The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (USA, 1976/1978)

7b780be82755701ccc69c82a3e656375Directed by: John Cassavettes. I finally broke my spell of not being able to finish a Cassavettes movie I started. I think you have to be in the mood for such things, because, despite considering myself a Cassavettes fan in general, when I tried to watch Faces and Husbands, I couldn’t get more than about 45 minutes through before realizing that my attention was wandering away from the screen and that Cassavettes films don’t really make for good “background viewing” (an understatement, I know). But then again, maybe it’s actually just some objective differences between those films and this one that accounts for the relative ease with which I was drawn into this film compared to the others. After appreciating Shadows in a University class (but not loving it), and being completely astounded by A Woman Under the Influence, I found Faces and Husbands to be little more than aimless, unstructured, nearly masturbatory exercises in Cassavettes’ own brand of aimless, unstructured, nearly masturbatory film language. With his films, you need to find the gist of it, the core, the center, the actual thing that he’s getting at, and he usually doesn’t shout it from the rootftops, either. He usually slips the viewer little cues here and there, gradually building up a slow sense of pathos for the characters here and there, so that by the middle, you’re really invested in these fragmented, fly-on-the-wall depictions of flawed non-heroes and ordinary people. Without really sitting and watching, you’re going to miss it, as I did. This film, set vaguely within the parameters of a noir gangster picture, perhaps had enough conventional cinematic candy to keep my attention until I re-learned how to watch a Cassavettes movie. I watched the original, uncut, poorly-received 1976 version first, and I was blown away. Basically, this film is a masterpiece, a slow-moving behemoth of a narrative, where each seemingly frivolous moment of non-importance to the narrative is actually of the most crucial importance to the emotional content of the film (and, as anyone who has enjoyed a Cassavettes film can tell you, the emotional content is way more important than the plot anyway). The tremendous sadness of this film is really impressive. This funhouse mirror depiction of the universal, vital, everyman, “Cosmo Vitelli”, portrayed masterfully by Ben Gazzara, is one of the great cinematic performances I’ve ever seen. Cosmo is inscrutable, he is irresistible, he is lamentable, he is laughable, he is a hapless lowlife, he is a naive dreamer, he is a sad clown. Critics over the years have decided to read this film as an allegory Cassavettes is making of himself, drawing a neat parallel between Cosmo’s relationship to his doomed nightclub and his flawed but good-hearted employees and Cassavettes’ relationship to his own films and his own art—and I think I can get behind that allegory. Of course, if Cosmo is Cassavettes, then the ruthless, unfeeling gangsters are the outside world, including the film executives, the Hollywood establishment, and the audience itself. I find all of that shit really satisfying.

After the initial cut bombed at the opening (apparently BOMBED), Cassavettes retracted the film and re-cut it from 135 minutes to 87 minutes, and changed an awful lot of the emotional flow. Trimmed of the “excess fat”, the second release feels more like a failed attempt at a Scorsese movie: a swiftly-moving gangster picture that just doesn’t have enough characterization to really grab you. All of the non-gangster parts that fill the rest of the screen time—the select bits of slow sadness from the strip club—just feel out of place and ineffective without the full “Cassavettes treatment” to give them context. Apparently this is the “true vision” that Cassavettes set out to make, but I’d take the first film any day. It’s pretty rare that you can see an A/B comparison with a film, so when you can see it (such as Vittorio de Sica’s Terminal Station/Indiscretion of an American Wife), it’s an interesting exercise. As a plain old movie, though, I can heartily recommend checking out the original, long, 1976 cut, now a “cult classic” (what of Cassavettes isn’t?), and lightly caution that the 1978 follow-up is more of an academic curiosity. But of course, you may differ in opinion, and you should ultimately see them yourself.

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2 responses to “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (USA, 1976/1978)

  1. Really terrific review! One of the things I really love about this picture is how Cosmo really thinks he’s in show business, how he takes so much pride in the numbers that are performed at his club. When he’s out on that mission to kill the bookie, he has to call in and see how the show’s going that night. It’s so heartbreaking, because of course all anyone want to see at his club is tits. But it’s like he doesn’t know that, or if he does, he doesn’t care. He’s creating theatre, or he wants to. Anyway, I love this movie.

  2. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2013 | Offhand Reviews·

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