I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a film quite like Peter Bogdanovich’s labor of love Saint Jack, and I doubt that anything remotely resembling it will be made any time soon. Released in 1979 and based on the Paul Theroux novel from six years earlier, the narrative pivots on the life of Jack Flowers (the absolutely amazing Ben Gazzara), a nice-guy hustler with pimping aspirations, living in Singapore who feels like he’s stuck in a personal rut. So, he decides to enter into the big time, by opening up his own bordello in conjunction with the CIA as a station for American soldiers who are on leave, which angers local Chinese gangsters who feel that he’s encroaching on their business and territory. Honestly, I think we need a big-screen revival of cathouse movies in general; there’s all sorts of possibilities with this milieu, and in regards to Saint Jack, the way that Bogdanovich subverted expectations and told a generally amiable story with flashes or threats of violence speaks to the unique way in which he approached his material. The film has an appropriately scuzzy visual style, with the great cinematographer Robby Müller calling the shots behind the camera, and bathing the film in a layer of textural grime that fit perfectly with the humid setting and mildly ramshackle production design. The fantastic supporting cast includes Denholm Elliot, James Villiers, George Lazenby, Joss Ackland, Rodney Bewes, Mark Kingston, and Bogdanovich in a quick and sly cameo.
As with the best of Bogdanovich’s work, Saint Jack eschews cheap and easy narrative exposition in favor of the story being motivated solely by character and behavior, with Gazzara’s strangely-warm-for-a-pimp performance giving the film an added layer of moral ambiguity that’s so rare in today’s brand of storytelling. Shot for a reported $1 million and lensed entirely on location in Singapore, and as of 2006 the only Hollywood production to do so (not sure if anyone has done a film there since then…), Saint Jack angered government officials over its portrayal of their society, and the film was banned from local cinemas. The filmmakers even lied about the plot of the film because they apparently figured that they’d be met with hostility from various groups. And despite never receiving the theatrical release it deserved, Bogdanovich has stated in interviews that he feels it’s one of his best works as an artist. This cinematic adaptation of Theroux’s book took root when Cybill Shepherd sued Playboy magazine after they printed photos of her from the set of The Last Picture Show; her settlement included the novel’s film rights. Hugh Hefner and Roger Corman are credited as producers. Available on DVD with audio commentary by Bogdanovich, new and old interviews, and other assorted bits of extra fun.