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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Sleeper (1973)

Sleeper – 1973

Director – Woody Allen

Starring – Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, and John Beck

So being relatively new to the films of Woody Allen, I’ve learned that it’s possible to lump them into certain groups dictated by genre as well as by the phase of his career.  You have his neurotic comedy phase of the early 70’s, his Ingmar Bergmanesque phase of the 80’s, and then you have the crap-o-rama phase of the 90’s.  In between these, you’ll also find an occasional homage to a different genre.   Manhattan Murder Mystery, for example, is a nod to the screwball comedy, and then there’s the very Hitchcockian thriller/mystery that is Match Point.  And then you come to a film like Sleeper.  Part slapstick comedy in the vein of Benny Hill, part science fiction adventure, all boring and unfunny.

Allen, plays the role of Miles Monroe, a man who is frozen after a botched medical procedure only to wake 200 years later in a future that resembles a sort-of Three Stooges take on 1984.  The people of this world are kept sedated by television, sex, and drugs, as their leader runs the government with his police force.  Already an outlaw, Miles has to hideout in disguise as a robot butler in the home of a flighty, shallow, young woman, Luna, played by Diane Keaton.  Naturally things go awry, and they end up on the run together.

Normally, this sort of story would get me pretty jazzed to see the film.  I am a big fan of science fiction, comedy, and the novel 1984.  In this case however, the comedy is so blatantly dumb that I wonder if anyone even looked at the script before approving and funding it.  I have absolutely no idea how this film made it onto a best of list like this one when truly funny, well executed comedies such as The Big Lebowski have been woefully left off, but I’m sure it must either be some sort of nostalgia on the part of those editors putting the list together or maybe this film was a really big inspiration to someone (hopefully it inspired them to never make a movie like this again.)

To be fair, I don’t know that I quite “get” Woody Allen’s comedy.  I didn’t really like Annie Hall, and that was supposedly one of the funniest movies ever, and I downright hated Manhattan Murder Mystery mostly because it was fucking awful!  Sleeper, though, is filled with the sort of obnoxious kid humor that only 5 year olds think is funny.  By comparison the work of The Three Stooges seems downright academic.

In terms of acting, Woody Allen switches between his usual nervous, comedic delivery, and outlandish pantomime.  In short, there is no developement or depth to his character.  This seems to be par for the course though, as none of the other characters change or grow at all either.  One argument might be that this is a comedy, and its sole intent is to be funny not moralize or chart growth.  My response to that is…even the characters in films like Airplane! and The Naked Gun progress as people, so why shouldn’t the characters in Sleeper?

All in all, I did not like this film, and I definitely feel that it shouldn’t even have been placed in the top 2001 movies of all time.  See it if you want, but see it at your own risk and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

This Just In…

1000 Movies You Must See Before You Die!

I thought of how much fun the idea of seeing all of these movies was to me, and equally of how much fun it would be to write about them all too.  It was at this point that a few things dawned on me.  I realized just how large this undertaking was, and how equally large the time commitment will be too.

I was daunted by the sheer volume of my endeavor.  I immediately started to formulate a way to lighten the load.  I’ve already seen a lot of movies, I thought, why shouldn’t I just write about the ones that I’ve already seen?  Yes!  That’s it!  I’d write about the movies in this book that I had already seen.  That way, I’d save a lot of time, and I wouldn’t be tempted to dwell on my own in-activity, and unsocial behavior.

This got me thinking yet again.  As I said before, I was looking forward to seeing all those movies…That’s IT!  I would go ahead with my initial plan of watching each of the movies that I haven’t seen and writing about each one individually, AND I would write about the ones I have seen (although these will be done in groupings so as not to accelerate my already rather sedentary behavior tendancies too much.)

Here is the first installment of the movies that I have seen.  They are not quite as in depth as the reviews that I have done and plan to continue doing for the new material, but they provide a good summary of what I liked and/or what I didn’t like.

I hope you enjoy this bunch.  It covers the first movie in the book that I had seen, up through the end of WWII.  So…get reading already

Metropolis (1927)

I was lucky enough to catch this projected from a remastered 70mm print with lost footage re-integrated into the story.  It featured a live piano accompaniment, and featured written descriptions of scenes that were still “lost”.  At the same time, I was unlucky enough to see it while I was super, super tired.  There are some slow moments, and I was drooping at times.  Still, it was probably the best possible way to see Metropolis for the first time.

“Fuckin’ love it!” – Ashley

M (1931)

The Criterion Collection has introduced me to a wide variety of movies, including quite a few of the selections on this list.  M introduced me to foreign film in general, not to mention the fantastic Peter Lorre.

Scarface : The Shame of a Nation (1932)

I saw this with a couple of other fantastic American noir and crime films in a little theater on the left bank in Paris, the Action Christine for those who are in the know.  It was part of a week long mini-film-festival concerned with classic and overlooked American noir films.  I was able to catch a number of other great flicks including, Kiss Me Deadly, Key Largo, the version of The Killers from the sixties (with Ronald Regan, Lee Marvin, and John Cassavetes), and the topper, Charade.  I was surprised how much of this story of Scarface is recognizable later on in the Brian De Palma version.

It Happened One Night (1934)

I was introduced to this movie through a friend who was absolutely in love with it.  I was, at first a little skeptical, but came to appreciate it quite a bit.  I’m not sure why everyone makes a big deal about Clarke Gable in Gone With the Wind, but not in this one (I suppose I’ll find out later, when I watch it).

(**Warning Spoilers**)

“If a man nicks names you brat, it’s because he loves you.”  –  Ashley

The Thin Man (1934)

As this was a recommendation from numerous trusted sources, I may have gone into this one with elevated expectations, which as you may or may not know can be death on first impressions.  While I didn’t love it as unilaterally as I was led to believe that I would, I didn’t dislike it at all.  It was solid, but not discernible from a lot of other movies that I have seen from this period.

“Alcoholism is hilarious!” – Ashley

The 39 Steps (1935)

One of two of Hitchcock’s British movies that I’d seen after I’d tooled through almost all of his American stuff, (The Lady Vanishes being the other…), and while I liked The Lady Vanishes better, this was not without it’s charms.  By and large this seems like a stepping stone through which you can get to Hitchcock’s great works, although it is not great in and of itself.

“Genius begins…” – Ashley

La Grande Illusion  AKA  Grand Illusion (1937)

This is another of these movies that I was introduced to through the Criterion Collection.  When I saw this movie, it was the first time that I had either heard of or seen Eric von Stroheim, Jean Gabin, or Jean Renoir.  Von Stroheim in particular interested me, and I have since been looking for his epic, studio bankrupting movie, Greed.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937)

Snow White was the second movie that I ever saw in a movie theater (E.T. being the first), and since then, thanks in part to having a good number of girl cousins, friends, and going to a daycare where a good amount of the kids were girls, I was quickly overdosed on this movie (along with The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins).  That being said, upon my first viewing, I was enraptured.  I wanted to be the 8th dwarf, and I was terrified of the old witch with the apple.  Fucking scary!  This is how childrens stories can be.  They don’t have to be these antiseptic, polished, glittering trash-heaps that they came to be, straight to video sequels with crappy 3D animation.  Snow White set the standard, even IF I don’t really wanna watch it anymore.

“Teaching all pale, black-haired girls around the world that they are the most beautiful.” – Ashley

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I partially wrote this longer post of movies that I had already seen because of this movie.  I didn’t want anyone to think that just because I had seen it, to think that this might mean that I liked it.  I saw this in film school, as an example of the studio system of the 30’s and 40’s, and more specifically because it was THE classic screwball comedy.  I liked movies from this period, and more importantly I was a pretty big fan of Cary Grant, so it seemed like a natural fit.  Then along came Katherine Hepburn and ruined everything.  She plays the most annoying, murder-inducing, terrible fucking annoyance EVER!  I could not wait until it was over.  From 5 minutes in or so I was checking my watch, sending text messages to friends, trying vein to sleep, anything to avoid that shrill voice, and that irksome demeanor.  What made it worse was, that Cary Grant, put up with it to the point where his character started to exhibit affection for Hepburn’s.  This bastion of charm, class, and smooth masculinity was was so utterly ineffectual, that not only could he not save me from hearing this woman speak, but he stole two hours from me in the process.

“Holy shit, there’s a leopard in it!” – Ashley

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Who doesn’t like the Wizard of Oz?  It’s a little heavy on the songs, and musical routines which I don’t really go in for (making a lot of movies musicals in this book a little daunting), but the story and the fabulous imagery were far more than enough to outweigh them.

“Technicolor orgasm!” – Ashley

Rebecca (1940)

I liked Rebecca (come to think of it, I’m not sure that I didn’t like any Hitchcock movies), but I liked Notorious better.

Fantasia (1940)

This, like with a lot of different musicals, was pretty lost on me.  I’ve fallen asleep or gotten board and wandered off each time I’ve tried to watch this (3 separate times now).  The animation was great, but not quite enough I guess.

“Elephants in tutus.” – Ashley

Pinocchio (1940)

I enjoyed Pinocchio back when I saw it initially, but it was never quite as good, in my opinion, as The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, or Robin Hood.  Maybe it was just the time period that I grew up in, maybe it was the animation style.

“So many sexual euphemisms, so little time…” – Ashley

The Bank Dick (1940)

W.C. Fields is a smarter, more adult, and more aware version of The Three Stooges.  He pokes fun at himself rather than poking fun at others or having them poke fun at him.  Don’t get me wrong, I love The Three Stooges, but every now and again it’s nice to see you don’t have to hit something with a hammer in order for it to be funny.

Citizen Kane (1941)

The enigma that is Citizen Kane…it is both vastly over and under-rated.  The idea that you can pick one movie in the scope of all that has come out to date and claim that it is the greatest movie ever made is a ridiculous one.  Equally ridiculous is the idea that that same movie is of no or little value simply because every other movie since then has co-opted the same bag of tricks.  Citizen Kane and Orson Welles set the standard, and now people get mad that in a sea of copy-cats, it no longer stands out to them.

“Oh, yeah.  It is real good.” – Ashley

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Fantastic, fantastic movie.  For one reason or another, before I had ever seen a Humphrey Bogart movie, I was under the impression that I didn’t like him as an actor.  This movie, The Big Sleep and Casablanca proved me wrong three times in a row.  Each was fantastic in it’s own way, but the addition of Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre make this a contender for my favorite of the bunch.

Dumbo (1941)

This is my least favorite of the early Disney movies.  I didn’t quite know what to make of the bizarre pink elephant sequence, and I took the shame and teasing that were inflicted upon the titular character to heart.  I haven’t seen this one for a long time, but I’m not sure that I want to.

“Go hug your mom.” – Ashley

Casablanca (1942)

Check out my review of  The Maltese Falcon two entries above this one, and you’ll know how I feel about this one.  With a rousing story, Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains you can’t help but love this movie.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Don’t get on the fucking plane!” – Ashley

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I like Shadow of a Doubt, but just before seeing it, I had seen The Third Man, and I was completely prepared to fall in love with it.  Joseph Cotton was the key.  He and the movie didn’t really stand out to me…correction, they weren’t able to blow me away the same way The Third Man had.  Despite this, I still enjoy watching it when I want to throw something on while I doing something else.

Gaslight (1944)

It was on my Grandpa’s insistence that I sat down and watched this one with him.  A well made movie, with the beautiful Ingrid Bergman, but I have to say, this spot could have easily gone to at least 2 dozen other movies (Charade, Miller’s Crossing, American History X, Leon The Professional, Bottle Rocket, El Mariachi, True Romance, Shallow Grave, Hard Boiled, Hearts and Minds, Le Cercle Rouge, and Ghost Dog to name just a few.)

Double Indemnity (1944)

I fell in love with Double Indemnity when I first laid eyes on it.  I seemed to ooze a certain coldness, and efficiency that I had never seen up until that point in movies.  I’ve heard other reviews of this movie citing Fred MacMurray as being the weak link in the chain, to not committing to the role enough (the reviewer was saying that he did this in most all of his roles), I disagree whole heartedly!  He may not have achieved the short lived notoriety of someone like James Dean or Clarke Gable (note: my definition of short lived may not match yours), but he was the right man for the job in each of the movies that I’ve seen him in.

“How not to commit a murder.” – Ashley

Murder, My Sweet  AKA  Farewell My Lovely (1944)

Murder, My Sweet was a good movie, but this is another slot given to a lesser contender.

Spellbound (1945)

When traveling in London I visited the Salvador Dali museum, expecting to see a host of what I thought were the artists more well known works.  Instead, I saw a bunch of his work that I had never seen before, including a number of artifacts from the movie Spellbound!  Ultimately, I think fairly well of my visit to the Dali museum, but that is mostly because of the items from the movie.  Spellbound, like the museum, has left a generally favorable impression on my mind, but it doesn’t go much farther than that.

“I wish I dreamed in Dali” – Ashley

Les Enfants Du Paradis  AKA  The Children of Paradise (1945)

This is a fabulous movie that you should go see.  Now.  Go ahead, I’ll wait….Wasn’t that awesome.  Well dig this…This whole movie was filmed during the Nazi occupation of France.  Film stock, supplies and artisans were in short supply, cast and crew were being routinely investigated by the puppet Vichy (read Nazi) government, and still they managed to pull off a staggeringly beautiful movie with beautifully thought out and constructed sets, top notch acting, and a story packed with anti-fascist allegory.  On top of this, the majority of the actors and crew were utilizing the “cover” of the movie in order to stay hidden, as many were French Resistance underground fighters.  Now go watch it again!

That is all for this first chapter…go watch all of these movies and write back to tell me what you think.