Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - JOHN CASSAVETES - Director

Released 1976/1978

Is this really a film that needs pulling out and dusting off? The answer is yes. And always.

Orson in Furs
Let's start in the late 1940's when actor/director Orson Welles was approached to appear in the plodding historical epic "The Black Rose". He agreed to take the part only on the understanding that his character wear an expensive fur-lined coat for all his scenes. With the request granted the finished product was released to fanfares but almost universal indifference. Welles meanwhile had been concurrently working on a critically acclaimed version of "Othello" and on it's release he was clearly seen in the title-role wearing the same coat turned inside out!

It was a small act of opportunism from a star exploiting his power but also a symbolic act of defiance from an artist hell-bent on subverting the system. Welles fought this running battle throughout his career, seducing his backers with grand schemes, then exploiting the investment opportunities by working on multiple projects at the same time. He pursued a twin career as a jobbing actor often appearing in material far below his own exacting and ambitious standards, but justifying it by creating the sort of films he wanted to make. The sort of films he wanted to see. Along the way he would indirectly influence the self-financing pioneers of what would be termed American Independent Cinema; a movement from which John Cassavetes would emerge as a founding father.

John Cassavetes
Cassavetes followed a similar path establishing himself in acting roles on American TV and film whilst simultaneously developing his own experimental features. Like Welles there was a seemingly carefree disregard for quality control with regard to his acting engagements and for every "Rosemary's Baby" there were obscure irrelevancies like the Euro-pudding "If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium". The acting was the day job and entirely subservient to the metaphorical and literal "big picture"; the end goal forever in his sights.

I was shocked when somebody said to me recently that they liked the idea of John Cassavetes more than they liked the idea of watching his films. It sent me back to reappraise as many as I could, to see if I really thought the same. I certainly had fond memories of his acting, in particular the TV jazz-pianist detective "Johnny Stacatto" but I hadn't watched his directorial efforts for some time. I ploughed through the lengthy "Faces" checking my watch every half-hour or so and searched long and hard for a sympathetic character to identify with in "Husbands". Individual performances were memorable and the ideas and dialogue striking but the films as a whole, didn't entertain. I was not lost in the play, I sat watching performances, noting technique and innovation. I went back to his debut film "Shadows" but the improvisation was even more stark and though the feel of the New York locations is refreshingly realistic, I ultimately found it a slog. It took me back to grim days studying film critique at the University of London, where you struggled to hear the dialogue in the clips we were shown for the sound of students flicking through their Roland Barthes. Welles at least was always entertaining.

Then I had my first viewing of  the 1971 film "Minnie & Moskowitz", a comedy that I thought was a tragedy until it blissfully ended up an odd-ball romance. Finding my feet I chanced a replay of his harrowing study of mental illness, "A Woman Under the Influence", a tragedy that ends up a tragedy but one that ends in a strangely uplifting way. And through these two films it clicked.

Cassavetes was making nouvelle-vague films before some of the French directors had even picked up a camera, but he'd had to wait until the early 1970's for his style of film-making to come into vogue. The major American companies had begun to popularise this new wave of European influenced character-driven films and it seemed to coincide with efforts by Cassavetes to refine and broaden his appeal. By the time he made "The Killing of Chinese Bookie" in 1976 it seems everything Cassavetes had been working towards finally came together.

The plot uses the "Gangster" genre as a background with Ben Gazeera playing Cosmo Vittelli, a quietly desperate strip club-owner in hock to the Mob. But while the narrative is driven by an obligation he has to his paymasters, the message of the film lovingly plays out the obligation he is driven to fulfill to the people that orbit his club. The below trailer tries to say something else but ultimately conveys the same thing:

What this clip doesn't reveal is that there are two quite different versions of this film. Dismayed by the audience reaction to the original 135 minute version, Cassavetes re-cut the film in 1978, sharpening the plot devices at the expense of the indulgent but entirely worthwhile character development. But there isn't a great deal of plot and there is a great deal of character so the cut version works very well as a synthesised version of his original vision. Whole scenes are deleted and some of the longer scenes tightened with the naturalistic soundtrack enlivened by music. He would go on to cite that the original long version was hastily edited and therefore inferior but I'm not sure I buy this. The common consensus is that there isn't a definitive version as the two films give a different focus and so work as completely different entities. My advice would be to watch the shorter version first. Then when you've had time to take it all in go back and watch the long version and revel in the subtleties of the grotesques he examines in microscopic detail. There is much to enjoy.

If you have not encountered him before then this film is worth watching alone for your introduction to the work of Timothy Carey. He plays the leering, check-shirted terror and loose cannon of the Santa Monica hood. In a scene that runs "The Sopranos" close in terms of misplaced finesse, he forks spinach into his sweating face, bedecked in over-size napkin and white magicians gloves. A method actor with a tendency to swallow up his every scene, he advises Cosmo of the getaway car they have selected and staring into the abyss delivers his line with an almost insane intensity and portent:

"It's automatich-ch-ch.....runs on don't stall it...there's no key!"

Timothy Carey (middle)
Carey made his mark with memorable parts in Kubrick's "The Killing" and "Paths of Glory" and followed Cassavetes down the path of film-making with the bizarre "The World's Greatest Sinner" in 1962. Carey even appeared on The Beatles "Sgt Pepper" sleeve, though his cut-out was ultimately obscured by George Harrison's head in the final cover shot. He made his debut performance for Cassavetes with a small psychotic cameo in "Minnie & Moskowitz", playing opposite Seymour Cassel. In "Bookie", Cassel plays the genial gangster who first entwines Cosmo with the mob. His unassuming nature and the bureaucratic method by which his Firm processes the $23,000 debt, makes his performance all the more creepy. The proformas and xeroxes of organised crime acting as just another branch of the faceless administration trying to castrate Cosmo's personal freedom.

Seymour Cassel
Despite the heat, Cosmo keeps returning to his club "The Crazy Horse West" where he choreographs the appalling routines of his buxom "De-Lovlies", proudly taking credit for their every misstep. Centre stage is the master of ceremonies Mr Sophistication, a garishly made-up, self-styled "cult" with a fetish for singing tunelessly into the spot lights. The immovable Cosmo, portrayed by Ben Gazeera in probably his finest role, sits through it all with the intensity of a man watching high-art, while the camera runs endlessly, giving us the full excruciating horror of the Club's tour-de-force "Paris" routine.
Meade Roberts is Mr Sophistication

Deliberating over an artistic dispute back-stage, Cosmo rallies the troops one more time reminding them what they've got. They know what they do and the audience loves them for it. He tells them to enjoy life because they've realised their ultimate ambition. The ultimate ambition "to be comfortable". And with the vultures circling over head Cosmo knows, even if they don't, that these are the greatest years of their lives. That they deliver crud simply doesn't come into it.

It's a deep message.

I leave the last words to Mr Sophistication:


  1. Excellent review! My sentiments exactly. Especially appreciated your comments re my favorite actor, Timothy Carey. I'm writing a book about him. Please check out my blog for more Carey goodness: