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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More From the Vault

Every so often I’ve updated the list of films that I have already seen with brief reviews.  Call it the complete-ist in me, but when I’m done with reviewing each of the films in the book, I’d like to have reviewed every single film in the book.

Anyhow, here’s another batch for you to read.

Enjoy!

Shichinin No Samurai AKA Seven Samurai (1954)

The Seven Samurai is the first movie that I had the pleasure of seeing from the master director Akira Kurosawa, and it is also one of his most praised works. Without a wasted frame, the story takes place over the course of almost 3 hours. Kurosawa, as he does in each of his movies, explores more than just the action and injustice featured in the plot. He is a humanist first and foremost, training his lens on the interpersonal relationships of the characters, tracking growth across this epic. As good as this film is, I would have to say that Kurosawa has numerous films that are even better, check out Stray Dog, Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and my personal favorite High and Low.

“Fuck yes!” – Ashley

The Ladykillers (1955)

Existing as a special combination of dark humor, and slapstick farce, The Ladykillers is exceptionally funny and unsettling. Alec Guinness stars as the leader of a group of criminals staying at the home of a hardy, vivacious older lady under the guise of being musicians. The plan is simple, rob a bank, and utilizing the trusting nature of the kindly old lady, and the remoteness of her home to their advantage, get away with it. Easily my favorite of Alec Guinness’ films (thanks in part to the Star Wars prequels that is), The Ladykillers features a solid cast of great actors, including a very young Peter Sellers.

Bob Le Flambeur AKA Bob the Gambler (1955)

My introduction to the fantastic Jean-Pierre Melville, I was captivated immediately by the cool as ice gangster come gambler Bob. This film is filled with signature Melville-isms. Glorious post war street scenes in Paris. Trench-coats. Honor among thieves. And who could forget the caper. To talk too much about this film is to give too much away, and to do that is to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it. Other classics by Melville: Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samourai, and the recently released in the U.S. Army of Shadows. All are fantastic, and deserve to be in this book! Incidentally, Bob le Flambeur was recently re-made into The Good Thief starring Nick Nolte and directed by Neil Jordan, and while I’m not generally a fan of re-makes, I really, really liked this film. Not quite as good as the original, but it was one of my favorite films of 2002.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The ultimate in hardboiled private eye crime stories, Kiss Me Deadly is a full on assault on decency. Kiss Me Deadly proudly presents itself as a grimy PI story, littered with bodies and intrigue. If you even have a passing interest in film noir, this should be your first stop. Violent, misogynist, brutish, and glorious, Kiss Me Deadly begs to be watched and dares you to look away. I myself, loved it!

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Apparently based on a book, The Ten Commandments is an epic in every sense of the word. Colored in bright explosive candy hues, and featuring huge sets, as well as a cast that number in the thousands, The Ten Commandments is more spectacle than great movie. Certainly not a waste of time, but not my first choice when choosing something light to throw in.

Det Sjunde Inseglet AKA The Seventh Seal (1957)

A classic, and well-loved film by Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal stars an extremely young Max von Sydow as a knight who faces Death at a game of chess to decide his fate. This film is filled with themes that find their way into each of Bergman’s works, ranging from courage in the face of death, religion, and humanity. The Seventh Seal still holds up to this day, with luminous black and white photography that, thanks to Criterion’s Blu-ray edition, has never looked better.

Note: Don’t be fooled by the similarly themed, but much worse, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”

Kumonosu Jo AKA Throne of Blood (1957)

Kurosawa’s retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan. Shakespeare has never looked better as it does in the stark black and white, twisting shadows and swirling mists as seen through Kurosawa’s camera. Toshiro Mifune doesn’t disappoint in the lead role, but the real stand out is Isuzu Yamada in the as Mifune’s opportunistic, poisonous wife. The plotting and scheming starts right from the get go, all the way up till the frenzied end of the film.

“The Scottish play set in Japan.” – Ashley

Touch of Evil (1958)

One of the many trouble spots on Orson Welles’ resume due to studio interference, and financing issues, still Touch of Evil remains as possibly the best B-Movie ever made. Iconic (and sometimes hilarious) performances by Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston (as a Mexican) and Welles himself as the crooked cop willing to do almost anything to ensure justice prevails (just so long as it’s his justice). The movie is almost as famous for its long tracking shot opening as it is for any of the performances, featuring a nearly 4 minute shot done in one take which travels around cars, actors, and buildings. The film The Player, payed homage to it by mentioning it a few times during a similarly complex shot in that film.

Vertigo (1958)

Flopping on its initial release, Vertigo didn’t gain the acclaim it deserved until much later after it was released on video. Vertigo visits themes present in each of Hitchcock’s other works, including the obsession with blondes, innocence tainted with corruption, and the schlub who gets in over his head. Jimmy Stewart plays the schlub, Kim Novak plays the blonde, and gloriously technicolored San Francisco plays the innocence and the corruption. Vertigo has a twisty convoluted story with elements of surrealism, an interesting watch.

“Hey. Don’t I know you from somewhere?” – Ashley

Mon Oncle AKA My Uncle (1958)

My favorite of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films, Mon Oncle was also the first of them that I had seen. Tati, playing Hulot, is a master of visual comedy, and not in the same way as the Three Stooges, or even Buster Keaton. Tati is an artist whose work is appreciated the longer you watch. The plot of the movie is not so much important to the film as it is simply a guide to get our characters into interesting situations so we can watch them get out. If you liked this film, check out other films featuring the bumbling Mr. Hulot, including Trafic, Playtime, and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.

Les Quatre Cents Coups AKA The 400 Blows (1959)

My personal favorite of the French new wave movement was this small-scale film, personal piece from Francois Truffaut. Featuring the director’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel, The 400 Blows is the first in a series of movies, each about a different stage of life and the challenges that go along with them. The period from childhood to young adult is covered heart-breakingly here, following Antoine through the rough waters of his home life and his interaction with the outside world. Later chapters deal with finding love, getting married, having children, and growing old, but Les Quatres Cent Coups remains the directors most personal and his best.

North by Northwest (1959)

One of Hitchcock’s best, North by Northwest features Cary Grant, suave as ever, being mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies. Just like in Hitchcock’s most famous works (of which this is one), the witty one-liners, suspense, and drama are heaped on generously. I can’t help but feel sad that a similarly themed, but better film featuring Cary Grant was left off this 1001 list. Charade, also featuring Audrey Hepburn, James Coburn, and Walter Matthau, is one of my favorite movies ever! Check out both Charade AND North by Northwest as a double feature! You won’t be sorry.

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Now this is an example of a classic, well-loved film, with actors that I really love (Jack Lemmon I’m looking at you), a premise that is more than suitable, yet the finished product never really caught me. It’s sort of like Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. I never really saw what all the hype was about. That being said, I didn’t hate it either. It never made fun of me when I had braces, or turned me down for a date, my affections and this film have just always been mutually exclusive. Perhaps it deserves another watch…then again maybe I should just watch The Last Boyscout again.

“Monroe, and drag queens, together at last!” – Ashley

A Bout De Souffle AKA Breathless (1959)

Jean-Luc Godard is nothing if not a sacred cow of French cinema, and while I have loved some of his other films (Le Mepris, Bande A Part, and Masculin Femenine), Breathless or A Bout De Souffle never really did it for me. I can still rationalize why it was so revolutionary (use of jump cuts, editing, non-actors, and subscription to the aesthetic of the French new wave style), and see it’s importance, but I prefer other examples of New Wave cinema. If you are interested in seeing a Godard film, try Masculin Feminine, it is just as revolutionary and a bit more accessible.

Psycho (1960)

A prime example of Hitchcock in his prime. Psycho was so good, and so affecting that some of its actors were type cast just on the strength of this one film (Anthony Perkins, and Janet Leigh), so much so that without a little research it’s hard to think of what other films either of them has been in. Psycho may not be as visually shocking and gory as horror films of today, but it still manages to hold up over time and be just as unsettling as it was back in its day. Hitchcock has always excelled at making the comfortable un-comfortable (motels, birds, tea, dreams, the list goes on…), and the subtle touches in this film work perfectly. Consider for a moment that Perkin’s Bates is an amateur taxidermist of birds, and then that Janet Leigh’s name is Marion Crane a type of bird, or the fact before the crime Marion is wearing a white bra and a white purse, while after it she is wearing a black bra and purse. His attention to detail, and knack for foreshadowing is demonstrated in full force in Psycho and remains one of his best films. Despite all the uproar over the Gus Van Sant remake, I thought it actually did some justice to the original film and if nothing else brought it a little more deserved attention.

Note: This film also has the distinction of being the first American film to ever show a toilet flushing on-screen.

“Someone’s a mama’s boy!” – Ashley

Peeping Tom (1960)

Released the same year as Psycho, and dealing with similar subject matter, Peeping Tom wasn’t received with the same acclaim and attention that the former was. On the contrary, Peeping Tom was seen as subversive, perverted, and generally too shocking. The story revolves more around the killer than the victim in this one, whereas Psycho is presented more from the victim’s point of view. Either way, Peeping Tom is a fine film, one worth watching, however it is so similar to Psycho that I’m not sure it needs to be on the list of 1001 films.

The Apartment (1960)

As far as light-hearted, touching movies about someone recovering from a bout of depression, this one is my favorite. Billy Wilder directs Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in a sweet touching comedy without losing any of his trademark cynicism or the pointedness of his dialogue. The Apartment is another chance for me to champion the somewhat maligned talents of Mr. Fred MacMurray as Lemmon’s boss. MacMurray plays a fantastic creep who really defines the term “heel”.

“MacLaine, proving she’s a better actor than her brother.” – Ashley

Spartacus (1960)

Containing almost none of the trademark elements that make up a Stanley Kubrick movie as we know it (Kubrick apparently dis-owned the film before it’s release), Spartacus remains an interesting movie that isn’t great. It is, however, another example of a film that enabled an up and coming filmmaker to gain his voice, and define himself later on in his career. If only for that reason, Spartacus is a great film, but luckily for the studio, it has some other things going for it. Kirk Douglas plays the title role of Spartacus, and despite all the lavish set production, and concentration on spectacle, brings some heart to the slave who defied Rome.

Jules Et Jim AKA Jules and Jim (1962)

One of director, Francois Truffaut’s most well thought of films, Jules and Jim may be the Lost In Translation, or Juno of its time. Viewed from a certain angle, the plot is a completely moving and emotional story that you believe, so much so, that you can see yourself and those around you in the roles that these characters embody. Viewed from another perspective, it can seem a little precious or purposefully manipulative. Depending on what is happening in your life (I’m mostly thinking about whether or not you are in a relationship, and if you are happy), this movie can preach the glory of love and the pain of rejection. On the flipside, if you have shaken free the angsty, teenager-esque feelings everyone has had in their youth, you may feel like you’re being talked down to.

“I remember it being really boring.” – Ashley

Cleo De 5 A 7 AKA Cleo from 5 to 7

Taking place, as the title suggests, from 5 to 7, we get a slice of the life of Cleo played out before us. Sometimes we, along with Cleo herself, are a voyeurs into the lives of people around her, and other times we are focused on her as she roams around Paris. By and large Cleo lives a carefree, spoiled life, yet we still sympathize with her when times are hard, and cheer for her when they are good. This is a small film in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t impacting and beautiful.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I have to admit.  I didn’t like Lawrence of Arabia that much.  Perhaps I was too young to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of Lean’s desert panorama camerawork, or just maybe it was the epic length that decided it for me.  One way or another, I didn’t appreciate it as much as everyone else seems to think I should.

“Really long.” – Ashley

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Overly reliant on gimmicks and quick editing techniques, The Manchurian Candidate doesn’t flesh out the story nearly…wait, no that was the terrible re-make that came out in 2004.  The original 1962 version, is just as taught, and well executed today as it was at its release.  While the story between the two versions remained virtually the same, the consistent building of tension and anxiety, combined with the pitch perfect acting of Lawrence Harvey, Frank Sinatra (yes…Frank Sinatra), and the devilish turn of Angela Lansbury as the Queen of Hearts, makes for a fantastic film.

Lolita (1962)

It took me forever to finally see Lolita.  I have known the basic story (older man, younger girl) but had just never gotten around to seeing it.  And while I’ve been told that the book is much better, I thought the film was pretty good.  Not great, mind you, but definitely solid.  The shocking and controversial nature of the relationship was toned down a bit for the screen, and maybe as a result doesn’t seem all that shocking in today’s day and age.  Memorable turns by Peter Sellers, and Shelley Winters, not to mention it’s an early film of Stanley Kubrick.

The Birds (1963)

Despite being one of Hitchcock’s most popular, I actually think that The Birds is one of his most over-rated.  I think I owe it to myself to give this one another look someday, but right now I feel that it was too heavily based on the gimmick that had to rely on special effects.  Though it is not necessarily the fault of the movie, but the special effects seemed particularly dated and old fashioned.  Worth a watch, but not my favorite by a long shot.

8 1/2 (1963)

Federico Fellini is, by most accounts, a master of cinema.  One, that I have always had a little trouble getting fired up over.  It’s not that I don’t like his films once I’ve seen them, the problem comes in when it comes to motivating myself to see them.  I couldn’t tell you why, but his films consistently get pushed off when they come up on my Netflix Queue or when I see the one or two I have on my shelf.  I shouldn’t feel this way, considering I really loved the moving poetry, and soul baring passion in 8 1/2, yet it still happens.  One very definite reason to watch this film is the man-crushable Marcello Mastroianni, swaggering through as the alter-ego of Fellini himself.  Dealing with all the reservations with women, making movies, childhood, and the future that the director very famously dealt with himself, Mastroianni embodies a certain cool, yet believable character that begs to be watched.  Combined with imagery that leaves the audience wanting more, 8 1/2 is a fantastic film.

Well, that’s it for this time.  Thanks for reading!