Starring: Ben Gazzara, Denholm Elliot
Director: Peter Bogdanovich
Rated: M 15+
Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment
In the dying days of the Vietnam War, Singapore was a city in change. There were still traces of British colonialism – you could pretend you were Sommerset Maugham and get a Singapore Sling in the Palm Court of the Raffles Hotel – but you could also get a high class hooker for the same price as the fine for throwing a cigarette butt out the car window. Paul Theroux captured the mood of the Lion City during this period in his 1972 novel ‘Saint Jack’ and, following a suggestion by Orson Welles, director Peter Bogdanovich decided to make a movie out of it.
Ben Gazzara signed on to play the central character Johnny Flowers, a hard nosed yet soft centred Italian American pimp with shades of Bogart whose understanding of the local culture makes him the perfect intermediary. Denholm Elliot agreed to be his foil, William Leigh, a British accountant who, over the course of three financial years observes the rise and demise of Johnny’s career. George Lazenby was cast as a U.S. senator with homosexual leanings targeted for blackmail and Bogdanovich himself decided to take on the role of Eddie Schuman, a shady wheeler dealer who enlists Johnny to start up a ‘cathouse’ for the troops to fatten them up for the slaughter.
But there was one, rather large hitch; the Singaporean authorities were not too keen on having this seedy chapter of their recent past exposed to the world in a feature film. So, in true guerrilla style, the director submitted an alternative plot summary about a guy who sets up not a whorehouse but a nightclub and got the green light to shoot. Saint Jack is a snapshot of a city and an era now long gone and for that it warrants a look. Bogdanovich reckons it’s one of the best films he’s ever made and while he’s never been allowed back into Singapore he remembers the experience as “life-altering”. Watching it now may not be as powerful as all that but it does reveal the hypocrisy of U.S. politics at the time and the ramifications of that on another culture.