Friday, June 5, 2009

Cassavetes: "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie"

Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie had an odd journey to the screen (and beyond). It was originally released in 1976 at a length (135 minutes) that even star Ben Gazarra thought was bloated; it tanked, as did his follow-up the following year, Opening Night. But Cassavetes got reflective in 1978 and went back to the well, re-cutting Chinese Bookie to a leaner 108 minutes. It was reportedly the kind of full-on re-working (he re-edited entire sequences, changed the order of scenes, and even added in some material that wasn’t in the first cut) that became commonplace in the years to follow (starting with Spielberg’s Close Encounters). But, as usual, Cassavetes did it first.

As the 1978 version was reportedly his preferred one, I chose to watch it instead of the earlier cut (both are included in Criterion’s Five Films set). It is, in many ways, a tighter and more audience-friendly film than usual for Cassavetes (making its failure all the more confusing). It is, in its broad strokes, a gangster movie, but it’s got the same rough-edged, down-and-dirty aesthetic as Mean Streets (Scorsese was involved in Bookie’s development). Both films are disconnected from the halls of power that dominated The Godfather; these pictures deal with the grinders, the small-timers, the guys who are humping it out on a daily basis.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is one of his most richly atmospheric films; the scenes in the burlesque club that Gazarra manages are depressing but alive, particularly at the picture’s conclusion. The scene in which the title hit is brought up has an incredible naturalism, as does the sequence where it is carried out; there’s something intrinsically odd about a Cassavetes “action sequence,” but the staging is certainly appropriate to his approach.

Gazarra’s performance is fiery and alive; he’s always an efficient actor, but this may be his best work. Cassavetes doesn’t change his style much for the material, but our inherent interest in crime stories sustains those lulls that he likes to indulge in. It’s certainly his most even film; it holds together in a way that some of his other films don’t, for better or worse.

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