Monday, September 12, 2016

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

1976's THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE is one of John Cassavettes' few films to sport something resembling a plot. That certainly does not mean it follows one religiously.   I've seen an old one sheet that advertises the picture as a routine crime drama, even quite ambitiously (and misleadingly) calling it a "miniature CHINATOWN".  Distributors often misrepresent a tough to market film to lure "the great unwashed" into theaters, to dangle the idea of another two hours of chases and shoot outs.  Although, anyone who's seen CHINATOWN knows that such a description is not apt.  And on the contrary -  Cassevettes is quoted as saying "I wouldn't film an exploding helicopter.  I've never seen one, so why would I do it?".

Even critics, champions of the iconoclastic director had a rough time with KILLING, initially released at two hours and fifteen minutes.  In 1978, Cassevettes recut it to under two hours, the version reviewed here.  I've heard that the longer run time includes many extra scenes in the cabaret owned by lead character Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara).  A seedy L.A. retro palace where the stage is occupied mostly by strippers but often at the same time by men in costumes reciting poetry or downbeat stories.  Criterion has released both edits for your comparison.  Perhaps more scenes of pathetic routines would've underlined Cassavettes' points that much more effectively?

At one hundred and eight minutes, I think we have a small diamond.  It's long enough.  An immersively atmospheric wallow into both big city underbelly and '70s culture.  If you enjoy that sort of thing, this movie will really do it for you.  Even if you didn't give a damn about the story or characters, you could find enough mesmerizing sleaze to satisfy your anthroprologic bents.  THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, in its pseudo documentary style, may well be the best time capsule of its era.

Cosmo is a charismatic guy who just can't stay out of debt to the mafia.  Call it impulsiveness or an underlying self-destructiveness,  Vitelli celebrates the last payment of one loan by living large with his employees and amassing another the same day.  He likes to gamble.  In a frightening subsequent sequence, we see a waiting room filled with a group of other schmucks in hock to the Mob, including a physician who negotiates unsuccessfully to make installment payments.

Some toughs, including a guy called Flo played by the ever menacing character actor Timothy Carey, threaten Cosmo several times before someone decides to give the guy a deal - if he'll kill a small time Chinese hood, the debt will be forgiven.  It sounds too easy, and...well, see the movie if you like.

But don't expect Cassavettes to milk any suspense, or even to film a climactic shoot out with any effort at creating excitement.  Each scene is filmed in that voyeuristic style for which the director is well known.  He occupies dingy bars and warehouses with the same weary,  though observant eyes.   Lines of dialogue don't crackle with wit, but rather feel like something overheard through paper thin apartment walls.  It's a fascinating odyssey if you're so inclined.  And Gazzara is just so watchable.

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