Though he’s grown accustomed to delivering the female fantasy to wealthy lady customers so offhandedly that being handsome and composed has become second nature to him, the protagonist of Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, Julian Kaye (Richard Gere), is not the unaffected beaut he tries so hard to tell himself he is. While there’s a certain sort of pleasure to be found in making bored bejeweled housewives feel young again after a day’s worth of wining and dining (to be followed by a silk-sheeted romp if luck is part of the draw), the repetitious cycle of being used and abused takes a destructive toll on the psyche of this immaculately dressed male prostitute. He longs for human connection that isn’t made fake by money, by meaningless sex.
When American Gigolo opens, Julian is perhaps unaware that his life is so hopelessly empty. Business is great, clients are giving, and his relationship with his madam (Nina Van Pallandt) is as stable as any affinity between partners in psychologically damaging crime can be. He’s turned on by the posh perks of his occupation of choice. Painful is his reality; magnificent is the illusionary world of hooking.
But the film throws hurdles at its leading man that cause him to question just how much longer he can continue living a life solely based on cheap thrills. One hurdle comes in the form of Michelle (an appealing Lauren Hutton), the comely wife of a politician who becomes acquainted with Julian and inevitably falls in love with him so feverishly that he finds himself at an existential crossroads for the first time in his life. The other hurdle, though, makes his first tastes of genuine connection seem feeble by comparison: shortly after catering to the sadomasochistic desires of a rich lady’s husband, that said rich lady is found brutally murdered. Naturally, Julian is the designated prime suspect.
But because I’m more intrigued by American Gigolo’s skirting of danger and exploring of seedy underworlds than its fragrances of authentic romance, I’m only partially drawn to its treacherously glamorous ways. I like it best when it imitates the look and feel of a Brian De Palma-helmed whodunit a la Dressed to Kill, where pulsating lust becomes synonymous with death. But I’m not so keen on the film when it’s trying to establish that maybe Julian’s love for Michelle will be enough to save him — movie romance, while well portrayed here, can hardly stand up for itself next to the powerful rumblings of Hitchcockian suspense that run alongside it.
Written and directed by Schrader as one part of his “double bookends” series, (with Taxi Driver being bookended by Light Sleeper and American Gigolo being bookended by The Walker), American Gigolo is a convincingly emotionally twisted movie greatly aided by a palpable breeze of melancholy and a masterful Gere (who became an instant star following the film’s 1980 release). It’s as somber as it is methodically stylish; the film noir-imitating cinematography, with its venetian blind-informed darkness and creeping shadows, is perfectly supplemented by the slinky cool of Giorgio Moroder’s Blondie-affected soundtrack.
So I suppose my disfavor for much of American Gigolo has less to do with quality — Schrader has created an unnervingly despairing vision of high stakes sex work — and more with the preference for the film I wish this movie was. I wish it were a simplistic thriller with Basic Instinct kinkiness drizzling the edges of every frame; I wish the romantic angles were severely toned down in favor of frowzier, pulpier thrills. But one’s sensorial wants cannot always be matched, and, for what it is, American Gigolo is a competently made, thoughtful mood piece. An uncomplicated thriller it isn’t, but a sensitive psychic study it is, and Gere and Schrader are a match made in heaven. B