Arrow Video: American Gigolo (1980) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Arrow Films

Recurring Martin Scorsese screenwriter turned prolific writer-director Paul Schrader was only three films into his career when he unveiled his neo-noir successor to Hardcore with the Richard Gere starring American Gigolo upon unsuspecting but nevertheless hungry filmgoers hot off of the heels of such fare as the also-Gere starring Looking for Mr. Goodbar.  A psychoanalytical filmmaker who often probed into the lives of sex workers and their tendency towards falling into crime and/or inability to escape their livelihood, the film produced by Jerry Bruckheimer at the time became a critically mixed commercial hit with a fiery soundtrack by Giorgio Moroder featuring and playing around the Grammy-nominee Call Me by Blondie. 
Praised by the likes of Roger Ebert while simultaneously blasted by Leonard Maltin, the divisive, prolific, still outspoken provocateur Paul Schrader for good or for ill presses on ahead with his gnomic visions with perhaps some of the most engrossing nonjudgmental character studies in living cinematic memory.  With Arrow Video’s forthcoming limited edition 4K UHD boxed set, the boutique label has canonized what the filmmaker refers to as a “bookend” that has aged like fine wine.  Though uncomfortable for its pre-Cruising unflinching deep dive into the bisexuality of the male prostitute, full frontal male nudity for the first time from a Hollywood performer as well as themes of illicit sex and violence which haven’t lost their ability to sting, Schrader’s neon-soaked costume adorned set heavy wonderment seems to forecast the phantasmagoria Schrader would unleash with his Mishima biopic.
High-end LA male escort Julian Kay (Richard Gere) rides in the fast lane with his expensive car, Giorgio Armani clothing line and swanky Westwood apartment designed by none other than Scarface production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, catering to middle-aged elder women of wealth and stature.  His clientele is including but not limited to the California state senator’s wife Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton).  But after a rough client assigned to him by his ruthless gay pimp Leon (Bill Duke) turns up dead, Julian is deemed the prime suspect.  Aware he’s a victim of a frame job, Julian finds himself on the run from a determined detective Joe Sunday (Héctor Elizondo) to piece together who the real killer is and why he’s being implicated in a crime he didn’t commit.  From there, his leading-man good looks start to wear thin as he becomes a literal fugitive on the run often driving through the neon-lit streets of LA at night.
Primarily aided by Giorgio Moroder’s ferociously fiery soundtrack and original song Call Me co-written by Moroder and Debbie Harry which became a global success peaking at number one in several countries as well as winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song, out of the gate American Gigolo is sizzling.  While surprisingly light on the sex and nudity quotient despite the aforementioned onscreen full-frontal nudity of its lead star, the film’s more about the lavish lifestyle being threatened than what it means for Julian to give but not receive sexual pleasure.  

The character of Julian Kay is a complex character fearful of the gay side of male prostitution despite insinuations he may have partook in the past while being so caught up in the debonair icy cool of his approach to wooing female clients he could be plugged into a Jean-Pierre Melville film.  What’s striking about Schrader’s character study played rather bravely by Richard Gere is how the tone and vibe of the film gradually changes into an increasingly paranoid thriller.  Schrader’s less interested in the sexuality of Julian than he is in the frame of mind driving Julian’s actions.

It goes without saying the look of American Gigolo, from the fashion and decorum lensed exquisitely and at times distantly by John Bailey, has a neon-saturated lurid allure permeating every corner of the frame.  It is pretty easy to see why Ferdinando Scarfiotti was considered one of the greatest production designers who ever lived as the sleekness and richness of the sets almost become like another omniscient character. 

The score by Giorgio Moroder does a curious thing of, like Clint Mansell, reworking aspects of the central opening track throughout the score as he dials up the atonal, industrial sonics and milky, drippy synthetics.  Richard Gere, in a curious subset of events, wound up taking the role after John Travolta dropped out in the fourth time the actor picked the ball back up.  Quite good in the part, displaying vulnerability as his hip elite shields start to wear off over the course of the movie, Gere goes out on a limb for Schrader’s picture in probably his most daring role up to that point.  Lauren Hutton and Héctor Elizondo are very strong in their respective supporting roles while Bill Duke turns up in a role you’re not likely to ever see him again in.

Going on to become a huge commercial hit for Paramount Pictures, raking in $52.7 million while the soundtrack was just as strong in sales, Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo met with mixed critical reception with some praising the writer-director’s thoughtful and introspective approach to the genre thriller while others were dismayed the film doesn’t really fully deliver the goods in terms of sex and nudity.  Though the latter comments might not be wholly untrue, particularly compared to the deep-dives into smut with Schrader’s Hardcore and especially Auto Focus years later, American Gigolo nevertheless creates a vibe that segues into a character-driven thriller about a man seeing his whole world coming apart at the seams through no fault of his own.  

Between the soundtrack, the sets and costumes, American Gigolo is indeed something of a cultural benchmark.  As a Schrader film its pretty good (not great) and Arrow Video’s lovingly packaged and restored 4K UHD release makes this a must have for anyone interested in original independent neon-soaked Los Angeles based American crime cinema!

--Andrew Kotwicki