John Cassavetes followed up his stunning achievement A Woman Under the Influence (1974) with a radical shift in direction. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), released two years later in a 135 minute edit, pulled from a failed release, and re-released in a shorter 108 minute version in 1978, largely abandons Cassavetes’s intense focus on relationships for existential emptiness of film noir. He trades the bickering, disappointment, and madness that came out of the collision between his men and women for the disappointment of one man: a nightclub owner named Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara). The narrative engine here, unlike the previous three films from Criterion’s Five Films box set, is a film genre. However, it wears the moon and neon sign lit streets of Los Angeles like one of Cosmo’s ridiculous tuxedos. While the look is right, the occasion is entirely wrong and Cassavetes doesn’t really know what to do with it. Because it is not as formally rigorous as Jean-Pierre Melville or Stanley Kubrick’s work with noir, the existentialism gets lost in a haze of shaggy documentary.
Needless to say, when Five Films landed on my doorstep, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was on the top of my list. Now, it’s not only at the bottom but almost pushed me to detox off of Cassavetes for a while.
Because of its generic engine, a plot summary of Bookie seems to have much more focus than films like Woman (1974) and Faces (1968). Cosmo runs a seedy cabaret with artistic ambitions in the midst of the Hollywood. While he takes pride in his club, he also seems bored by it. He tries to treat the strippers as family members and even strikes up a romantic relationship with an African-American dancer (Playboy model Azizi Johari). One night, Cosmo takes his strippers out for a night on the town at Mort’s (Seymour Cassel) casino. He loses $23,000 and finds himself in debt to the mob (which also includes the great Timothy Carey). When he cannot pay, he is tasked with killing a Chinese bookie to clear his debt. However, the bookie isn’t a bookie – he’s a gangster – and the mob doesn’t want Cosmo to live through the hit. It’s a classic double cross and, when Cosmo makes it out wounded, he lives to take his revenge.
The narrative sounds tight as a drum, so where does it go wrong? Well, it takes nearly 60 minutes of running time for Cosmo’s fate to take its first turn for the worst. The first hour of the film consists entirely of setting the scene: the relationship between Cosmo and his dancers, Cosmo’s ennui, and the artsy yet poorly realized dance routines at the Crazy Horse West – lots of dance routines. I think there are perhaps three or four of them in that first hour and I cannot – for the life of me – understand what purpose they serve. Do they establish that Cosmo has ambitions that are frustrated? Yes. Do they establish the seedy atmosphere? Sure. But do we really need 30 minutes of them in the film to establish that? I don’t think so.
Bookie is the first Cassavetes film where I encountered time as an insurmountable duration. With the exception of Shadows, most of his films surpass the two hour mark (Faces is almost 150 minutes, Woman is 155). Despite the fact that Bookie is towards the shorter end of the temporal spectrum, it feels like it is the most overlong of the three films. While Faces and A Woman Under the Influence are both discomforting because of their length, the discomfort comes not from time itself but from the collision of time and an intense focus on personal disintegration. Yet, in both of those films, the performances and exchanges between characters – despite being discomforting – give the disintegration a great deal of momentum. Bookie, due to its singular focus on Cosmo, just sits there and – because of this – his boredom is transferred onto the viewer.
If it sounds as if I was hoping that Bookie would be more classical, that is not completely the case. I would never want Cassavetes to make a classical noir. I was excited to watch Bookie precisely because I wanted to see his deconstruction. Moreover, I admire his ambition, just as much as I admire Gazzara’s performance (which embeds so much in the shift of the eyes and the poetics of a gesture, such as trying to put a rose through the button hole of his tuxedo). My criticism is that we can get that deconstruction in a more concise form. Essentially, I wish Cassavetes had tried to channel Jean-Luc Godard rather than Jean-Pierre Melville (the artist par excellence of the long form minimalist noir). In the end, there isn’t enough going on in Bookie thematically to sustain its run time. For instance, considering the resonance of Shadows, what are we to take away from Cosmo’s relationship with his African-American girlfriend? Moreover, unlike A Woman Under the Influence, the structure does not appear to enrich the subject matter.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie failed horribly upon its initial release in 1976. In a fantastic pair of video interviews with Gazzara and producer Al Ruban, we are told that the film was pulled from distribution after one week of release. Cassavetes was dissatisfied with the audience reaction and went back into the editing room to try to adjust the picture. Moreover, Gazzara allegedly told Cassavetes that he hated the film and that he felt that it was too long.
Two years later, Cassavetes released a drastically altered and significantly shorter cut of the film, which is also included on the Criterion set (this was the cut that was in wide release for a number of years, so more people may be familiar with the 1978 cut than the original).
I’m incredibly curious to see if Cassavetes’s alterations address my concerns, but I must admit that I have not yet brought myself to watch it because of my initial disappointment.
Needless to say, particularly in the light of the beautiful transfers Criterion has provided here, I’ll one day discover if Gazzara was right.