“American Gigolo” (1980) dir. Paul Schrader

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“American Gigolo” was a transitional film for writer/director Paul Schrader. Pre-“Gigolo”, Schrader was primarily known as the writer of “Taxi Driver” and director of “Hardcore,” which unabashedly showed the nastier side of the inner city sex industry. On one level, “Gigolo” was as sleazy as “Taxi Driver” and “Hardcore,” but it’s the film where Schrader started to trade (in his words) “violence for style.”  The style in question was appropriated from Ferdinando Scarfiotti, the set designer for Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 masterpiece “The Conformist,” and who served as visual consultant for “Gigolo” (as well as for Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of “Scarface”).  Arguably, this is the film that made Giorgio Armani a household name in America and was the film that made Richard Gere a star.

“Gigolo”‘s story is almost like the seamier flipside of “Pretty Woman,” which came out 10 years later.  Gere plays Julian Kay, a high-priced gigolo catering to rich women in Beverly Hills, Hollywood, and Palm Springs.  While he has risen high enough in the ranks of prostitution to not trick with men, it’s clear that this wasn’t always the case.  Julian eventually finds himself set up for a murder he didn’t commit, but his alibi is one of his tricks, who is married to a local politician.  He needs to find a way to exonerate himself, but his journey leads him down some very dark paths and finds himself increasingly in danger.

“Gigolo” is a film that manages to be extremely sleazy without being offensive.  But despite its high style, it’s not what I would call classy or clean (I mean that as a compliment, by the way.)  Schrader has acknowledged the debt of Robert Bresson’s 1959 film “Pickpocket,”  even though they are very different films from each other.  However, if you watch and like “Gigolo,” you should really check out “Pickpocket” (which is available to watch for free if you have a HuluPlus subscription). The endings of both films are very very similar.

“The Searchers” (1956) dir. John Ford

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Arguably, the most revered Western of all time and voted 7th greatest film of all time in the esteemed British film journal Sight and Sound in 2012, “The Searchers” is my personal favorite among the 10 films selected. It was highly regarded by many of the New Hollywood directors of the 1970s and its influence can be seen most significantly in Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore.”

“The Searchers” is about a woman (played as an adult by Natalie Wood), who is kidnapped as a young girl by Native Americans and her uncle’s obsessive search to find her. The uncle, played by John Wayne, is a Confederate Civil War veteran, on the outside of the law, and extremely racist. In his mission, he’s accompanied by his adopted nephew and the woman’s brother, played by Jeffrey Hunter, who is Native American by birth. Wayne’s character doesn’t consider Hunter to be part of his family and the two quarrel throughout the film. Wayne even reveals that his mission once he finds his niece is to kill her, because she’s likely been defiled by the tribe that kidnapped her. Yes, this is not exactly the most evolved film … but stay with me, please. Though, I’m going to reveal major spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens … STOP READING NOW!!

The first clip shows what happens when Wayne’s character eventually catches up with Wood. As he’s been saying, you expect Wayne’s character to kill her, but instead, he lifts her up and says “Let’s go home, Debbie.” This scene leaves me in tears every time I see it.

However, the saddest moment is yet to come. Wayne’s character carries Debbie back to her home and gives her back to his brother. Wayne’s nephew joins hands with the love of his life and enters the home. And then … Wayne turns around and walks off and the door closes behind him. The End.

A devastating masterpiece.

“Auto Focus” (2002) dir. Paul Schrader

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One of the funniest and creepiest movies of the last decade is Paul Schrader’s corrosive biopic of the late “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane.  Crane was what we would now describe as a “sex addict,” whose obsession and weird friendship with a man who shared that lifestyle with him (as the film alleges) ultimately killed Crane.   What’s interesting about “Auto Focus” is how director Schrader so accurately depicts a man with absolutely zero self-awareness.  As Schrader put it in a terrific interview with Uju Asika on Salon.com when the movie was released: “… when I’ve dealt with characters like this before, these existential loners, they tend to be introspective. They don’t get it, but they’re trying to figure out how to get it. The interesting thing to me about Crane was that he was not only clueless, he was clueless about being clueless. And I think his greatest flaw wasn’t sex, it was selfishness. Hence the title. I don’t think he understood or appreciated how his actions affected other people. It was just sort of blithe egoism. So the challenge then was to try to make a film about a superficial character that wasn’t a superficial film.”    He also described Crane and his partner-in-crime John Carpenter:  “You take these kind of Rat Pack guys who have to trade in their narrow ties for beads and bell bottoms in order to score chicks. But of course they remain the same sexist jerks they always were. It’s a fascinating period in American male sexual identity.”  In my opinion, Schrader’s best film as a director, slightly edging out 1978’s “Blue Collar” and 1979’s “Hardcore.”