Catching up with Cassavetes: #8 – “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976)

bookie34There are two versions of this film; the 1976 long version (135 minutes) and the more widely seen 1978 trimmed down re-release (108 minutes). As a first time viewer I chose to watch the longer cut, a decision made not for reasons of exclusivity – as in “nanny-nanny poo poo, I saw something you didn’t see” – but rather because I was excited at the prospect of once again getting lost in a gritty no-holds-barred street film; a film where the alcohol never stops flowing, the cigarettes stay lit, and the dialogue is more harsh than it is pretty. In other words, a film wholly and uniquely John Cassavetes. Turns out, I got what I came for. Now, if only there was an even longer cut…

The film stars Ben Gazzara as Cosmo, the owner of a strip joint/nudie performance bar. One night Cosmo loses a whole bunch of money playing poker in another joint run by gangsters. When Cosmo can’t pay the gangsters back they offer him an alternative payment plan, one that would completely clear his debt, and more importantly, avoid any serious bodily harm that would otherwise no doubt be coming his way. All he has to do is kill another person who owes these gangsters money. That other person being of course a Chinese bookie, hence the name of the film.

Like most of Cassavetes’ films, this too contains drawn out scenes in where seemingly nothing is happening. It’s as if we’re just hanging out with the characters while waiting for the director to hurry the plot along. Add to this “hanging out” element both a cast of actors who are so good at what they do they don’t seem to be acting at all, and the noticeably unnoticeable cinematography given to heighten the film’s air of naturalness, and what you’re left with is a stark – and even at times darkly humorous – gangster film, the kind of film that makes Martin Scorsese‘s hard edged Mean Streets (1973) look like a softly lit big Hollywood romance, and this coming from someone who loves him some Mean Streets.

Now, aside from their being two cuts of the film, there are also two interpretations of the film to be had, at least according to Cassavetes that is. While helping to Gazzara find his character’s motivations he told the actor that the gangsters in the film should be viewed as a metaphor for all the no-gooders out there who are always trying to destroy the dreams and creativity of others. Looking back on this story with that interpretation in mind I couldn’t help but get even more lost within this film’s reality. To me, this metaphorical view justifies all of the film’s long scenes and even adds extra umph to the existential lines of dialogue which appear sporadically throughout.

For as much as I’m praising this film I’d also like to state that it is not perfect, and does have its missteps, it’s main two being the unrealistic portrayal of someone after they’ve been shot in the stomach, and the mishmash of acting styles, most noticeably the naturalness of Gazzara and Seymour Cassel contrasted with emoting charactercher of Timothy Carey.

In the end, these nitpicks ultimately are nothing more than some minor whispers in a film that is all but screaming into some forgotten rebellious part of my inner psyche. Here is a film that unexpectedly turned out to resonate with me more personally that I would ever imagine a film about a strip club owner could ever do, and that my friend is the power of a great film.

Catching up with Cassavetes: #1 – “Shadows” (1959)
Catching up with Cassavetes: #2 – “Too Late Blues” (1961)
Catching up with Cassavetes: #3 – “A Child is Waiting” (1963)
Catching up with Cassavetes: #4 – “Faces” (1968)
Catching up with Cassavetes: #5 – “Husbands” (1970)
Catching up with Cassavetes: #6 – “Minnie and Moskowitz (1971)
Catching up with Cassavetes: #7 – “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974)

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Categories: Director Spotlight, Reviews

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  1. Catching up with Cassavetes: #10 – “Gloria” (1980) | Filmbalaya.com - December 16, 2014

    […] #7 – “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) Catching up with Cassavetes: #8 – “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) Catching up with Cassavetes: #9 – “Opening Night” […]

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