Director Peter Bogdanovich is on firm ground when he takes on the challenge of bringing established literary properties to the screen. He did an exception job with The Last Picture Show and a good one with Daisy Miller. His new movie Saint Jack has been adapted from a novel by Paul Theroux. The news is that it works.
Ben Gazzara is featured as Jack Flowers, on America-born hustler who has settled down in Singapore. For visa purposes, he works in a Chinese firm, but he spends most of his time running a prostitution ring. When William Leigh (Denholm Elliot), an accountant from Hong Kong, first meets Flowers, he is taken aback by the man's unusual lifestyle. But as the film progresses, he sees a different side to "Saint Jack." The man cares for his girls like a housefather; he has a sense of humor that can carry him through many a grim situation; and he offers the kind of friendship that is willing to be tested.
After his brand new whorehouse is completely demolished by members of the Singapore underworld, Flowers sets up an R&R camp for GIs on leave from Vietnam replete with call girls and all the American conveniences. A shadowy CIA agent type (played by Bogdanovich) bankrolls the bordello. When the war ends, he offers Flowers a project worth enough to send him back home. The task: photograph a liberal Senator cavorting with a male prostitute. Although it has already been demonstrated that Saint Jack is no Puritan, the point is made clear again: even libertines have standards in their code of ethics. Flowers refuses to sell his soul for $25,000.
Saint Jack is an interesting movie on several levels. Ben Gazzara's performance a sharp-edged study of a survivor is top-notch all the way. Denholm Elliot should win an Academy Award for his portrait of Leigh, a sickly and loveable man who has no home anywhere until Flowers makes a place for him. Cameraman Robby Muller gives us a glimpse of the seedy and the sensational side of Singapore.
Finally, the film is a subtle study of cultural tensions and misunderstandings. During the funeral ceremony for Leigh, the English roustabouts who've drunk with him several times stand at the graveside in silence. In the background firecrackers go off. One of the Englishmen curses the noise. A local hooker accompanying Flowers tells them that the noise is meant to ward off evil spirits. In the crackle of that exchange, we hear the death rattle of colonialism in Singapore and the reassertion of the indigenous culture. Saint Jack returns to the city but things will never be the same again.