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I've shown this movie to baffled girlfriends and eye-rolling friends who've left the room after twenty minutes. The picture was essentially unreleased upon its completion in 1976, and is now available on video only because of the retrospectives of Cassavetes' work that followed his death. The movie is considered bewildering even by many Cassavetes champions, but for me it ranks among the greatest American movies. As Cosmo Vitelli, the strip-joint owner who's a clown who thinks he's a king, the sublimely reptilian Ben Gazzara leans into an offstage mike and tells the audience, "And if you have any complaints--any complaints at all--we'll throw you right out on your ass." Like Jake LaMotta, or Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, Cosmo is a walking aria of male self-destruction. He finally pays off the shylocks he's in hock to for his place--the Crazy Horse West--and celebrates with a gambling spree that puts him right back where he started. To pay his debts, Cosmo agrees to murder a Chinese kingpin the L.A. mob has marked for death--but that only gives the barest indication of the strange, ecstatic poetry of Cassavetes' greatest and farthest-out-on-a-limb movie. The movie is a strangely crumpled form of film noir; a classic Cassavetes character portrait, with more than the usual romanticism and self-disgust; a super-subliminal essay on Vietnam and Watergate; and an example of a one-of-a-kind lyricism that's closer to 2001 than a gangster picture. With its odd rhythms, Warholish color and substance-altered performances, it's one of the rare movies for which there exists no point of comparison.
'The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie' is one of the most interesting and
original movies I've ever seen. I would include it with movies such as 'Blow
Up', 'Performance' and 'Eraserhead', which may not have much to do with each
other on the surface, but are what I would call puzzlers. On first viewing
you go "well, it was different... I'm not sure if I LIKED it, but it sure
was original..." Then later you find yourself haunted by it. You go back and
watch it again and again, and each time you discover some nuance or emotion
or idea, or a certain scene or line that resonates. These movies are ones
that STAY with you.
The plot of 'Bookie' is pretty straightforward. A strip club owner gets into debt with the Mob and is pressured into murdering a bookie. Other directors such as Scorsese or Frankenheimer or Friedkin or Mann could have made an tight, exciting thriller out of such a plot. But John Cassavetes goes for a completely different approach, and doesn't play by "the rules". He ignores the obvious way of proceeding, slows things down, focuses on characters and relationships and moments, and ends up with a cinematic poem.
That may sound pretentious to some, so be it, but that's what it is. The beauty of the photography combined with the improvised dialogue by some of the best character actors of American post-War movies (Gazzara, Cassel, Carey), makes this movie unique. There's nothing quite like this movie, and it's one that if you sit back and just let it do its thing, will remain absolutely unforgettable.
One of the 1970s greatest achievements.
Like many viewers, the first time I watched this, I thought nothing was happening. So I fell asleep midway through, only to awake for the film's uplifting ending in which Ben Gazzara gives the "girls" a pep talk -which is the greatest thing since the "win one for the gipper" speech in Knute Rockne. It made me want to see it again. Boy am I glad I did! This film is so much like real life that you not only watch it, you live it. Watching this movie is as intimate an experience as reading a novel. Thus, you are with the protagonist, Cosmo Vitelli, every step of the way. At first glance he appears to be doing nothing-but guess what folks, he's thinking. That what's missing in movies today: characters who take time to reflect before they act. People who accuse Gazzara of doing nothing here just don't get it. It's an amazing one of a kind performance in a movie that is character driven rather than plot driven. When this movie was first released, it was met with much criticism and public indifference. Audiences and critics expecting your typical mob picture were understandably disappointed. However, with Killing of a Chinese Bookie, John Cassavettes taught audiences and critics alike a valuable lesson: Rather than always criticizing films for not meeting our expectations, we need to reevaluate our expectations and expect a little bit more.
A film like John Cassavetes' "The Killing of A Chinese Bookie" is one of
those films that Roger Ebert often says "either grabs you or leaves you".
This one grabbed me. It is perhaps the least liked film of the precious few
Cassavetes wrote and directed, but it's an honest film that doesn't pull any
punches. It's kind of a predecessor to "Goodfellas" and
While Cassavetes' film lacks the polish of the two Scorsese films, I think that benefits "Killing". This is not a glossy, "high-concept" film that Hollywood prefers (although Scorsese is certainly not "high-concept"); it is a rough, confusing muddle and that is probably one of the reasons the film remains highly unseen by a great many people. However, I like rough, confusing films and one of the great pleasures is trying to figure everything out. The beauty of a John Cassavetes film is that there are no easy answers and he likes you to make your own reading on the film.
As always with a Cassavetes film, he gives juicy parts to his regulars. Ben Gazzara is excellent as Cosmo Vitelli, the nightclub owner who needs to perform the title deed to save his club. Seymour Cassel gives a strong performance as a friend of Cosmo. Cassel and Gazarra are two of those actors whose names you won't recognize, but when you see their faces, you'll recognize them. They love to take risks with their performances and you can see the payoffs for yourselves.
After a half-assed release by Buena Vista in 1989, "Killing of A Chinese Bookie" is finally available on tape and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The transfer is clean and looks great and the letterbox presentation shows that Cassavetes knew how to use his camera, even if the aspect ratio is small.
Like other (usually US) films The Murder... is disturbing and mesmerizing. The dirty quality of images (in some moments bewilderingly amateurish, ins others incredibly sophisticated), the acting, the disjointed plot, the weirdness of some scenes (like the one in the car parking), Gazzara's sublime acting, the wonderful choice of places and times... it all gives you an impression of the States like they really are, not the sanitized image you find in so many Holy-Wood flicks (not all of them, I admit, but about 85%...). Such a movie is like The Searchers or Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, unfathomable and greater than life, but in some way disturbingly like life. And the character of Cosmo Vitelli is one of those enigmatic figures that leaves you wondering whether you have been shown the story of an idiot or the story of a saint. Unforgettable.
John Cassavetes is widely regarded as being the father of American
independent film. Using his fees as an actor in films such as "The
(1964) and "Rosemary's Baby" (1968, he funded his own films away from the
interference of Hollywood. In this film, Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli,
nightclub owner who lives way beyond his means and manages to get into a
massive gambling debt with the mob. This leads to the gangsters putting
heavy pressure on Cosmo to perform a hit for them in order that he pays
the debt. The film deals with Cosmo's attempts to extricate himself from
these proceedings whilst still keeping his integrity, not to mention his
The film can be seen as having parables with Cassavetes own dealings with Hollywood studios and his attempts, not unlike those of the films protagonist to keep his integrity and his artistic vision intact. The film is a classic example of 70's American cinema when the old studio system had collapsed and filmmakers had the freedom to make whatever films they liked no matter how personal or non commercial they might seem. This is a truly great film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The real beauty of a Cassavetes film is that he is always driven to
portray his stories in the most realistic manner possible, warts and
The majority of mainstream cinema is structured to deliver an escapist experience to the movie-going public because that is likely the primary reason why most people go to the movies; to see, hear and experience escapist fantasy. I do not malign such films, nor do I sneer at the people who enjoy them. Indeed, I enjoy an espionage, horror or sci-fi fantasy as much as the next guy. I even enjoy an occasional melodrama (The Seventh Veil, anybody?).
However, when I see a film that deals with the human condition... with everyday people, I much prefer a realistic perspective into their world. After all, mayn't people's lives and situations be compelling enough, if told properly, without escapist gloss and wooden, heavily scripted dialogue? I believe so. This is where Cassavetes shines, and where his influence upon current independent film can most powerfully be recognized.
Cassavetes pacing in this film is what probably drove many critics and viewers to criticize it so harshly. It can move at a snail's pace, especially during the painfully mediocre cabaret sequences (the cabaret owner Cosmo Vitelli is sublimely portrayed by long-time Cassavetes cohort Ben Gazzara). To watch the stumbling, off-key stage performances of the emcee and strippers is like torture, especially given the screen time Cassavetes devotes to their antics. The consequence is, however, that we are transported to a very REAL, very pathetic place in reality. Anything glossier or more skillfully choreographed would shatter the truth of what we see.
People talk over one another, they mumble, they cease to speak when you expect to hear them... But as mundane as these sequences seem, the fact remains that the story would be all the less compelling, were we to see our anti-hero in flashy sequences that synthetically push the story forward, beyond a natural pace that is apropos to the situation.
In the end, you realize that Cosmo (despite his impulsive behavior and seedy lifestyle) is a very real, very likable and very kind human being. He loves, and he is loved. His small entourage of powerless friends love him, and they feel loved. In the final sequence, our hero attains an almost Buddhist-like sense of the inevitability of his fate, the sweetness of the immediate moments of satisfaction that are his last few , his realization that there is, ultimately, nothing to regret except the finite.
It's been said by many that "Chinese Bookie" is the toughest of any
Cassavetes films to digest. There are many slow passages (here I'm
referring to the 1976 original version), many moments of embarrassing
awkwardness, as you are forced to watch extended sequences filled with
players who aren't any more talented or skilled than those at your
local summer stock production or junior high school play.
Yet, it's very difficult not to be compelled by the story, especially as embodied in the character of Cosmo Vitelli, who Ben Gazzara seems to channel effortlessly, as if he were a second, transparent skin.
Cosmo is a fascinating character. He owns a rather ratty strip club/cabaret joint on the Sunset Strip that fronts production values and performers of the qualities mentioned earlier, does middling business, and spends nearly every dime he makes "living the high life" or the "the image" of what someone in his profession should espouse. He swills $100 bottles of Champagne, cruises around town in his plush chauffeured Caddy, an entourage of bimbettes in tow, usually to a dive mob-run poker joint that inevitably lands him in massive debt.
He would be an easy character to scorn or mock in another film, but not as Gazzara and Cassavetes portray him. Cosmo is proud of his little world and his accomplishments, and further more, could not give a damn if anyone doesn't approve of them. "You have no style," he sneers at gangster Al Ruban early in the film after the thug condescends to him.
As weird as it sounds, you have to respect someone like that, even when he finds himself increasingly trapped by circumstances and succumbing to self-doubt. At the end of the picture he says how important it is to "feel comfortable" with oneself and while we don't believe for a second that Cosmo really feels this way, we know he *wants* to. It's a refreshingly human response in a movie that only contains more of the same.
It's not a conventional audience pleaser by any means, but if you've watched other Cassavetes pictures and like his candid stream-of-consciousness style, give the 1978 edited version of "Bookie" a watch before you see the original. Cass not only cut half an hour of footage, he did it with (what else?) incredible style and creativity, really tightening the structure of the film as a whole, considerably juicing its already engaging premise.
Quite possibly the most overlooked gem from one of the '60s and '70s most commercially under-appreciated directors.
A movie which a friend from a film class in university hated so much
she broke up with her boyfriend because he liked it, "The Killing of a
Chinese Bookie" became my first Cassavetes film when I watched it this
morning. Widely seen as a misfire on release, extremely divisive now,
with many regarding it as a self-indulgent experiment of the very worst
variety and others as one of the greatest examples of independent
American cinema in the 1970's, my take on "The Killing of a Chinese
Bookie" is somewhere between the two extremes.
It's an admirable film in concept, a sort of gangster movie focused entirely on characters, with very natural dialogue (surprisingly most of it was scripted, I would've guessed it was improvised for the most part) and some interesting visuals, as interesting as Cassavetes could manage with his miniscule budget anyhow. Yet much of the time it doesn't just seem like wanking, it IS wanking. Moreover, for all the hoopla over how formally interesting the movie is it's barely even all that cinematic, seeming more like experimental theater at times. Ben Gazzara is terrific, the saving grace of the film and the only thing which I really cared about while watching it. With a mildly interesting but still amateurish director helming the movie this couldn't be the sort of thing it wants to be. If it is not visually sophisticated, if the visual storytelling is not strong enough, it needs narrative pull from the script. It doesn't have any. Moreover, it's a character piece in which none of the characters are even remotely interesting, unless you're the sort who pats films on the back for daring to portray a character who has a certain occupation as something other than an archetype.
Now of course I will get people telling me I'm an absolute moron and can't handle anything slow or lacking in explosions and cleavage, but many times during "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" I couldn't help but think back to "The Conversation". That's a 'slow' movie not dissimilar to this in some respects. That's also a great movie. This isn't. I think it's pretty easy to explain that as the difference between sophisticated craft and amateurish, occasionally interesting craft. The 1976 cut is a chore to sit through, and I don't think I'll ever bother with the 1978 cut.
One of the most stimulating relaxations I know is simply floating on
water. The good thing in living a short walk from the beach is that I
get to do this every other day of nearly half the year. It's great at
dusk, whereby the sea is not some abstract volume but the specific
sensation of upfloat, and the early moon is that rock over there from
me. Tangible moments of world, encompassing what the Chinese call the
No film even compares to the feeling, certainly no piffle Koyannisqatsi. But a few filmmakers come close to this totality as something felt. Cinema is nothing in a large sense, that is until a certain point where it becomes a most powerful tool for enlightenment. Cassavetes is one of those guys, and knows just how to use it.
So I revisited this after many years as part of my Cassavetes series, this time watching the extended version. The shorter one may be tighter, more focused, but I'll always opt for a longer stay in his world.
The film is the perfect summer night movie, one to watch with the distant sound of motor noise flowing through open windows. Cassavetes loves the night, the neon signs, the sound of traffic, the hubbub of the nightclub, the brushing of people in close spaces. The film is full of extremely memorable spaces, years later I could recall Cosmo standing in the entrance of his club, the backalley where he's beaten up, the empty highway, the phonebooth in the middle of nowhere, running from the Chinaman's house.
Here, Cassavetes stretches two things. The existential noir where desire, not even so much for poker money, the desire it seems to look comfortable in front of people, summons the noir darkness. Usually in a noir, from that point we get some hallucinative fooling with the narration, here completely merged with the flow of things. The murky proposal for the kill in the cramped car, nothing telegraphed. The subtle menace and helplessness around the gangsters. The foreshadowing bang of the flat tire. The inescapable framing where he was the stooge of fate all along.
And a more gentle self-reference, where Cosmo, standing for Cassavetes, gambles with money-people and loses. These mafia executives want from him a straightforward movie that ends with a killing, the simplest stuff, which he grudgingly delivers. The starkest contrast from the fancy, lively improvisation going on in his club, that both reflects and ribs at Cassavetes' own stuff. He does it his way of course, with fumbling, confusion and uncertainty. And still succeeds. Only The Long Goodbye rivals it in the crime sweepstakes of the 70s, no doubt inspired by this.
Here, because of the adoption of genre with its clear horizon, the tethers are easier than previous Cassavetes films. Oh there is the anxiety, but that is part and parcel of the greater life. More than any of his films though, it achieves that sublime floating sense that encompasses a concrete totality.
His camera excites me like no one else's. Antonioni adopts the transcendent position. Tarkovsky the one of flowing mind. Cassavetes adopts the position of tentative coming-into-being, his visual space has a thick and viscous quality, it has time, it has a tangible and floating gravity, all things coming to be and vanishing again in a cosmic vitality.
Cosmo, a man of cosmic vitality. All through the gangster stuff, Cosmo keeps worrying about the show and the club. Because the show and the atmosphere around his club are of the soul of this man, the images and living space worth living fordreamy and spontaneous, scented air, a little sloppy because it is re-discovered each night. But that is as much a role, the entrepreneur, as that of the killer, the gambler, the suave playboy, masks for the night. Not the original face.
Deep down I get the sense of a weary joy that runs deeper than happiness, a mono no aware.
Something to meditate upon.
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