American Gigolo

Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Paul Schrader
Stars: Richard Gere (Julian Kay), Lauren Hutton (Michelle Stratton), Hector Elizondo (Detective Sunday), Nina Van Pallandt (Anne), Bill Duke (Leon James), Brian Davies (Charles Stratton), K Callan (Lisa Williams), Tom Stewart (Mr. Rheiman), Patricia Carr (Judy Rheiman)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1980
Country: USA
American Gigolo Poster

In the opening moments of Paul Schrader's "American Gigolo," we are introduced to the titular character, a $1,000-a-night Hollywood gigolo named Julian Kay (Richard Gere). As the theme song by Blondie, "Call Me," pumps on the soundtrack, we see Julian speeding down the California highway in his convertible Mercedes. He stops at a Beverly Hills department store (the kind that employs valets) where his wealthy "date" buys him a new Armani suit. He drops the woman off at her home, kissing her on the neck passionately.

The sensation this opening segment leaves the viewer with is one of motion. Julian lives a life that moves, and the way Scharder's camera fetishes his car as it barrels down the interstate underscores the importance of material possessions as a sign of inclusion and importance. This is later emphasized when Julian carefully selects his wardrobe by laying out thousands of dollars worth of suits on his bed, mixing and matching shirts and ties.

However, this initial sensation of movement is somewhat misleading because Julian's life is not that simple. In fact, despite the wealth and the women, Julian is alone and his life is far from in motion; in fact, it is going nowhere. His existence is one of emptiness masked by fast cars and stereo components, fancy suits and expensive restaurants. Julian is the best there is at his business, which is why he commands such a high price and can negotiate his own terms with those who employ him, but he is still lacking something.

"American Gigolo" is mostly about how Julian eventually fills this emptiness when he falls in love with one of his clients, a lonely politician's wife named Michelle (Lauren Hutton) who is as desperately in need of fulfillment as Julian. At the same time, however, it is also a thriller in which Julian is framed for the murder of a wealthy socialite. Julian had turned a particularly nasty trick with the woman and her sadistic husband (Tom Stewart) a few days before as a favor to a friend, a lower-level but still powerful pimp named Leon James (Bill Duke). All evidence points to Julian, and of course he can't get an alibi because at the time of the murder he was with a rich married woman who will never admit to having spent time with him, lest it ruin her reputation and marriage.

While the murder plot is the main focus of the plot for the film's second half, it is not really what writer/director Paul Schrader is interested in. As a filmmaker, Schrader's most consistent theme has been one of redemption, although as his screenplay for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" (1976) can attest, redemption for him is not always easy or conventional.

This is, perhaps, why "American Gigolo" is not a truly great or powerful film: Julian's redemption through unselfish love is a bit too conventional and not fleshed out enough. While it is this thematic thread that is obviously the heart beating beneath the film's potentially sordid surface, Schrader allows himself to get sidetracked. The murder story, which also involves a blunt, cigar-chomping police detective played by Hector Elizondo, takes up too much time, and not enough is given to developing the relationship between Julian and Michelle. We can see why they would need each other, but only because of the narrative obviousness; little of it actually takes place on-screen, and we have to put the pieces together ourselves.

"American Gigolo," Schrader's third outing as a director, differs greatly from his previous two efforts, "Blue Collar" (1978) and "Hardcore" (1979), in tone and style. While the previous two were raw and gritty in looking at the seamier and rougher sides of life, "American Gigolo" is slick and polished. Cinematographer John Bailey's camera captures the hedonistic excess of Julian's life in all its sinful splendor, from the beach-front apartments, to the mansions in the hills, to the Gucci-filled department stores and members-only country clubs. All of this materiality glows with a flat golden gleam that accentuates the basic emptiness of the Hollywood lifestyle.

And, even when Schrader descends into the darkest netherworlds of Julian's life, such as when he enters a gay S&M club or when he is coerced into standing in a police line-up, everything looks clean and neat. Even the bed sheets after sex seem artfully arranged and just out of the dryer. About the only moment of messiness in the whole film is when Julian rips apart his apartment and his Mercedes trying to find evidence that he knows has been planted on him.

"American Gigolo" works largely on the performance of Richard Gere, who manages to portray Julian as both worldly and experienced (he speaks "five or six" different languages) and utterly naive. When he finally faces the person who framed him and asks why him, his framer says simply that he was easy to frame. Julian is selfish and self-serving, but he is still sympathetic because we understand that, in his world, that is the only way he can be. That is, until he is redeemed by Michelle's love and self-sacrifice.

While "American Gigolo" is certainly not Schrader's best film as either a writer or director (it screams of an artist trying desperate to go mainstream while still attempting to maintain the edge that made him noticeable in the first place), it is still an interesting signpost of the early 1980s. From the clothing styles to the attitudes, "American Gigolo" is a tell-tale sign of the earliest moments of what would become known as the decade of greed. While almost too slick for its own good, the film still has a basic honesty and poignancy at its core that makes it work as both a mystery thriller and as a drama about one man coming to terms with his own lacking.


Widescreen: 1.85:1
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; Dolby 2.0 Surround; French Mono
Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English
Extras: Theatrical Trailer
Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Video: The anamorphically enhanced picture is framed in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but the composition seems a little grainy. This is especially evident in any scenes that include large sections of the screen that are in one solid color, such as the sky (it is especially evident in the opening Paramount logo). The picture is a little soft, but detail is still fairly good and the colors are deep and rich. There is some minor speckling throughout, likely imperfections in the source material.

Audio: The remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is a good touch, as it allows the expressive early '80s soundtrack to really do its work. For the most part, the surround speakers are not utilized much, although there is an effective moment when Julian has been arrested and is walking through a throng of reporters, and the speakers create an claustrophobic sound environment in which we feel we are in the middle of the barking questions.

Extras: This disc contains only one theatrical trailer that is somewhat funny in an unintentional way (the announcer declares in a preposterously serious voice, "His name is Julian Kay. His business is pleasure. He is ... the American Gigolo."). Otherwise, the disc is supplement-free.

Copyright © 2000 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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