Peter Bogdanovich's "Saint Jack" is a lost gem from the '70s Golden Era of the director. Relatively obscure due to poor distribution (its million dollar budget was the most producer Roger Corman ever spent on a film, goodbye marketing), this is a forgotten classic. Bogdanovich worships at the altar of '40s cinema and although this film has plenty of classic Hollywood style (i.e. Hitchcock-like POV sequences) the overall tone feels closer to a Cassavetes indie film, which would make sense since you have freakin' Ben Gazzara in the lead role. The naturalistic feel and gritty style sucks you in and transports you right onto the hot streets of Singapore.
The film airdrops us into the life of Jack Flowers, an American ex-pat in Vietnam War era Singapore who's in the cat-house business. Gazzara inhabits the role of big pimp daddy, sleazy yet gregarious, always making moves, friend to all creatures of the night. He's got some hard-boiled noir detective in him as well, an old school man's man (the dialogue is often a His Girl Friday style patter that's somehow entirely charming in this setting). He OWNS this part, so natural in it, brimming with life, big and bold, full of dirty jokes and barroom anecdotes. Jack Flowers is the man to see if you're looking for a good time.
"Saint Jack" is invaluable as a historical document of a sleazy grimy Singapore that isn't there anymore. Greasy, dirty and beautiful, you can smell the seamy hot night air. We get a wonderful feel for the city as Jack hustles around town to maintain his stable of gals, including a photo album full of "billy-boys" (beautiful Asian trannies; we get to see a couple of 'em get down to the theme from Goldfinger, which will never sound the same). There are plenty of female hookers as well like the lovable and sexy Judy, a straight talking no-nonsense breath of fresh air; she knows exactly what to say to cut a tall drunken obnoxious snob down to size. The chemistry between Jack and his girls is wonderful; always a kind word for the ladies, he knows exactly what to say to a woman to put a bounce in her step. Jack's pimp hand is strong but it's not malicious or violent; he rules with love. This may be a movie fantasy pimp but I'm on board with him being the Oskar Schindler of pimps, which would be one reason for the film's title.
The film's three acts are framed by three annual visits from William Leigh, a British auditor from Hong Kong, played touchingly by Denholm Elliot. He's kind of a nerd, a bit of an outsider, insecure and frail, but there's something genuinely nice about him, something that makes him an easy target for the loud drunken British louts at the bar. He doesn't connect with his fellow countrymen but rather forms an unlikely yet strong friendship with Jack. I suppose the pimp & the accountant bond over their common disaffection for conventional society. Jack is all for debunking sexual taboos, making him even more of an outsider in a land full of prejudiced Chinese. William seems numbed by a life of crunching figures, finding the insatiable desires of capitalism distasteful. He resists temptation but not in a self-righteous manner (just obliviously dorky, but sweet).
A simple dissolve airdrops us into the second act and Jack's new venture, a gorgeous bordello mansion. The place is hopping and Jack's dreams seem close to fruition, but his new success has drawn the ire of local Triad thugs. Jack's been dodging a Triad beating for a while but his new sex palace has seriously messed with their money. Gangsters don't play nice and Jack struggles to keep his typical cool under such extreme duress. (His threat to dropkick a pervy little Triad dude is priceless.) Things don't turn out so well for Jack but he rolls with the punches, his skills always in demand, and gets involved providing a little R&R for the boys. We learn that the army's had a long history in the cat-house business dating back to the Civil War when a General Hooker made the suggestion, as told by the CIA heavy played by Bogdanovich himself. He's described this as his Vietnam film and though the story's pretty removed from the war, we get an impression of the zeitgeist that results from Western powers sticking their noses in where it doesn't belong. We witness signs of the spread of consumer culture like wildfire as it seduces and devours everything in its path.
The final act concerns Jack's role in a gov't plot to sandbag a senator who's a little too big for his britches (and happens to have a weakness for young Chinese boys). Jack faces a moral dilemma when he's offered the job to take down the senator. Can he live with destroying a man over his liberal opinions, exposing his kinky sexual desires? If authority asks you to hurt someone, should that authority then be questioned? Can a pimp possibly have a higher moral standard than a gov't official? If morality were his only concern, there's not much of a dilemma but Jack needs a job and there's a lot of cash on the table, enough to send him home to America which he misses dearly. (An especially reflective moment has Jack stare longingly at a world map that displays the time in his hometown of Buffalo, NY.) His inner conflict is expressed during a beautiful near-silent cinematic sequence (like a Melville heist) as he stalks the senator, creeping through the darkness. It feels so wrong, too sleazy even for a pimp. The choice he makes may have consequences, or maybe he'll just keep on hustling. Perhaps someone who can't be bought is a saint, or maybe the price just wasn't high enough. Morality don't come cheap.
Masterfully executed, a cinephile's delight, this film is precious buried treasure.