19 July 2008

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (Dir. John Cassavetes, 1976, US) - A genuine masterpiece from one of America's true independent voices

John Cassavetes enthralling neo noir thriller, ‘The killing of a Chinese bookie’ has one of the most unusual and cryptic titles for a film, and is reminiscent of Peckinpah’s ‘Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia’, in how it uses the title to create a sense of aura and enigma before the first images of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) appear on screen, illustrating his magnetism as a nightclub owner who is a man for whom style seems to be everything. Perhaps it was the difficult title that kept audiences away from Cassavetes film when it was released in 1976 but that seems like a simplistic and convenient means of trying to account for the commercial failure of films that represent a decidedly oppositional means of approaching traditional Hollywood genres.

Though one could easily explain the brilliance of this film by placing Cassavetes’ masterful thriller alongside the bold and daring Hollywood films that emerged out of the 70s, however, this would overlook the significant truth about Cassavetes career as a filmmaker, and how he had spent much of the late 60s and early 70s pioneering his idiosyncratic cinematic style way years before auteur as a marketing brand became synonymous with directors like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. One of the regular strategies Cassavetes implemented whenever he set out to make a new film was to draw from the range of actors and technicians that he had successfully been able to nurture and train so that they would become almost like an extended family on set, making it altogether more easy to make a film with a low budget.

Cassavetes was an actor himself and not a very good one, but his self awareness meant he was able to use his status as a Hollywood supporting actor to finance his own independent personal projects. His acting origins dictated much of Cassavetes approach to cinema, and the one element that is readily identifiable across his body of work is that of performance; it is the multi faceted performance by Ben Gazzara that is at the centre of ‘The Killing of a Chinese bookie’, a film that is all about the art of performing to convince others of an existence of a self belief which is fading and subject to all kinds of ridicule. Discounting ‘Gloria’ (1981), ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ is perhaps the closest Cassavetes came to producing a genre film, and even though the film could have done with some restructuring of certain scenes, it succeeds largely in depicting a very personal and fascinating character study of a flawed individual who like noir protagonists before him becomes subject to forces beyond his control, namely the local unsavoury hoodlums and gangsters.

Cosmo Vitelli is an over eager exotic nightclub owner who thinks a lot of himself and assumes he treats the dancers who work at his club as if they were part of his forgotten family. Cassavetes seems unconcerned with the notion that Cosmo is in debt to the local gangsters, and if the film had been made by a Hollywood director, then the relationship between the gangsters and Cosmo would have taken a greater narrative imperative, but what intrigues Cassavetes are the details and edges of the life and reality that Cosmo inhabits. Authenticity is an aesthetic principle visible in virtually every frame of this film, and in light of today’s inflated budgets and sophisticated technical possibilities, the want to capture reality honestly and authentically has slipped away from the agenda of many filmmakers, but watching any film directed by Cassavetes reaffirms one’s faith in the social realism philosophy and how it can be achieved without becoming redundant and disjunctive.

In one of the tensest sequences you are ever likely to come across in a noir film, Cosmo is forced to kill a Chinese bookie in exchange for clearing his debts with the local gangsters. Cosmo has no choice when he meets the gangsters and they dictate to him the terms and conditions if he doesn’t want end up dead. Though Cosmo never really realises that he has been manipulated from the very start and that his weakness as a poor gambler has been exploited for more sinister purposes, he morphs into the figure of the doomed protagonist with an air of tragedy reserved for those who stalk the pages of Shakespeare. Cassavetes shoots the sequence with no incidental music, no real manipulation of the soundtrack, mostly natural lighting, and a magnificent inter cut between the gaunt faces of both Cosmo and the bookie; the affect is simply cinematic genius when you take into account how Cassavetes makes effective use of minimal resources to produce a sequence of raw, terrifying emotional power.

Ben Gazzara was unhappy with the final shape of the film and criticised Cassavetes for making the film too long and he felt that many of the sequences in the nightclub could have been cut down. Cassavetes re edited the film and made it much shorter, releasing the film again in 1978, in a version that seemed to reflect the comments of Gazzara. Criterion’s recent release of five key Cassavetes films including an array of useful extras have offered the chance for audiences to see both versions of the film. ‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’ has been the film that has really changed my opinion of Cassavetes, and I can clearly understand now why he is considered to be one of the first and last of the great American independent visionaries.

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