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Every once in awhile, a DVD or Blu-Ray comes my way that if I had to make a poorly informed choice of whether I should watch the movie based on the cover art, I'd wholeheartedly pass. Peter Bogdanovich's forgotten 1979 gem, "Saint Jack" based on the novel of the same penned by Paul Theroux, is one such film. Full of pull quotes and featuring star Ben Gazzara front and center with two memorable bit actresses, it's a mess in terms of aesthetic design. Visual superficiality aside, "Saint Jack" is also a film produced by Roger Corman, a bonafide New World Pictures film, lending the casual cinema buff to expect at the least a low-budget affair. Then again though, this is a Peter Bogdanovich film and if you know your 70s cinema, you know Bogdanovich was a king of the indie character drama.
Set and filmed in Singapore (under a phony script submitted to the government, resulting in the film being the first and last American production allowed), "Saint Jack" follows Jack Flowers (Gazzara) through an ethical and professional crossroads at the heyday of the Vietnam war. Ignoring caution and constant threat of reprisal by local Triads, Jack is a foreign proprietor of a brothel; in simplest terms, Jack is a pimp, both serving the physical needs and emotional needs of the many British expats visiting his corner of the world. When we meet Jack, he's meeting accountant William Leigh (Denholm Elliott, in a perpetually exhausted performance) and we the viewer get to know Jack's side of Singapore through a harrowing day and night that at times is filmed in seemingly unbroken, chronological sequences by Bogdanovich. As we learn of Jack's troubles with the triads and conversely how Jack handles his approach to business, we quickly get a rough sketch of a morally complex character who just happens to be steeped in a morally bankrupt profession by unknown circumstance.
Cleverly filmed to only hint at the natural beauty of Singapore, but more wisely keep things grounded in the concrete jungle that Jack moves throughout, Bogdanovich offers an exhausting first half of a film, culminating in Jack and the shadowy Triad figures finally meeting face-to-face. Around the same time, Bogdanovich himself shows up as a slick fellow in large dark sunglasses, the perennial CIA stooge and quickly offers Jack a business offer that in hindsight may just make the short-fused Triad enforcers seem desirable by a longshot. Throughout it all, Gazzara turns in an eternally calm, collected performance that would give Steve McQueen a run for his money, all while bristling with a sense of inner electricity that we never quite know what Jack is truly capable of. Gazzara's performance is an anchor point through the film's changing locales, sometimes muddled backstories, and rapid-fire pace. It's a truly iconic performance and one along that elevates "Saint Jack" to hidden classic status.
Running a very brisk two hours, "Saint Jack" is a film that lets action speak far more expertly on notions of morality and ethics, than any smug monologue from a scribe's pen could ever do. Howard Sackler and original writer Theroux provide Bogdanovich with a masterful screenplay that results in a film demanding a second viewing, just to see how subtly the pieces fall into place and how Gazzara's performance is as consistent as his character's guarded sense of ethics. "Saint Jack" is an intense film and is mired in the underworld, yet never feels too sleazy, only doing so when the story calls for it. It is simply a lost 70s classic and among the finest works in both Gazzara and Bogdanovich's careers.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is touted as having come from a 2014 HD master of the original negatives. There's a healthy level of natural film grain/noise, reminding viewers of the time period the film was shot. Detail is a little on the soft side, although there are some striking close-ups where the overall image clarity is above average; colors are a tad oversaturated, which matches the tone of the film well. Overall, it's an eye-catching, albeit imperfect visual presentation.
The English Dolby Digital stereo audio track is center heavy with striking dialogue that at times sounds a bit hollow (this is noticeable right off the bat in the opening scenes when some ADR work by Gazzara has a more rich, deeper tone to it); when the filming hits a more wider locale, finer details are lost. Overall, there's no instances of dialogue being lost due to inferior audio reproduction, but much like the transfer, the offering here is good, not great.
"Saint Jack" comes sporting three key bonus features that really elevate the value this release has to offer. A feature-length commentary from Bogdanovich is a solid listen as anyone familiar with Bogdanovich's commentaries on his own films as well as others (in a historian role) can already tell you. A little redundant but worth checking out is an interview with Bogdanovich, while a new interview with producer Roger Corman is an unexpected treat.
While no one is going to look at "Saint Jack" and think it looks or sounds like a big budget 70s epic, Peter Bogdanovich's lost character study of the most moral man from an immoral business is waiting to be rediscovered 36 years later on DVD. Highly Recommended.