Monday 11 January 2016

Just a Gigolo [1978]

JUST A GIGOLO is a German satirical drama that was directed by (and co-stars) David Hemmings and originally released in November 1978 under its original title Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo.  It stars David Bowie, Sydne Rome, Kim Novak and Maria Schell and features the final screen appearance by the legendary Marlene Dietrich.  Bowie plays Paul Przygodksi, a Prussian officer who returns to Berlin following the end of the First World War and finds the fledgling Weimar Republic in turmoil.

I think it's fair to say that JUST A GIGOLO was an unhappy experience for those involved, many of whom subsequently distanced themselves from it or slagged it off in public.  Sometimes both.  After a disastrous premiere in Germany, Hemmings cut it to buggery for the wider market but succeeded only in making it worse.  Universally panned, it quickly disappeared and went unseen, and unlamented, for a long while.  However, as is often the case with films that have this sort of reputation, it's nowhere near as bad as you expect.  Yes, there are significant problems with it but I'm happy to say that there is also much to enjoy.

Let's deal with the problems first.  David Hemmings turned himself into a director in the latter part of his career and displayed very little flair for it.  That's harsh actually because he did a professional job on numerous episodes of some of the most popular TV series of the 1980s; it's more that he was better suited to that medium as opposed to cinema.  JUST A GIGOLO is a case in point.  A blackly comic drama about the rise of fascism in inter-war Germany requires skillful handling and Hemmings doesn't have it in him.  The comedy is too broad to the extent that the satirical element is trivialised; the film has no serious base underpinning it.  Think of the menace behind Bob Fosse's CABARET [1972] or Fassbinder's LILI MARLEEN [1981]; Hemmings doesn't manage to recreate any of that. Fassbinder in particular would have had a field day with this material.

Another problem is the narrative; I know this is a kind of bildungsroman but it dots all over the place - characters come and go, time is compressed to a bewildering degree and Nazism seems to grow from a few nutters living in an underground train to forming a government in about half an hour.  Obviously this is all a result of Hemmings axing some 45 minutes from the original cut; quite how much control he had over those decisions I don't know (it's telling that the editor credit is caveated with 'release version') but the result is a mess and, I am sure, less effective than it was to begin with.

The third problem is that it is remarkably poor on a technical level.  The dubbing is inexcusable for a project of this scale: the cast is an unholy mixture of Brits, Americans, Germans and Austrians so virtually all conversations are dubbed on one side or the other.  Sometimes both.  That wouldn't necessarily be an issue but the re-recorded dialogue sounds as if it is being spoken in a wardrobe.  The photography is muddy and the whole film has this godawful oompah music in the background that, like the broad, totally undercuts any satirical intent.

I am writing this on the day that the shocking news of David Bowie's death was announced so I am not predisposed to say anything negative about him.  He wasn't the world's greatest actor but he wasn't the worst either.  Many directors have turned to rock stars to graft some of their charisma on to a film and this applies to Bowie as much as anyone else.  The general feeling seems to be that what they may lack as actors they make up for in presence and whatever else you might think about the Thin White Duke he had that in spades, perhaps more than any other rock star actor.  It wasn't just charisma though: he radiated a unique otherness, an air of being not quite normal, not 100% human even.

This attribute is used to good effect in JUST A GIGOLO.  Paul is a fish out of water in post-war Berlin: as he reacquaints himself with his family and friends they all refer to him in the past tense:  "You've been dead for months now," says his mother.  He doesn't quite fit: he's still the same person but everything else has changed.  Rootless, he wanders Berlin encountering a succession of weirdos, all of whom seek to exploit him for one reason or another.  Mainly the one reason.  Captain Kraft (David Hemmings) wants to a) get into his knickers, and b) recruit him for his burgeoning fascist party.  The Baroness (Dietrich) wants to employ him as a gigolo, to get into the knickers of rich old ladies.  Helga von Kaiserling (Kim Novak) wants to a) get into his knickers and b) use him as a sperm donor.  And so it goes on for the poor lad.

This sexual exploitation reminded me a lot of Christian Marquand's CANDY [1968] (itself a parody of Voltaire's Candide) in which an innocent, beautiful young girl is preyed upon by a string of randy blokes.  What is required from Bowie then is to be a passive, almost blank character on to whom all these people project their desires.  Some have said Bowie was miscast but I reckon is other-worldliness is employed to good effect here and I think this is the key to getting a good performance from a rock star: don't ask them to stray too far from their own persona.  There are plenty examples of this, notably Mick Jagger - excellent in PERFORMANCE [1970] and Kris Kristofferson, similarly excellent in films like CISCO PIKE [1972] and PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID [1973], and even Isaac Hayes in the terrific blaxploitation thriller TRUCK TURNER [1974].

Although shot badly, the film does exhibit fine attention to period detail and is never less than wholly convincing in this regard.  Similarly, although the musical score is poor, there are two or three excellent songs, performed with feeling by Sydne Rome and Marlene Dietrich.  They are just two members of the superb cast which also includes former Bond villain and Brit horror alumnus Curd Jurgens, and Werner Pochath, an actor familiar to those of us who have watched too much Eurotrash.

Sydne Rome plays a nightclub singer madly in love with Paul.  I can tell you she's an American actress who worked a lot in European cinema; beyond that I can tell you very little else.  Having said that, a number of her films, particularly the early ones, are well within the purview of Cinema Delirium so may well end up on this website in the future.  I'm thinking particularly of Alfio Caltabiano's western A MAN CALLED AMEN [1972] which was co-written by Dario Argento, Luigi Cozzi's giallo THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN [1975], and Sergio Martino's SEX WITH A SMILE [1976].

Marlene Dietrich, Maria Schell and Kim Novak are all well known stars who, generally speaking, didn't make delirious films (although Schell was somehow coerced into appearing in two Jess Franco movies) so I won't go over old ground here; suffice it to say that I can heartily recommend Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's mesmerising SHANGHAI EXPRESS [1932] and Schell in Luchino Visconti's heartbreaking WHITE NIGHTS [1957].

For what it's worth, I dedicate this review to the memory of David Bowie.  Given how the music industry has changed since he began his career, we shall not see his like again.

[stills to follow]

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