[19 January 2009]
At the core of Johns’ work is some sense that most of the social ceremonies and rituals we go through in life are absolute hypocrisy, or certainly evasions of what we really are, and that he repeatedly pushes his characters to a place more primitive, more raw, more intense, more distraught, more emotional than any social situation can contain. In those extreme moments, when all the little polite rituals are left behind, I’m certain that he saw the truest expressions of what we are.
Ray Carney, Cassavetes film scholar, as interviewed in A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Sophistication and his Delovlies will be along in a moment. My name is Cosmo Vitelli; I’m the owner of this joint, I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.
—Ben Gazzara playing Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Likely America’s purest auteur, John Cassavetes is often the subject of outsized opinions. A director whose immensely personal films were made in the truest, almost carney-like spirit of independence, his work and person have alternately invited the most peevish upbraiding and awkward apotheosizing. Seldom screened following their theatrical release and for years difficult, if not impossible, to find on VHS, with the advent of DVD technology Cassavetes’s films are finally becoming more widely available. Leading the charge in re-mastering his work is, not surprisingly, The Criterion Collection, which last month released The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the director’s 1976 underworld drama, as a stand-alone, two-disc package.
Available since 2004 as part of Five Films, Criterion’s eight-disc box set—which counts five of Cassavetes’s most seminal works amongst its offerings—the two-disc format of Chinese Bookie is in no way superfluous. Each disc features a high-definition digital transfer of one of the film’s two separate edits, each version disparate enough in content and tone to warrant its own viewing.
The original 135-minute edit, released in theaters for a week in 1976, occupies disc one while the much-condensed 108-minute edit, re-released in theaters in 1978, fills the second. Included as extras are interviews with star Ben Gazzara and producer Al Ruban conducted in 2003, audio interviews with Cassavetes himself as conducted in the late ‘70s by film critics Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson, an essay (“The Raw and the Cooked”) by film and literary critic Philip Lopate, along with behind-the-scenes stills from the production.
A departure from the more domestically oriented melodramas Cassavetes filmed before (1974’s Academy Award-nominated A Woman Under the Influence) and just afterwards (1977’s Opening Night), Chinese Bookie has variously been hailed as a brilliant examination of masculine identity, the director’s attempted stab at that most nebulous of genres, the film noir, and a straightforward gangster picture. Regardless of any ostensible genre-affiliations, it is most notably a character study, a vehicle for its lead actor to strut his considerable talents.
Starring Cassavetes regular Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli, a would-be lothario and the hapless owner of a strip club who finds himself in dire circumstances after accruing a sizable gambling debt to gangsters. Like many Cassavetes films, it unfolds most interestingly in the crawl spaces of its narrative, where the oxygen is thin and the camera is given room and time to linger alongside the actors as they struggle in the ensuing vacuousness.
To this end the 1976 cut seems more suited to the kind of task Cassavetes set for himself and his band of merry thespian pranksters. In a picture highly critical of the sinews of masculinity Gazzara imbues Cosmo with an uncertainty, an almost palpable inadequacy over which the flimsy, familiar veneer of male bravado and swagger is draped. Donned in stylish butterfly collar shirts, drinking the best champagne while riding around with beautiful women in limousines, viewers get a subtly unfolding portrait of a character for whom styles is so paramount it becomes an almost reified Style, the cornerstone of the superficial sensualist’s philosophy.
At one point, after beating his limo driver to the door when picking up a date, Cosmo jubilantly declares “Ah, you’re gettin’ slow Lamarr, I beat you again.” When the driver replies “Ah, where’s your class?” Cosmo snaps back as if to correct him: “Style, not class.” Cosmo’s class envy, his personal history, his discomfort with his supposed peers and the degree to which he does not, in fact, belong anywhere are all teased out meticulously over the course of the film.
Though both Cassavetes and Gazzara (not to mention audiences and critics) were apparently unhappy with it, the original version seems more abundant with these sorts of moments, its extended footage an augmentation of the techniques and sensibilities which most distinguish the director’s work. Challenging disruptions in pacing and focus, points where feelings of boredom and malaise, of disgust, of envy, are transmitted to the audience more viscerally than most films ever prove capable of, are deposited and left to calcify in viewers’ minds. Though these certainly don’t disappear in the subsequent version, they ironically find a more crystalline expression in 1976’s less tidy cut.
In addition to scenes which flesh out Cosmo’s character more fully—conversations about his poor New York childhood, an endearing scene of him sitting in the dressing room with all of his employees like a family, warming up the performers for their night on the stage with a terrible joke tail—like a child pulling apart a piece of taffy, trying to anticipate where it might finally break and then stopping just short, Cassavetes uses many of the original edit’s additional 27-minutes to extend scenes of the execrable burlesque show at Cosmo’s cherished nightclub, the Crazy Horse West. Challenging himself to see how long and how well the film could hang together when the symbolic sideshow fantasyland was given prominent billing and screen time, the director’s original cut has a more discomfiting effect than the successive version.
While the 1978 edit is unsurprisingly tighter, trimmed of a good portion of its fat and filled with faster cuts, in the 1976 version the camera is allowed to spend more time veering between the performers and bar patrons, making filmgoers peer at the stage over balding patrons’ heads as the director’s handheld camera trolls almost leeringly in-between the seats of the gauzy, dimly lit club. Helmed by Cosmo’s feckless onstage doppelganger Mr. Sophistication, a self-admitted freak attraction (expertly portrayed by novice actor/veteran screenwriter Meade Roberts), for a T and A show there is little even suggestively erotic about the burlesque at Cosmo’s club.
Part of a stable referred to as Mr. Sophistication’s Delovlies, the women in Cosmo’s show, though featured prominently throughout the film are nonetheless adumbrated, mere satellites in its male-centered world. Even in the show for which they are supposed to be the main attraction they are more like comic flashers at a Mardi Gras revelry than exotic dancers. They smilingly expose a breast here and a fanny there while Mr. Sophistication drones endlessly on. They perform numbers shoddily transplanted from the Left Bank of Paris (or Cosmo’s imagining of it) and more appropriate, nudity and content aside, for an elementary school variety show than a stage peopled with adult “professionals”.
With the Delovlies’ cynosural stature somewhat reduced the show becomes a paragon of kitsch, rather than lecherousness, with the resultant effect that the intensity and focus of Cosmo’s solicitude towards the club surprises viewers even more. He is far less concerned with the take at the bar or the door than with the show’s execution. An artist more than a businessman, in the middle of attempting the killing of the title, Cosmo takes an opportunity to call the Crazy Horse from a payphone, querying several employees about the stage number being performed as he winds through the wilds of LA to off a Chinese bookie. Though funny and incisive, it is also an odd and off-putting sequence, with the camera poised at a stern low angle and Gazzara’s face lit up by a gas station’s obscene fluorescent lights, exactly the kind of soaked Los Angeles milieu that has since become associated in the popular consciousness with Michael Mann.
What becomes obvious in the ensuing one-sided phone call is that no one but Cosmo cares in the least about the show. An employee of seven years, much to Cosmo’s vexation, struggles to identify which song is being performed and seems entirely uninterested in doing so for his employer. Cassavetes continually insists that viewers put aside their own aesthetic misgivings in order to understand the show’s unironic importance to the bar owner’s life, not so much daring as demanding we dislocate ourselves. It is doubtlessly part of Cosmo’s charm as a character that he takes so seriously what is clearly staged and executed with such ineptitude.
Regardless of the stylistic and structural points it might share with noir and despite Cassavetes’s protestations to the contrary, Chinese Bookie is unquestionably a kind of gangster picture. At each crucial plot turn—and perhaps more than any of his other films it sees its action, and the circumstances of its protagonist, propelled forward by hard-boiled external forces – an assembled slew of mobsters lie menacingly in wait. In the 1978 cut the picture becomes decidedly more reliant on Cosmo’s relationship with a syndicate of gangsters, played with sleazy aplomb by an ensemble cast of veteran actors, many of them Cassavetes regulars.
Seymour Cassel appears as the unctuous Mort Weil, inspiring Cosmo’s financial and eventual moral dissolution like some seedy L.A. Mephistopheles who calls on the Crazy Horse one evening; Timothy Agoglia Carey plays the menacing Flo, delivering one of the film’s weightiest lines (present only in the 1978 cut) when he says, just after Cosmo has incurred the $23,000 debt that leads him to become a gangland assassin, “Here’s to the biggest sin in the world, people who owe money”; and Morgan Woodward steps in for brief interludes as John, the pockmarked, CEO-styled head of the syndicate.
In rapid order following his gambling loss, Cosmo’s hand is forced, his options narrowed, and the obligation of a murder presented as his only means of saving his club. The movie takes a few twists and turns typical of noir-ish fare, though none of them are snap-your-neck surprising. Just after he unexpectedly succeeds in murdering a man much more powerful and important than the ordinary bookie he was told was his target, Cosmo is shot trying to escape. Not expecting he would live through his assignment, the gangsters now need him dead so they can take over his bar.
In addition to being hunted by the Chinese mob and Mort, Flo and the gang, he is soon abandoned by his girlfriend and her mother (with whom he presumably lives), finally forced to take refuge in the one place he has left in the world, though even that seems ephemeral. Though the film unsurprisingly avoids the kind of easy, Hollywood-style summation Cassavetes detested alongside everything else about the industry, viewers do get intimations of a transformation.
In a scene that mirrors the film’s (1976) opening, Cosmo sits in the dressing room with the girls and Mr. Sophistication while the audience, a packed house, waits impatiently downstairs. Resting uncomfortably, trying to cajole his disenchanted performers onstage, ever the showman and ringmaster, even with a bullet in his side, Cosmo says “A lot of people kid themselves ... they know whether they’re gonna go to Heaven whether they’re gonna go to Hell, they think they know. The only people who are, you know, happy, are the people who are comfortable.”
With an amended life’s philosophy that perhaps insists on Comfort over Style Cosmo, exits the Crazy Horse West to Sunset Boulevard, where he waits alone on the sidewalk, wiping blood on his sport coat as his performers begin their set. Then again, the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.