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"Killing of a Chinese Bookie" Criterion DVD review

1590 Views 0 Replies 1 Participant Last post by  Richard W. Haines
Don't even think of watching this standard DVD Criterion edition of John Cassavetes'
1976 film, "Killing of a Chinese Bookie" until you've seen "A Woman Under the Influence" which
is the best of his 'staged improvisation' features.

As I noted in my earlier review of "Shadows", Cassavetes is an acquired taste if not
an endurance test. A popular character actor by trade ("Dirty Dozen", "Rosemary's Baby"),
he was one of the first independent 'auteurs' with complete creative control on all aspects of
his productions. He inspired later New Hollywood directors like Brian De Palma. Cassavetes
used his acting fees to make his ultra low budget films with his friends giving the
appearance that they were entirely improvised. That actually isn't possible with veterans
like Ben Gazzara, who tend to rely on their stock mannerisms when left on their own during a shoot.

As always, Criterion has done the best job possible in restoring this film to as good as
it's capable of looking considering how it was shot. This is the uncut version of the
picture that was trimmed for it's original theatrical release. What that means it that
it's much too long with poor continuity. He doesn't seem to edit his movies and gives
the impression he just spliced the scenes together and let them run on and on.
He doesn't test screen his movies for audiences to see if they make sense. They are what
they are. Not as dull as Andy Warhol's experimental films like "Sleep" but certainly
not tight structurally which means viewers need a lot of patience to sit through
them. But there are some rewards if you can hang in there for the long running time.

As least Cassavetes used 35mm instead of 16mm and filmed in grainy Eastmancolor
instead of black and white for this title. The image ranges from acceptable to horrible and there
are many scenes that have so little light on location you have to strain to see
what's going on. And predictably, most of the film is hand held with a very jittery
camera often filming the wrong person out of focus. The sound is also terrible with
lots of background noise and hiss. But all of this is what many critics consider Cassevetes
'style'. Is seems as if you are evesdropping with a hidden camera and microphone on someone
without their knowledge. His features aren't linear stories with beginning, middle and ends.
Just isolated bits of characterization. Curios but not certainly not masterpieces like some
fans claim since the technical specs are so bad you're always aware you're watching a
movie. There's a distancing effect with blurry out of focus camerawork that keeps you
from becoming as involved with the characters emotionally as Cassavetes would like.
Whenever the lens re-focusses someone as they're talking it takes you out of the story
and makes you wonder why the director didn't hire a competant assistant cameraman.
It the most successful feature films, you shouldn't be aware of things like lenses while
watching the story. It's very distracting when you're straining to see what's going on because
it's so dark on screen or why the film is out of focus.

"The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" is a slice of life or rather a slice of low life. It's a very grim
film but if you can get past the first hour (where nothing happens), once the
premise is revealed there is some suspense despite the fact there's no climax or resolution.
Cassavetes is a Method actor and he tends to work with fellow Stanislavsky veterans
so the performances are always realistic even though people interrupt each other or don't
seem to know what to say in some scenes. There is always a temper tantrum sequence
in these movies.

The premise depicts Gazzara as the owner of a seedy, dumpy strip club
where a group of sleezy exotic dancers perform to an aging drag queen who sings off
key. You'll have to sit through many excrutiating numbers before the story begins.
Gazzara decides to join a high stakes poker game run by mafia gangsters Seymor Cassel
and Timothy Carey. He loses and runs up a huge debt he's unable to pay back. The gangsters
force him to eliminate the debt by killing the Chinese bookie of the title. Gazzara
isn't a hit man and the scene where he has to stalk and murder the fellow hoodlum is pretty
good as is the double cross that follows. But the story doesn't end and leaves you hanging
there uncertain about everyone's fate.

Some critics have described it as a modern 'film noir' but those pictures had a very distinct
visual design and compositions that are absent from this movie. Like all Cassavetes features,
this resembles a home movie.

Is it any good? Not if you're expecting a conventional narrative but if you're able to sit
through Cassavetes other films, this one is of interest for the performances. Gazzara is
completely convincing as a loser in way over his head. I guess the
problem is, the story and actors are good enough this would've made an excellent traditional
thriller rather than this experimental type of production. This picture is a real downer and extremelly
depressing but you do feel as if you've seen how a certain element of our society lives. But you
will be wallowing in squalor.
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