After suffering one of the most precipitous falls from grace of any ’70s auteur, Peter Bogdanovich returned to his roots by making a low-budget Roger Corman production of such intelligence and quality that it put him back on the map the same way his first Corman production, Targets (1968), launched his career. Informed by Bogdanovich’s love for old Hollywood but also very modern in content and frankness, Saint Jack feels like the sort of movie John Huston would have made around this period had his favorite leading man, Humphrey Bogart, survived into the ’70s. The protagonist, Jack Flowers, is like a seedier version of Bogart’s Casablanca character, Rick Blaine—an opportunistic American who gets drawn into a crisis of conscience while living abroad.
The setting is early-’70s Singapore, and Jack is a smooth-talking operator who runs errands for crooks and supervises a loose network of prostitutes catering to foreign travelers. Popular among many of the locals, Jack’s got the run of the island nation, so long as he stays under the radar; Singapore pimps occasionally threaten him for encroaching on their turf, but the fact that Jack doesn’t have an actual brothel keeps him safe.
Based on a novel by Paul Theroux and filmed in Bogdanovich’s inimitably crisp style, all purposeful long takes and rat-a-tat dialogue, the movie gradually evolves from a pure character study to something of a thriller, tracking Jack’s ascension over the course of several years. He builds relationships with Pacific islanders including a Sri Lankan prostitute (Monkia Subramaniam) and a soft-spoken British bookkeeper (Denholm Elliott), invites violent reprisal by opening a short-lived whorehouse, and gets drawn into shady intrigue by a mysterious American (played by Bogdanovich). Through it all, Jack keeps his amiable sense of humor and maintains a fervent sense of loyalty to his friends; he’s the fascinating paradox of a moral man plying an immoral trade.
Bogdanovich keeps Gazzara’s usual smugness and tendency toward boisterous over-acting in check, helping the actor give one of the most restrained and effective performances of his career. Particularly in the sly close shots that Bogdanovich creates by having Gazzara walk toward the camera or having the camera slide up to the actor, we’re able to see the play of subtle emotion across Gazzara’s face as he calculates the odds of any particular action. He’s a gambler, but never reckless, and he’s always willing to pay the price when a bluff doesn’t work.
Saint Jack is filled with interesting textures, from the sweaty vitality of the location photography to the caustic wit of the dialogue, and there’s an interesting mix of unfamiliar Eastern faces and recognizable Western actors (including Joss Ackland and George Lazenby). The film isn’t perfect, suffering minor flaws like a lack of clarity about the passage of time, but it delivers in every way that matters: entertaining dramaturgy, meticulous characterization, provocative moral dilemmas.
Saint Jack: RIGHT ON