elliott) but not told from his perspective.
If you're reading this review though, you'll better understand how the transition of time is handled and won't have any difficulty ‘following' the film.
It's Gazzara's performance and Elliott's as well which will keep many riveted to the screen. Gazzara is even better in Saint Jack than he was in either Opening Night or Husbands for John Cassavettes. His performance is a little more subtle, a little quieter and Gazzara is completely self assured. In fact a few of his improvised ad libs remain wonderful moments in the film.
Saint Jack remains Bogdonavich's best film.
The film was shot completely in Singapore and with about 7 exceptions all of the cast is made up of non-actors who for the most part are wonderful in their roles. The film also uses a lot of long continuous shots. There are far fewer edits and cut-aways in this film than in most. The camera follows characters as they walk through the airport in one long continuous shot. Several scenes are constructed with a minimum of edits. There is cross-cutting in the film, but far less than the norm. It was shot by Robby Muller.
Bogdanovich admits to using the influence of Renoir and Orson Welles while shooting this film. He wasn't doing an homage to them, but their influences are there. Long continuous shots, location shooting, etc.
Saint Jack marked a return to basics for Director Bogdonavich who had taken a couple of years off of making films after making several box office failures in a row: Daisy Miller (1974, cold and miscast Cybil Shepherd sink film) , At Long Last Love (1975- a true debacle meant as a tribute to 30's musical with Cole Porter but non-singing stars like Burt Reynolds do the singing !!) and Nickelodeon (1976–a film that starts out well but falls apart). It seemed to most critics and audiences Bogdonavich had gone Hollywood in the worst ways imaginable.
Bogdonavich had heard Orson Welles was interested in a Paul Theroux story but had not been able to make the film. Cybil Shepherd (P.D.'s girlfriend at the time) wound up writing the first draft of the screenplay that would later become Saint Jack (she receives no credit for it). Paul Theroux did a version of the screenplay, and play write Harold Sackler did another. Theroux, Sackler and Bogdonavich receive the screen writing credit on the film.
The project was set up with Roger Corman. ROGER CORMAN? The king of the drive in b movies? Yes. Corman throughout the late late 70's and 80's particularly was importing (The Tin Drum) and also producing several quality films. Corman gave Peter Bogdonavich his first break in the movies. Bogdonavich worked as an assistant on Corman's 1966 cult hit The Wild Angels and then reconstructed and shot some new scenes for a film that wound up being called Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (1968).
Roger asked Peter if he was ready to make his own movie. The answer was yes. Roger said great.. Boris Karloff owes me two days of work and you've got a budget of 100,000 give me a movie. 130,000 dollars later, Peter B. turned in the minor classic Targets (in 1968).
Bogdonavich made his big splash of course with The Last Picture Show (1971), which he followed with the audience pleasing What's Up Doc (1972) and then Paper Moon (1973).
Then came three big flops, and Bogdonavich wanted to get as far away from Hollywood as he could and back to basics. So it was Corman and Singapore. There had not been an American film entirely shot in Singapore prior to Saint Jack. Bogdonavich had to lie and actually submit a treatment he made up, because Theroux's Saint Jack was banned in Singapore since it publicized the city as a vice capital.
The DVD presentation of Saint Jack has several extras including an long interview with the director and a very informative commentary track by Bogdonavich running the length of the film.
Peter Bogdanovich by the way has been turning up playing a psychiatrist on HBO's The Sopranos.
Christopher Jarmick,is the author of The Glass Coccon with Serena F. Holder a steamy suspense thriller which is now available (glasscocoon@hotmail for details).
Original portions of this review Copyright© Christopher J. Jarmick 2001. The above work is protected by international copyright law.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV
Suitability For Children: Not suitable for Children of any age