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.

The Long Goodbye (1973)

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The Long Goodbye – 1973

Director: Robert Altman

Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, and Mark Rydell

So, I’m familiar with Philip Marlowe, or should I say Humphrey Bogart’s version of Philip Marlowe.  Needless to say, I thought he was great, a real tough guy without being over the top, or just angry.  He was smart, knew how to handle himself and new his way around the thug-ish underworld of double crosses and shady dealings.  I didn’t know what to expect from the Robert Altman realization starring Elliott Gould, and set in the early 1970s.

What I ended up getting was not what I went in hoping for, but not necessarily in a bad way.  Some things that Elliot Gould brought to the character were more natural and less stylistic.  For instance, Elliott as Marlowe found himself mad, but unlike Bogart, he lacked the skill to use it to his advantage.  There were no crooks he could slap around, or sharp dialogue he could hurl at his adversary, he was simply left to feel frustrated and angry.  Where Bogart was all about that steely calm that seemed to keep him in charge, there were numerous times that Gould seemed motivated by his frustration, rather than by what was the smartest course of action.  This, of course, isn’t meant to say that he didn’t fully understand his predicament, or deal with it with his own best interests in mind.  This lent to his credibility as a real, functioning, breathing personality.

This more believable behavior DID allow him to more comfortably slip into the “real world”.  Figures from classic Hollywood movies always seemed to be separate from this reality.  They exist in neat packaged little worlds that serve to house the film’s story and characters, and nothing else.  Four walls a roof and a floor, nothing else.  Nothing that doesn’t serve the forward momentum of the plot.  Films from the seventies, however, seem to inhabit a much larger world.  A world that is populated by multitudes of people, all living out their own “real” lives even if our story doesn’t overlap them.  These films seem to be conscious of the world around them.  Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, exists in this world.

Aside from being in color, with set pieces that are less stagy, the main difference is that this Marlowe isn’t able to confidently predict or avoid danger.  He has to stumble through, be aggravated, and endangered by it just like any of us would.  He doesn’t have all the answers, and he doesn’t pretend to.  In fact, unless it was mentioned numerous times throughout the movie, there is no way you know know that he was a private eye.  This Marlowe seemed to have almost no intuition about the case from a detective’s point of view, he eventually stumbled onto the facts, but without the streetwise knowledge, it took him forever to put it all together.  The one and only shared element of both versions of this character, was the fact that he always knew when to speak and when to keep his mouth shut.  He’s as tight lipped and smart with the police as he is with the bloodthirsty gangster (played fantastically by Mark Rydell) who just wants his money.   The best moment of this movie came from Marlowe’s first encounter with Rydell’s gangster when, after calling his young lady-friend closer, he proceeds to show Marlowe what he’s capable of.  In terms of shock value and unexpectedness, this is worth the price of admission alone.

I’ve learned that I have a sort of growing fondness for Robert Altman movies (excluding his version of Popeye with Robin Williams and the role that Shelley Duvall was meant to play).  The Long Goodbye, like Short Cuts before it, and M*A*S*H before it (my viewings of, not their releases), didn’t attract me at first, but then grew on me as I thought about it afterwards.  There is something about his work, and I suspect the man as well, that has resonance.  It has more to say than just what is on it’s surface, and it is best enjoyed after the absorption of the material has taken place.  I’m lucky, in that I haven’t seen that much of his work, because now I can go back and check it out.  Unfortunately, along with everyone else, I am unlucky that he died and I won’t get to experience these same feelings of growth on something that someone else hasn’t already felt and talked about to no end.

“Worth It just to see Arnold Schwarzenegger in yellow boxer briefs.” – Ashley