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 Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend – 1945

Director – Billy Wilder

Starring – Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, and Phillip Terry

With the The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder has successfully created and commit to celluloid, a fully realized nightmare.  In particular, we are watching a man’s life disintegrate right before our very eyes.  Where in other films, we would get only hints and suggestions of the depths of this nightmare, Billy Wilder shows it all with a tone that is so matter of fact it is lots of times awkward to watch.

For the uninitiated, Milland stars as Don Birnum, a writer who’s going through a bit of a rough patch.  Don is an alcoholic, a fact that he’s been unsuccessfully trying to hide from his girlfriend Helen (played by Wyman).  The story is fractured into three segments told out-of-order, the first is when he meets Helen at the opera.  Consumed by the thought of getting a drink, he runs to the coat check to get his flask only to find that he has the wrong claim ticket.  After waiting for the show to let out, he meets Helen, who unintentionally claimed his coat.  The second segment is slightly further down the line when their relationship is in full swing, Don is waiting to meet Helen’s parents and suddenly gets cold feet.  He retreats into drink, destroying the brief period of sobriety that he had enjoyed throughout his relationship thus far.  And finally, the third section deals with his alcoholism while it’s in full swing.  Delusions, hallucinations, incarceration, and a cold hard look at what his life has become, provided me with some of the most squirm worthy moments in the movie.

Visually, The Lost Weekend starts off just like a typical movie from this era, straight forward camera positioning, a standard assortment of cuts and fades to get from scene to scene, but it slowly morphs into a much more fluid surreal monster.  The camera follows Don on his decline, giving us shots from a worms eye view, harsh shadows, tricks of light, and unnerving close-ups or our main character sweating and suffering.  The change is subtle, but effective, and the difference between these scenes and when the couple first meets is like night and day.  Wilder is never afraid to show the flaws of his characters actions, but in the Lost Weekend, we see it represented visually in how Don is constantly sweating, the dark circles under his eyes, and the stumble in his step.

In terms of acting, the real standout of the performances is delivered (no surprise) by Ray Milland.  And while the supporting performances are decent enough, they never amount to the impact of the Millands.  To be fair though, they were never written or intended to be center stage like the character of Don Birnum was.  The depths that Birnum visits make the possibility that he may never get better, and be continually relapsing a very real possibility, and causes us to doubt any sort of outcome that the film presents for us.  The acting and subject matter was so effective that both sides of the liquor industry (those in the industry afraid it would hurt sales as well as numerous temperance groups afraid it would glamorize drinking) attacked the movie, in an attempt to prevent it’s release.  Reluctantly the studio gave the film a limited release at Wilder’s insistence and immediately had critics falling all over themselves in praise of the film, Wilder and their lead actor Milland.  Ultimately, this movie that was to be the “career killer” for Ray Milland, turned out to bring him an Oscar win.

Billy Wilder’s unique vision paints America in both a loving, and disgusted light.  He sees this place, bourne of freedoms and rights, as a prison, purgatory, shelter,  and safe house.  It is both safe and dangerous, cancer and cure.  In many ways Wilder’s film is the same, it is both frightening and captivating, great and awful, and regardless of which side you come down on, it is completely worth seeing.

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

ToKillAMockingbird

To Kill A Mockingbird – 1962

Director – Robert Mulligan

Starring – Gregory Peck, Brock Peters, Phillip Alford, Mary Badham, and Robert Duvall

Upon starting this film,  I was under the mistaken impression that it was a completely different trial/courtroom movie.  Apparently, even though I had already seen it, not to mention the fact that it came out well over 30 years after To Kill a Mockingbird, I was confusing it with the 1996 movie A Time To Kill.  While I suppose there are similarities in the central themes of justice and race relations in the south, A Time to Kill, and To Kill A Mockingbird are two very different films.

To Kill A Mockingbird, is told entirely through the eyes and experiences of the trial lawyer’s children, Scout and Jem, and is more a tale of decency and acceptance than it is a courtroom pot-boiler.  The trial itself only takes up a small portion of the film, yet we can feel it’s influence throughout the entire story.  Characters that we meet through the course of the story exemplify the lessons and virtues of  the civilized behavior that the Atticus Finch character (the trial lawyer played by Gregory Peck) tries to teach his children.

This innocence and down home decency that the story is filtered through does, unfortunately,work against the emotion of the storytelling, and taints it a little bit.  Every plot twist and nuance is given a sort of ho-hum, boy howdy, type folksy quality that the story can never quite get beyond.  The unwavering goodness of the father figure, played in true 1950’s American style, never seems to get angry, or make a miss-step.  The good guys always wear white hats and the bad guys black hats, so they can be easily distinguished from one another.

On the plus side, it did function as a rather nice sort of fairy tale, much like one of the American Tall Tales.  Only instead of how Paul Bunyan  created the Great Lakes or hearing about how Pecos Bill roped a tornado, we learned how the Civil Rights movement quashed racism and bigotry, and how little kids are looked over and protected by the Boo Radleys of the world.  Operating on this level, To Kill a Mockingbird is an enjoyable film with just the right amount of heartbreak and joy.