The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – 1976

Director – John Cassavetes

Starring – Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Timothy Carey

Film noir, was a movement in film, typified by stark, harsh imagery, criminal or crime elements, and an overwhelming sense of foreboding and unease.  This particular style of film saw its birth from out of the optimism and idealism of American life in the post World War 2 era.  The growing unrest Americans were feeling in the early 50s took root in the realization that this feeling of elation wouldn’t last forever, and that the unified nationalism that got people through the war was finite.  This ended up creeping into the social consciousness and eventually made its way out to popular culture, saturating the works with an often disaffected outlook on life that celebrated the strength and ingenuity of the bandit or gangster just as much as it did the policeman or community leader.

As the artists and tradespeople began to realize what it was and gave a name to it, the label of film noir, and all the gravity that came with it, came to be.  Film noir became a tool, much like German expressionism, a visual and atmospheric means of conveying mood and the general psyche of a set of characters.  All through the 60’s, the power of the medium allowed for a more rapid reach to a more and more diverse audience.  Anti-heroes became just heroes, and as such, became more appealing to a wider and wider set of audiences.  These racy and taboo subjects became sought after by the masses, and eventually, gave way to studio sanctioned artistic freedom and championed the subversive nature of a lot of the best films of the 70s.

Films known for challenging the system and pioneering the path between commercial success and artistic integrity are the hallmark of the 1970s, and as such a filmic meeting of the methods and underlying themes that define film noir, with the freedom and influences indicative of the 70s, should be astoundingly and amazingly good.  Add in an artistic, talented actor with a career worth of standout film performances as the director, and this should have been gangbusters. Well, it isn’t, and it wasn’t.

For a film with a very simple, straight forward plot, (man over-extends himself, man runs afoul of shady characters, man struggles to make it right while trying to stay alive) it seems only necessary that crafting and growing the characters would be the obvious emphasis of the film.  Ideally the result would be a lean, mean story, free of excess frills and self-serving script.  As it turns out, however, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a bloated, meandering mess from start to finish, and If you thought that my intro for this review was not only unnecessarily long but also more than a little over proud of itself, then you will be well prepared for what this film has to offer.

Even by 1976, John Cassavetes was an old hand at film work. A talented character actor, Cassavetes played pivotal roles in some of my very favorite films, from Rosemary’s Baby, to The Dirty Dozen, to the fantastically underrated remake of The Killers.  As a director, he is an aimless mess.  He fetishizes and takes pleasure in watching his characters struggle, and ultimately fail to connect with one another as they drift through the narrow, tiny little lives that they lead.  It seems to me that these are people who are so uncomfortable in their own skin that their only chance of survival is to band together and treat life as a war of attrition.  Success for them, in any small measure is nearly impossible, and as such their misery and lack of ambition defines them.  They are effectively one-dimensional personifications of a stick in the mud, or a wet blanket.

None of the charisma or energy that actors like Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel bring to their other work, shows through here.  Perhaps most tragically, Cassavetes himself seemed to be so captivated by the lives of characters along these lines that he steeped himself in this same kind of oppressive, joylessness that became the calling card of his directing career.  Where as Gazzara and Cassel could move on to other projects, and try on other characters, Cassavetes mired himself in films like Shadows, Faces, and Woman Under the Influence, (the latter two also made it on this list, only God knows why).  The terrible part is that I’ve only seen clips of his other directorial efforts, and I was immediately turned off.  I had to force myself to sit through this one, all the while hating the terrible club performances, the clunky “natural” dialog (which by the way, just seemed un-rehearsed, not natural), and the unnecessarily long and annoying closeups.

To call The Killing of a Chinese Bookie a film noir is to insult the genre.  The power of films like Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, as well as modern neo-noir films like Blade Runner, and Brick, is the strengths of the characters, not their weaknesses.  The audience wants to root for capable people facing overwhelming odds, not someone who makes awful choices.  Phillip Marlowe is smart, charismatic and ready for anything, where as Gazzara’s Cosmo Vittelli is short-sighted, reactionary and not very bright.  In short he is a victim of his own actions, and truthfully he gets what he deserves.

Though the settings, and plots of these films are similar, the differences represent a tremendous gulf between what film noir organically was during it’s heyday, and what The Killing of a Chinese Bookie ended up being two decades later.  While reading up on the making of this film, I happened upon an essay that explained, at least in part, one of the ways this film went wrong.  In it, Cassavetes explained that Ben Gazzara was so in tune with the character that he’d had in his head, that he barely gave him any direction at all, and often would just let him roll through scenes without interruption.  After reading that, it seemed pretty obvious that this was true, and served as proof that this film had no one to steer it in any direction at all, which is why it feels like it is in park throughout the entire thing.

Since a lot of people love Cassavetes’ directing work far more than I, some even equate him with Hitchcock, Scorsese or Kurosawa in terms of importance, so it seems fair to include one of his films on this list, but three?  I would have much rather seen the far more rich and noir-ish films of Jean Pierre Melville on this list, such as Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic, Le Deuxieme Souffle, and Army of Shadows.  I guess I’m glad that I’ve seen it, but only because that means I’ve gotten it out of the way, and don’t have to see it ever again.

Angels With Dirty Faces (1938)

1938AngelsWithDirtyFaces

Angels With Dirty Faces – 1938

Director – Michael Curtiz

Starring – James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, and Ann Sheridan

You can officially mark this down as the definitive moment where I witnessed my first James Cagney movie.  Unfortunately you can also mark this down as the start of my apathy towards the much lauded actor.  His performance as a tough as nails, streetwise hoodlum, with a soft spot for anyone willing to lavish him with attention didn’t do much to impress me.  His, and Pat O’Brien’s performances as the old friends who went down very different paths, were nothing more than caricatures of cartoon renditions of the saintly priest and the hair-triggered gangster.

This movie’s patchwork of stereotypes and cliches stretches the  audience’s ability to suspend disbelief to the breaking point.  We are to believe that the cause for their very different outcomes is because, as kids one of them (Cagney) was too slow running from the cops, got caught, and was sent to juvenile hall.  This started him on the road to a life of crime, debauchery, and inevitable inprisonment.  O’Brien, on the other hand, feels guilty for his friend getting caught and apparently turns into a one note, billboard for piety.  He and Cagney meet again, years down the line and resume their unquestioned friendship where it left off, cracking jokes and talking about old times.

The obvious moral tone of the film is, at times, too much to take seriously.  Ham-fisted attempts at showing the folly of the youth that admires the gangster, and the weakness of the girl who falls in love with him, is never dealt with in a realistic way.  The stakes are always set in stone for Cagney’s character,  he is either going to prison, or to the grave, maybe both.  In terms of the stakes of the dramatic action, there is no question that this will happen, there is no other outcome.  His gangster character, and also for that matter the priest character, aren’t even written as people who make conscious choices, both are just a facts of life,  forces of nature.  There is no decision making done by either of these two.  The director, Curtiz, seems to be simply setting us up.  The movie is billed as a rolicking action movie, with gangsters and guns on the poster, but ends up being an overly preachy tale of the ills of gangsters, women and crime.  It almost chastises you for wanting to see Rocky (Cagney) win, through it’s heavy handed message.

Don’t get me wrong, it is watchable, and even enjoyable, but only if you manage to dis-regard the flagrant moral-ism on display.  On the plus side, the ever-watchable Humphrey Bogart plays Cagney’s shady, double-crossing, lawyer accomplice.  His nervous mannerisms, and general dislike for Cagney’s Rocky Sullivan, seem to be the most enjoyable, but also the most authentic part of the whole film.

Check it out if you like early gangster flicks, but don’t bank on it being the best one you’ll ever see.  Movies that do it better… Scarface: The Shame of a Nation, The Big Sleep, the original Kiss of Death featuring the creepy Richard Widmark, and the recent Brick.  I recommend checking those out, if not instead, at least along side.