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.

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Biruma No Tategoto (AKA: The Burmese Harp) (1956)

The Burmese Harp

Biruma No Tategoto (AKA: The Burmese Harp) – 1956

Starring – Shoji Yasui and Rentaro Mikuni

Director – Kon Ichikawa

The Burmese Harp marks the first non-english language film that I’ve watched for the first time since starting this little endeavor, and as a fan of Japanese cinema of this period, I have to say that I was a little let down.  I fully understand that this may be my film school bias kicking in.  It is after all not either a Kurosawa or an Ozu film, therefore it was never really on my radar before I picked it from the list.  This criticism isn’t meant to imply that the film was bad, it simply didn’t have a history with me the way some other “classic” Japanese movies did (like The Seven Samurai for example).  As a result, the film didn’t have the effect on me that I was hoping for.

The story of the Burmese Harp centers around a troop of Japanese soldiers stationed in Burma in the last days of World War 2, actually one of the first major occurances is that the war ends.  Japan has surrendered to the allies, and our main characters give up there arms to a battalion of British soldiers, and are to be escorted to a holding area to await re-patriation.  Despite their home country’s surrender, not all ofJapans soldiers in Burma have given up fighting.  Thus introduces the main catalyst for the rest of the film.  It is because of this, that main character,  Mizushima, is assigned to go and tell his countrymen the news of the surrender and negotiate a peaceful end to the fighting.  This is an important and time sensitive mission as he only has 30 minutes in which to carry it out.

Needless to say, it is not as easy as just walking in and exchanging some rational words.  He is called a coward, and is labeled by his colleagues as being disloyal to Japan.  Mizushima does his best to talk some sense into the rogue outfit but, in the end he runs out of time, and the British renew their shelling of the mountain encampment.  The rest of the movie deals with his long trek back to the re-patriation camp where his unit is being held, all the while dealing with his conflicted emotions surrounding the atrocities that he sees along the way.  His only link to his outfit, and his way of maintaining some semblance of himself is through the music he creates with his Burmese style harp.

In principle, this movie works.  It has all the right elements, and they are put together in a pleasing sort of way, but in practice, I had a hard time staying really interested.  By the end I liked the movie, and I was glad that I had seen it, but it was  a long journey (maybe not quite as long as Mizushima’s, but long none the less).  It had a very obvious wounded nationalism aspect to it, and I can understand how it’s impact may have been greater in the mid 50’s when it was released.  Japan was trying to rationalize to itself it’s new position in the world.  It’s self image had to have suffered since the war ended, and was probably very different than it was 10 years previous.  This idea of an entire place and population searching for itself is an interesting one, but mine was not a perspective that they had when it was released.  Shame and fear of dishonor were quite real, and through Mizushima’s quest for atonement the Japanese had a way of celebrating their heros again.

Still…something didn’t quite sit right.  Not having ever been at all swept up in the fervor of nationalism, patriotism, or even sensationalism, I would have liked to have seen a little more individualism.  The unit operated as a unit, each had the same end goal, with of course the exception of Mizushima, who was acting in the best interest of Japan.  Maybe I am just a product of my time, but I would much rather have seen a unit comprised of men who were different.  Who had different goals, motivations, and struggles, and through it all came to work together.  That would require that each person sacrifice something for the end goal, but since no one wanted anything different, no need to sacrifice.  Ultimately the film, like a lot of war-time films, was a rallying cry.  This was meant (and maybe it succeeded) to get the whole country of Japan back in line, and back into the world.  I suppose, maybe the fact that I am such a product of my era, results in this movie feeling a little more antiquated and thin on premise.  Not bad by far, but not nearly as good as some of the films to come out of Japan in the same time frame.

The General (1927)

TheGeneral1927

The General – 1927

Director – Buster Keaton, and Clyde Bruckman

Starring – Buster Keaton, and Marion Mack

Buster Keaton stars as a railroad man in the south during the Civil War, who has two loves in his life…his girl (played by Marion Mack, and his train engine (named The General, it’s the movies namesake).   When fighting breaks out in his state, he is compelled through the suggestion of his lady love to join the army, and go into battle.  Due to his importance as an engineer for the railroad, Keaton is turned down for active duty.  Because of this, his girlfriend and her family think he is a coward.  When spys from the north steal his beloved General, he has an opportunity to prove his courage.

 Based on what I know about physics and the danger associated with trains, Buster Keaton is crazy to attempt the stunts, gags and gimmics that he does in this film.  Not only does he repeatedly put his own life on the line, but he has a sort of deadpan humor that he demonstrates the whole time as well.  This ensures that if your jaw isn’t on the ground, it is busy laughing throughout.  Keaton runs from one end of the full train to the other, changing tracks, un-hooking cars, feeding the furnace, and clearing the track ahead of obstacles while he does it. 

I have tried to read up a little bit on this movie, but haven’t managed to find all that much about it.  I have to imagine that, just like Jackie Chan does today, Buster Keaton probably had some accidents, or at the very least some spectacular outtakes from some of his shots. 

The story and motivation is pretty much secondary to the visuals and the action, but that doesn’t hurt this movie at all.  The pace slows down a little in the middle of the film, when he leaves the train set and goes to a house, but it picks up again when they get back to it.  The war scene at the end doesn’t seem to have the gravity or punch of the previous hour or so, but that too can be forgiven due to the fantastic action on display.

Each time I’ve tried to watch a silent film, regardless of whether I chose to watch it or if it was assigned to me for a class, I’ve had trouble keeping awake.  The lack of sound, combined with the rather long takes and over-emotive acting seem to repel my attention.  Despite the ridiculous, continuous piano music or lack of dialogue, my attention was kept the entire time I was watching this film (the scene that was the most difficult was the aforementioned scene away from the train). 

Scenes to watch out for…Keaton steals a train engine to chase a group of Northern soldiers who have stolen his train engine, and he has to constantly run up to the very front of the train to clear a series of obstacles that the soldiers leave on the tracks…and the northern soldiers are trying to catch up with Keaton who has set a bridge on fire as a trap for them.

Check it out, it is totally worth the watch.

Laura (1944)

Laura - 1944

Laura – 1944

Director – Otto Preminger

Starring – Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, and Vincent Price

Laura is the story of a Detective who becomes facinated with the victim of the murder that he is assigned to investigate, the movie’s namesake, Laura.  Detective McPherson isn’t so much a fully realized character in this story as he is a vehicle through which the audience can be introduced to, and participate in this story of un-requited love and murder.    Inspite of this, or maybe even because of it, we the audience are still drawn in to the fold. 

We  are placed in the detective role, and are given a cast of characters from which to choose the killer.  There are some red herrings in the lineup, some genuinly shady people, and some obvious innocents, but isn’t that half the fun of watching a brassy noir movie anyway?  Guess at the beginning and at the end seeing if you’re right.  (I’m happy to say that I did indeed guess correctly)  We are presented with the well-to-do, writer-mentor, Waldo Lydecker, played to the hilt by a flamboyant Clifton Webb, the unfaithful, yet seemingly good natured love interest/fiance, played by a venomously charming Vincent Price, and the icy two-faced Aunt Ann Treadwell, fleshed out by Judith Anderson.  It is throught the lenses of these characters that we learn about Laura Hunt, told at first through flashback.  Each of them provides a different spin on the events leading up to the night Laura was murdered, and each in turn reveals more about their potential motives than the intend to.

The pace is quick.  Quick enough that, at one point, we are left reeling and unsure about whether we are seeing reality or the a booze deluded dream.  In the interest of not spoiling a major plot point, I won’t say exactly what that event is, but rest assured that without an immediate explaination we simply have to wait and see to be sure.  This , of course, only leads to more questions about conspiracy, motives, and method.

Despite really enjoying Laura, I’d have to say that this movie didn’t have nearly the effect on my that some others noirs, such as “The Third Man”, “Sunset Boulevard”,  or “Out of the Past”, did.  It’s almost unfair to judge any movie this way, these movies helped introduce me to, and cultivate my appreciation and love of the film noir genre.  Still I think the comparison holds water because of the shared subject matter, the bent reality that the audience is presented with from the beginning, the hoops the characters must jump through along the way, and the long twisty, torturous path towards the truth that our hero (and by extension, we) must travel.

Laura was a solid, thouroughly enjoyable movie.  From the deep shadows of this duplicitous world, to the campy excess of Vincent Price, and Clifton Webb, Laura never faltered in it’s execution, and it never failed to keep my attention.  Bravo.