I can’t say Paul Schrader is one of my favorite screenwriters. His previous movies Taxi Driver and Raging Bull may be considered two of the best of their era, but I, for one, think they’re a bit overrated. Taxi Driver builds decently, thanks to Scorsese, but has some character issues. While Raging Bull drags like crazy, especially in its third act, also thanks to Scorsese. Sure, you can credit Schrader for trying new things with his script that will come to influence countless films in the future, but those two films have always felt a little raw to me. American Gigolo, while still flawed, tops those two “classics” in many ways.
For those first two, Schrader only gets credit as a writer, but here he’s able to direct and experiment with editing techniques as well. Stylistically they don’t always work, but the end result still looks good.
American Gigolo follows Richard Gere as Julian Kaye, a male escort in Beverly Hills. Most of his clients are older women. One night while having a drink at a bar, he meets a woman his age, Michelle (Lauren Hutton), who requests his services. Her husband is a California state senator. Though Julian rejects her several times, Michelle tracks him down at his apartment where she tries again. Eventually, the two of them develop a relationship deeper than what Julian’s work calls for.
Meanwhile, Julian is approached by Detective Joe Sunday (Hector Elizondo) who questions him about the murder of one of his clients a few nights earlier, identifying him as a prime suspect. However, Julian was with one of his other clients, Lisa (K Callan), the night of the murder, but Lisa denies this in order to protect her marriage and reputation.
But Julian also doesn’t divulge enough information to protect himself, either. As though he wants Sunday to think he’s guilty. Or better yet, Schrader wants us to–which would be more convenient for creating suspense and mystery. A mystery where we see the perspective of the accused and still have no idea what’s happened. We’re told too much instead of having it shown to us. And the stuff we’re shown is often incoherent. We should become more privy to his day-to-day in the first act, instead of all the cryptically unrealistic dialogue early on.
The plot of American Gigolo thickens well and the film challenges us in some ways, but Schrader’s script is perhaps a little too tight at times, trying to be succinct. But the audience sees that there are easier ways to reason with people. In a movie where we’re trying to really study our main character, we don’t get nearly enough out of each scene–constantly feeling like we’re not with him through his conflict. We get a frustrating lack of vantage point of our protagonist, preventing us from being able to fully empathize with him–which is hard to do in the first place considering the circumstances.
Julian’s relationship with Michelle is the underlying plot of the film. She’s married, but Schrader tries convincing us that it’s okay she leaves her husband for Julian because it makes her happier. Similarly to movies like Casablanca, we get misdirected sentiments and are subliminally told how to feel even though it’s morally wrong.
Also, the senator’s wife and LA’s most famous gigolo are consorting all over town and think no one will notice?
Throughout the endless subplots, we realize that American Gigolo is really about status and what legitimizes one man’s status over another’s. Julian surrounds himself with wealthy people, hanging out at country clubs and living the high life. These other aristocrats see themselves and their wives as having earned their right to be there, but frown upon Julian’s presence. What makes Julian’s scumminess worse than the women’s who utilize his services?
Besides the heavier themes, American Gigolo is an aesthetically pleasing film, kicking off the ’80s decade with promise. The lighting and the way it’s craftily shot precedes the tech-noir feel, which we see later on in movies like 1982’s Blade Runner or 1984’s The Terminator. Helping out is Giorgio Moroder’s score, which mixes ’80s synths with traditional classical stylings, both building the tech-noir ethos and becoming the driving force of Julian’s plight. A well-made film, indeed, which no doubt serves as an example of the conjunctional period between the end of the New Hollywood era and the more contemporary sensibilities of the 1980s.