Is this really a film that needs pulling out and dusting off? The answer is yes. And always.
|Orson in Furs|
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.
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 wires...so don't stall it...there's no key!"
|Timothy Carey (middle)|
|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.