September 18, 2022
Saint Jack (1979)
Grade: 65/100

Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Stars: Ben Gazzara, Denholm Elliott, Peter Bogdanovich

What it's about. Set in Singapore circa 1971 to 1973. Jack (Ben Gazzara) is a middle-aged American who owns and runs a house of prostitution that caters to Anglo tourists and immigrants. Local gangsters threaten Jack, and eventually force him out of business.

Luckily for Jack, Eddie (director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich) sets up Jack in another location, with a clientele primarily of American draftees in the region to serve in Vietnam. When America exits the war, Jack is again out of business.

But the well-funded and mysteriously nefarious Eddie has an offer for Jack, one that will allow Jack to return to the United States with modest wealth. All Jack needs to do is photograph a U.S. Senator (George Lazenby) in a compromising position with a young male prostitute.

Man-of-the-world Jack does not seem particularly happy, despite having his pick of the prostitutes for a bed mate. He makes an unlikely friend of William (Denholm Elliott), a modest accountant more interested in hanging out with Jack than in having relations with his prostitutes.

Singapore is presented as corrupt and controlled by gangsters. That resulted in a lengthy ban of the movie in Singapore. The production company had to misrepresent the film to the Singapore government in order to receive permission for filming. This misrepresentation included an alternate script.

How others will see it. Saint Jack is seen as the first good film directed by Bogdanovich since Paper Moon. Bogdanovich followed that great success with three features starring his spectacular blonde love interest, Cybill Shepherd, that were critical and commercial flops (Daisy Miller, At Long Last Love, Nickelodeon).

Saint Jack had a Shepherd connection as well: she won the rights to the film in a lawsuit settlement with "Playboy" publisher Hugh Hefner. Roger Corman was another producer. The story goes that Orson Welles was slated to direct, but Shepherd insisted on Bogdanovich instead, causing a rift between Bogdanovich and one of his idols, Welles.

Bogdanovich apparently remained on good terms with Shepherd, though, appearing in one episode each of Shepherd's hit television series "Moonlighting" and "Cybill."

Unfortunately for Bogdanovich and Shepherd, Saint Jack was also a commercial flop, though the film did eventually make it to DVD. Nonetheless, Gazzara played the male lead in Bogdanovich's next feature, They All Laughed, which resulted in Bogdanovich's bankruptcy despite the interesting combination of Audrey Hepburn, John Ritter, and Dorothy Stratten (of Star 80 notoriety) in major roles.

Saint Jack did garner a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Denholm Elliott, a few years before his star-making turns in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Trading Places. Saint Jack also won the Pasinetti Award at the Venice Film Festival.

Today, Saint Jack has a respectable 2,489 user votes at The user ratings are also respectable, at 7.0 out of 10. Younger men like it more than do older men (7.3 versus 6.9), and women like it less than do men (6.6 versus 7.0).

Women are presumably put off by a scene in which a prostitute is beaten by a G.I., who apparently goes unpunished. Human interest is provided by Denholm Elliott, whose character is plagued by heart disease, and by Gazzara, who is less reprehensible than he should be given his vocation.

The user reviews are predominantly positive, and mostly are written by cinemaphiles with knowledge of, and interest in, Bogdanovich's film output. There are a few middling reviews by some watchers unimpressed by the movie's low budget and Gazzara's understated performance.

How I felt about it. One wonders why Bogdanovich assigned himself the important supporting role of pseudo-C.I.A. operative Eddie Schulman. Probably, it was not out of ego, but a need to reduce the budget. A similar motive may have been behind the casting of George Lazenby, who had been on a Hollywood blacklist since he turned his back on the James Bond franchise.

Gazzara's character has been compared with that of Bogie in Casablanca. The comparison flatters Gazzara, given the collective regard of the charismatic and iconic Humphrey Bogart. In Saint Jack, though, Gazzara is merely ambivalent, an ingratiating hustler who lacks the ruthlessness to conquer Singapore.

Why doesn't Jack turn over the camera to Eddie, and collect his big payday? Because it is a movie. What does the Senator mean to Gazzara, particularly when the Senator is asking for it by picking up teenaged boy prostitutes. If Gazzara actually had scruples, he would not be running a cathouse in the first place.