By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: American pimp in Singapore.
Based on the 1971 novel by Paul Theroux the story centers on Jack Flowers, an American who comes to Singapore in hopes of starting-up a profitable brothel and then moving back to the states a rich man. He finds the challenges more staggering than he initially thought and is constantly looking over his shoulder for the syndicate who would like to crush his business so it won’t compete with the other more established brothel’s in the region. In order to cover what he’s doing he works with a Chinese executive as a liaison for his clients. One such person is William (Denholm Elliot) a timid British accountant with a heart condition who has traveled to the area on an assignment. Jack enjoys William’s quiet demeanor and grows fond of him only to be heart-broken when he dies suddenly, which eventually changes Jack’s perspective on things specifically when he’s asked to take part in the blackmail scheme of a U.S. Senator (George Lazenby).
By the late 70’s director Peter Bogdanovich had fallen on hard times. He began the decade doing the acclaimed and award winning The Last Picture Show and followed it up with the equally impressive Paper Moon . However, after the critically panned musical At Long Last Love his career began to tumble. He tried following this up with Daisy Miller, but it appealed to only a small audience. Nickelodeon was his attempt at returning to slapstick comedy that had won him success with What’s Up Doc, but it dived at the box office too making this once promising young talent feel fully washed-up. In an attempt for a revival he decided to go in a completely different direction by doing something with a gritty realism.
Cybill Shephard, whom Peter was in a relationship with at the time, had read the Theroux novel when it was given to her by Orson Welles in 1973. She had suggested he make it into a movie, but he had initially resisted. Then in 1978 when she sued Playboy for publishing unauthorized nude photos of her she got rights to turn the book into a movie as part of the settlement and Bogdanovich decided at that point he would do the project. Since Singapore officials were aware of the book, which had not portrayed their country in a positive light, he was forced to create a mock synopsis called ‘Jack of Hearts’, a benign love story that he used to convince the government that was the movie he was making so he could get the permission to film there, which was worth the effort as the unique ambiance of the setting is the main thing that propels the movie and could not have effectively been recreated had it been done inside a Hollywood studio lot.
Gazzara’s performance is another chief asset as he’s never at a loss for quick quips, or sarcastic replies. I loved the way he’s shown constantly moving, never sitting still in one place for too long, which nicely accentuated his situation of needing to ‘on the move’ in order to stay one-step ahead of the bad guys. Elliot is excellent as well in an atypical role. Usually he does well playing stern, jaded, and detached types, but here conveys a genuinely sensitive person who seems cut-off from the worldly ways. Lazenby, best known as the one-and-done James Bond from Her Majesty’s Secret Service, gets a small, but pivotal role as a closeted gay politician who takes a stroll in the middle of the night to hook-up with a male prostitute while Jack secretly follows him that has a great voyeuristic quality and the film’s most memorable moment.
Out of all of his movies Bogdanovich has stated that this one and They All Laughed were his two favorites. Some may not agree as the story has a fragmented style where things happen all of sudden and without forewarning. Yet for me this helped emphasize the reality of Jack’s shaky environment. While hailed by many as a great director’s least known work it deserves to be seen more and when compared to his other output clearly unique and original.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: April 27, 1979
Runtime: 1 Hour 52 Minutes
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Studio: New World Pictures
Studio: DVD, Blu-ray, Fandor, Plex, Tubi, Amazon Video