Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

For my first post on this blog, I compiled a list of my favorite movies from the Criterion Collection. I just saw a movie that I need to add to that list, John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It has everything I could want in a movie: "exotic dancers", gangsters, gambling, guns, Chinese gangsters, hard drinking, standards sung by a man in white makeup (I'm sure David Lynch saw and enjoyed this movie), and the great Timothy Carey.

(Side note: Timothy Carey had one of the great character names in film history as a horse-killing sniper in Stanley Kubrick's crime masterwork The Killing - "Nikki Arcane". I figured somebody would've used this as a band or stage name by now, but I couldn't find anything. There is a John Zorn-Eugene Chadbourne album called In Memory of Nikki Arcane, though.)

Chinese Bookie looks great - gritty '70s LA, beautiful night shots of dimly lit gangsters and the softly glowing tail lights of big American cars. It sounds great, too - Bo Harwood's score and songs evoke an era, but somehow still seem fresh and unexpected. The basic plot is classic Hollywood noir/crime material - a gambling debt, a man with a gun in a desperate situation - but the way this material is filmed and cut is definitely '70s American indie (of course, Cassavetes is considered one of the forefathers of that movement).

"Indie" is often used as shorthand for "loose", or worse still, "sloppy" or "languid", two things that Chinese Bookie certainly is not. The movie isn't a tight, clockwork construction, but it builds genuine tension, and when Cassavetes lingers on something or someone longer than a traditional Hollywood director might, it's always something worth looking at and/or something that adds to our understanding of the characters.

I'm looking forward to seeing the "Director's Cut" from 1978 (the original was released in '76), a rare example of a "Director's Cut" that's shorter than the original release. There's an interesting-looking essay on the two versions here that I'll probably wait to read until after I've seen both. From the little I know, though, it sounds like the later cut shifts the balance more toward the crime story by trimming some of the scenes in the Crazy Horse West nightclub, the strange world where Ben Gazzara's main character feels most at home.

In the original version, the club is where much of the movie takes place. Gazzara's character (Cosmo Vitelli) and the film itself keep returning to the Crazy Horse, temporarily regaining a sort of warped normalcy between episodes in the deadly series of events set in motion by a bad night at the card table. I don't want to create any spoilers by discussing my interepretation of the ambiguous ending in detail. Suffice it to say that I think Cassavetes gives us enough information to guess which direction Vitelli's life is headed, and it ain't up.

Bonus Links

Scene from the movie featuring "Rainy Fields of Frost and Magic" by Bo Harwood

Harwood's unsolicited but sound - in both senses of the word - advice to the Obama campaign

A Timothy Carey interview from 1990

Website for Carey's production company - seems to be run now by his son

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