Tuesday, June 7, 2016


(US - 1976/1978)

Written and directed by John Cassavetes. Cast: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John Red Kullers, Al Ruban, Azizi Johari, Virginia Carrington, Meade Roberts, Alice Friedland, Donna Marie Gordon, Val Avery, Soto Joe Hugh. (R, 134 mins/109 mins)

There's a cohesive story in this impenetrable John Cassavetes character study that becomes more apparent in his 1978 re-edit, which moves faster, has some scenes in a different order, uses alternate or unique-to-that-version takes, runs 25 minutes shorter, and is certainly the more commercially viable and entertaining cut of the film. But it's his original 1976 version, running a frequently grueling 134 minutes, that's quintessential Cassavetes. It's also got one of the great Ben Gazzara performances: as Cosmo Vitelli, the owner of the Crazy Horse West, the most oppressive burlesque show/strip club you'll ever see, Gazzara is all hubris and swagger, a perpetual small-timer hoping to run with the big dogs. Shooting his mouth off and trying to look like a player at a mob-run poker game gets him $23,000 in the hole to some L.A. gangsters--intimidating Flo (Timothy Carey), and manipulative, glad-handing Mort (Seymour Cassel) among them--who laugh at Cosmo and his club when his back is turned and force him to pay off his debt by whacking a bookie (Soto Joe Hugh) who turns out to be the head of the Chinese underworld in L.A.

In Cassavetes' 1976 cut, the plot is secondary to the feel, and boy, does this feel like no other film. Its improv nature is loose but admittedly off-putting for a first-time viewer, almost like Cassavetes couldn't part with anything he shot. This is especially true in the burlesque show production numbers introduced by depressing emcee Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts)--looooong sequences that Cassavetes lets play out in real time. Most of the Mr. Sophistication stuff got cut for the 1978 re-edit, but it's these scenes inside Cosmo's club and his interactions with the staff ("I'm a club owner...I deal in girls") that give CHINESE BOOKIE its distinctive flavor. The red and blue filters lend a grubby seediness that almost makes this feel like a west coast, Sunset Strip MEAN STREETS or TAXI DRIVER. Of course, Cosmo is a stand-in for Cassavetes himself: he doesn't care about the profits of the Crazy Horse West, only the presentation of the show itself, even when he checks in on his way to kill the Chinese bookie.  Cosmo is an artist and an impresario, fashioning his show for seemingly no one but himself (there's always a big crowd, but part of me tends to think it's in his mind), and selling himself to money men when he needs to get out of debt, though Flo and Mort, plus "The Boss" (Morgan Woodward) don't give him much of a choice.

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, in its original 134-minute format, is one of the all-time "movies you have to be in the mood for."  It's almost deliberately alienating (it took me about four sittings to get through the whole thing the first time I tried to watch it) and incredibly self-indulgent even by Cassavetes standards, at times seeming like he's daring the audience to give up and walk out. But if you approach it for its mood and its vibe and its time and place as opposed to its point A-to-point B story, you may find it hypnotic in its sense of cynical, dead-end hopelessness, a portrait of an overconfident schmuck with big dreams and an even bigger mouth, forever condemned to be small-time.

No comments:

Post a Comment