There may be more famous examples of car casting – yet no other automobile has ever played as significant a role, in the real world as in the movie realm, as a black Mercedes 450SL.
The name of the man we actually need to thank/blame for the 1980s as we know them isn’t Ronald Reagan, but Ferdinando Scarfiotti. Even without grotesquely overstating the cultural importance of cinema, few would argue about the value placed on style and glamour during the decade that gave us the power breakfast, braces and big hair/shoulder pads/mobile phones.
Quite a bit of said style evolved on the basis of one film in particular: Paul Schrader’s American Gigolo, a showcase of good looks that was all about flaunting, and then shattering it all. It depicts a gorgeous Richard Gere as, well, American Gigolo Julian Kaye, who gives wealthy women what they want, allowing him to pay for what he wants. Which is Armani clothes, a nice apartment and a Mercedes 450 SL. But then he meets and falls for married Lauren Hutton, gets framed for murder and has to take both his nice flat and his SL apart before he can get anywhere near redemption.
American Gigolo is one of those films that both celebrates and despises its subject. The latter was the domain of writer/director Paul Schrader, but the former is where aforementioned Ferdinando Scarfiotti comes into play.
Scarfiotti, Italian not just in name, was a production designer in all but name (he had to be credited as visual consultant due to an American union ruling), and charged with giving the world of Julian Kaye the allure it needed to appeal to the superficial brats in all of us. Scarfiotti did not only do that, but also set a template for what the first half of the upcoming decade (the film was shot in 1979) would consider to be très chic.
No element of Julian Kaye’s lifestyle was incidental – not his choice of casual suits, not his apartment’s monochrome furniture, and certainly not his black Mercedes-Benz 450 SL. Unlike The Most Famous Car In Movie History – James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5, the SL was a most deliberate choice, and arguably the only car fit to suit Julian Kaye’s hedonistic, prematurely metrosexual lifestyle. It had the prestige, luxury, retractable roof and power a demanding Californian would want, but was still just about discreet and reliable enough to not turn into a conspicuous nuisance.
Its whitewall tyres and US spec lights and bumpers add just the right amount of flamboyance to distance this particular, truly iconic SL from its peers patrolling along the shores of Lake Starnberg, while the removed headrests and matte black painted wing mirrors act as surprisingly blatant reminders of the compromises the technical aspects of filmmaking can entail on occasion.
American Gigolo‘s SL isn’t mere decoration, but a powerful symbol, as proven by the very moment when its proud owner, who’d sold his body in order to be able to afford it, goes at it with a crowbar, ripping its interior, trashing its boot – in a word: ruining it, in the hope of finding a weapon that had been planted on him. To Schrader, the superficial Narcissus has to purge himself of his belongings before any state of true catharsis may be reached.
Yet this kind of symbolism was probably lost on a great proportion of audiences back in the day, what with the women swooning over smooth Richard Gere and the men mentally throwing their flared jeans away, in order to clear some space in their closet for that Armani gear. Everybody just wanted the Julian Kaye lifestyle, rather than post-materialist redemption.
Similarly ironic, by the way, is the fate of Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s other significant contribution t0 both movie history and real world lifestyle. Two years after American Gigolo, his splendid work on Brian DePalma’s Scarface would prove to be just as influential as Julian Kaye’s style, only that in Tony Montana’s case, Scarfiotti and DePalma had set out to create the ultimate excess in bad taste, an absurd orgy in crassness. A parody.
Yet, naturally, thousands of wannabe-Tonys (and who wouldn’t wannabe Tony? After all, he had the hots for his sister!) have since aspired to this aesthetic. DePalma’s and Scarfiotti’s joke is on them.
Meanwhile, the most important car in movie history has vanished without a trace. It hasn’t been either auctioned or exhibited. It’s whereabouts are utterly unknown.
An icon deserves better.