American Gigolo is a film that purposefully captivates from the brilliance of its look – clothing, interior decor, Beverly Hills shops, Palm Springs modern architecture. This is the beautiful atmosphere and its inhabitants – or the ones that serve them. We are mesmerized by the lifestyle. This was especially true for those who saw it in 1980 – when its style was trendsetting. Yet for all its gloss, it is ultimately a story of tragedy, love, and redemption. Like the paradox of the film itself – it was influenced by classic literature, and in turn influenced modern fashion and taste.
Paul Schrader directed and wrote the screenplay for American Gigolo. Richard Gere played the lead role as Julian, costarring Lauren Hutton as Michelle. Schrader was influenced by the French director Robert Bresson, and especially Bresson’s film Pickpocket (1959), in making American Gigolo. Bresson was also a big influence on the French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard reportedly viewed Pickpocket ten times. Bresson was in turn influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky and his novel of crime and redemption Crime and Punishment in the making of Pickpocket. The story elements of the novel center on a young man who believes that he alone can judge that he is above the law, and that for some people even murder is permissible if it is done for a higher purpose, which he soon commits. Ultimately, he is doggedly pursued by a detective, and is sent to a Siberian prison, followed there by a former prostitute who he has helped, and who in turn helps him to recover. Dostoevsky’s theme was the power of love and redemption. Thus did this theme find its way in the final scene of Pickpocket, when the imprisoned robber for the first time tenderly kisses Jeanne, a young woman he had previously scorned, from behind bars and says, “…to come to you, what strange journey have I had to take.”
Paul Schrader took the existential starkness that was the backdrop of Pickpocket and turned it on its head, creating in American Gigolo, a ravishing and enticing look. He wanted a European aesthetic, and so the overall look of the film was done by art director Ferdinando Scarfiotti. He could not receive art director credit since he was not a member of that guild. Scarfiotti had previously worked with Luchino Visconti on A Death in Venice. Richard Gere’s wardrobe was designed by the young and then unknown Giorgio Armani. He subsequently became famous as the men’s clothier in Hollywood and the Westside. The music was composed by electronic dance music innovator Giorgio Maroder, with the opening song Call Me by Debbie Harry and Blondie subsequently becoming a mega hit.
The movie’s setting was Beverly Hills, Malibu, and Palm Springs – providing the rich background from which the lead actor could ply his particular trade as a gigolo. American Gigolo was very much ahead of its time, yet it was stereotypical in its depiction of gays, which the main character Julian calls “fags.” Julian glides with ease through the moneyed class and its social haunts in L.A.’s West Side. As the film title suggests, he is a high-class male prostitute. The film opens as he drives down PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) in his Mercedes-Benz 450SL to the sounds of Call Me, on his way to his tailors in Beverly Hills. He visits the woman who pimps him, haggling over her percentage of his $1000 fee. When he enters his stylish apartment and goes through his exercise routines while learning Swedish and gazing at himself in the mirror, we are meant to disdain his narcissism and shallowness. The interior of Julian’s apartment displays a spare but rich beauty. Its colors are muted: grays, taupes, rust, and browns, with occasional blues. These colors are also the tones of Julian’s wardrobe.
Julian gets a call to sub as a chauffeur for a rich middle-aged woman. He takes on the job and fulfills her every requirement. When he leaves her hotel room, he switches jackets at the coat check and goes to the bar to see what other business he can pick up. He sees a beautiful woman. She is played by model Lauren Hutten. She sits alone, speaking in French to the waiter. Julian introduces himself and asks her in French if he can sit at her table and have a drink. When she summons the waiter in English, they both laugh and begin talking in English, entering a conversation that leads to the discovery of his motive as a “guide” or “escort”, and possibly her motive as well. “How many languages do you speak?” she asks. “Five or six” he replies. “Plus the international one,” she smirks. “That’s right.” he says. Although she is obviously interested in him, this awkward meeting degenerates further until he walks away.
The following day Julian continues his routines as escort and prostitute. His other pimp Leon sends him to Palm Springs to a beautifully decorated moderne-style house where Julian walks into an unsuspecting S&M assignment with a wife and her observing husband. Julian tries to put the woman at ease while her abusive husband gives orders.
Julian is always perfectly dressed for every occasion, whether in casual designer jeans and fitted shirt, or jackets, slacks, and ties. Armani designed Gere’s wardrobe, and it created a sensation in men’s clothing in the U.S. Armani used quality Italian wool for Gere’s slacks, with wool, wool and cashmere, or linen jackets. The famous scene of Richard Gere doing coke, singing along to Smokey Robinson’s “The Love I Saw in You Is Just a Mirage,” while laying out several matched wardrobe options on his bed is unparalleled in men’s fashion in film. With all of his wardrobe possibilities, he selects slacks, shirt, tie, and jacket combinations that are very muted in tone and with only slight color variations from each other. Finally, he dresses and its near midnight and he’s going out, but then he gets a ring that he has a visitor, “a friend.” It’s Michelle, who he met at the restaurant/bar. She is humble, asking, what does she have to do to have him? Why can’t she have what other women have, what other women pay for? She can pay also. He sees her yearning. She stays. They make love. Julian now enters into a different kind of relationship with a woman from high society.
The first crack in Julian’s carefully laid foundation appears with Detective Sunday, played by Hector Elizondo, the analog of Porfiry Petrovich in Crime and Punishment. This dissonance is manifested by Sunday’s poor taste in clothes, an appearance which allows Julian to assume an air of superiority, while underestimating Sunday’s intelligence. Julian is suspected of murdering the wife of the Palm Springs couple. In another encounter with the detective, Julian states his point of view, “what is legal is not always right,” he says, “and some people are above the law.” Here we see the same philosophy as expressed by Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, and by Michel in Pickpocket. And in each case, they are pursued by a detective that is not so much brilliant but is there to mirror their guilt and to doggedly pursue them until they succeed.
Meanwhile, Michelle still pursues Julian, and she reveals that she is the unhappy wife of Senator Stratton who is on the campaign trail. Julian has fallen from his pedestal, and he has now fallen for Michelle. When he goes to visit the senator to tell him that Michelle loves him, he no longer wears earth tones, but a serious black suit. The senator offers him money to leave his wife alone. Julian tells him he can keep his money. The senator tells him nobody in society will have anything more to do with him.
Julian’s world crumbles. The police are looking to arrest him for murder. He’s been framed for a murder he didn’t commit. His apartment was first searched (further echoes of Crime and Punishment and Pickpocket) and evidence was later planted in his car. He can no longer use either. Instead of the posh streets of Beverly Hills, he cruises the seedier parts of Hollywood in a cheap rented car. He tries to get an alibi from Leon but it’s Leon that admits that it was he who framed him. “Why Julian asks?” “Because you were frameable. Nobody cared about you,” Leon answers. And then when Leon goes out on the terrace – Julian pushes him off in a rage over the railing – only to try unsuccessfully to save him before he plunges to his death.
One by one all his society ladies shun him, even the one that could provide the real alibi. There is only Michelle that stands by him, even as he is arrested and is prosecuted. From the heights of narcissism and self-confidence, Julian is now filled with self-loathing and despair, urging her to leave him alone.
Michelle keeps up her visits to Julian in prison. She is paying for his defense, and burning the bridges to her own connections with high society. She tells Julian that she explained to the prosecutor that he was with her on the night of the murder. “My God Michelle, ” Julian says, echoing the last line of the last scene in Pickpocket, “It’s taken me so long to come to you.”
A version of this post first appeared ten years ago this month in my now defunct blog Silver Screen Modiste. Since then, a sequel to American Gigolo was serialized on Showtime in 2022 starring Jon Bernthal, Gretchen Mol, and Rosie O’Donnell. Crime and Punishment was produced as a film starring Peter Lorre and directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1935, in what has to be Lorre’s only normal leading role. Other film adaptations of the book have appeared subsequently.