Favorites: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Written and directed by John Cassavetes
Produced by Al Ruban, Phil Burton
Starring Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John Kullers, Al Ruban, Azizi Johari, Virginia Carrington, Meade Roberts, Alice Friedland, Donna Gordon, Haji, Carol Warren, Kathalina Veniero, Yvette Morris, Jack Ackerman, David Rowlands, Trisha Pelham, Sonny Aprile, Gene Darcy, Vincent Barbi, Val Avery, Elizabeth Deering, Soto Joe Hugh

“The great function of conflict is that it arouses consciousness.”

–James MacGregor Burns


Almost as soon as he’s liquidated a pricey debt incurred while gambling, the cordial, debonair presenter and proprietor of a burlesque club (Gazzara) stakes a cumulative $23K on losing hands. The mobsters (Woodward, Cassel, Phillips, Kullers) to whom it’s owed expect his arrears paid in full only by the prompt assassination of a bookmaker (Hugh), but they never expected their cool, compassionate debtor to be so tough, canny, or unlucky.


Crime dramas don’t come much more reflective or humane than Cassavetes’s condemnation of ruinous rats, here opposed to a protagonist who’s as magnanimous as formidable. Conundra consequent of vice and ungenerosity are anatomized in toto, untainted by the delusion that nobility absolves. American cinema’s first fully independent auteur here plies Kuosawa’s burden: the moral man straining in an immoral world.


In intimate close-ups or at immobile, tracking and panning distances, we spy every expressive and gestural shading of Cassavetes’s dramatis personae, captured as graphically as his sparing, impelling violence. Like Altman’s contemporary output, this segues from dispassionate to personal observation without tonal incongruity or bathos.


Grainy gloom, glares of electric and solar sources, and both contrasting are lensed by Mitchell Breit and co-producer/co-star Al Ruban, who beautify bright, often gaudy hues.


Every lusty gust, desperate glance, loving stare, amiable assurance, indignant scowl or snarl, and smile radiant or hateful was felt as much as acted: Gazzara poured his essence into Cosmo Vitelli to vivify his director’s charismatic self-conception. As a stripper in his employ who jealously adores him, Johari exudes as much discontent as nubility. Seething, hissing Carey is no less intense as an intimidating heavy who foists by force the unlikely hitman’s unwanted felony. In a subtler approach, ordinarily avuncular Cassel insinuates more menace with a simple grin than most uttered threats. The club’s flamboyant host (Roberts) and ecdysiasts (Johari, Carrington, Friedland, Gordon, Haji, Warren, Veniero) credibly incorporate seedy, working-class entertainers.


Some melodic themes by Bo Harwood are heard within, and briefly outside Vitelli’s club.


Preparation for and execution of the titular hit are realistically riveting. Johari’s jaundiced stripper attacks a waitress (Pelham) during her rehearsal. In the aftermath of his settlement, Vitelli eludes killers, confronts the mother (Carrington) of his favorite employee, then encourages his sulking staff with a deliberative dispensation of wisdom. What a week!


No single chef-d’oeuvre from Cassavetes’s string during the ’70s is readily selected as the best, but this would be a tenable pick.

Recommended for a double feature paired with California Split or Saint Jack.

Favorites: Opening Night

Opening Night (1977)
Directed and written by John Cassavetes
Produced by Sam Shaw, Al Ruban, Michael Lally
Starring Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Joan Blondell, John Cassavetes, Paul Stewart, Laura Johnson, Zohra Lampert
The sudden death of an especially frantic fan (Johnson) following a theatrical performance is the catalyst that triggers its famous, jaded leading lady’s (Rowlands) inevitable midlife crisis, prompting increasingly aberrant dysfunction, oppugnance to her role of a woman suffering the wane of her allure and all its associated power, and delusive encounters with the deceased as a reflection of her teenage self: initially affectionate visitations that lapse by realization to violent confrontations. Even as the volatile actress struggles by rationalization to deny all affinity to her wholly apposite persona during a succession of ebullitions and collapses, she’s perforce the precessing lynchpin around which everyone in her compass revolves: the veteran playwright (Blondell) torn between fascination and frustration in observance of this tempest and equanimous producer (Stewart) who patiently weathers it, a former lover and co-star (Cassavetes) wisely distanced to sustain their professional relationship, her rock of a director (Gazzara) scarcely at amorous arm’s length from the star he adores, and his quietly long-suffering wife (Lampert), whose envy of her is tempered by respect. Cassavetes’ sixth collaboration with his spouse and most disastrous flop is one of his very finest films, shot in Pasadena with moderate experiment to maximize its evocation of shock, intimacy and the disquiet thrill of dramaturgy. By relegating himself to an imperative yet fittingly unflattering character, the independent icon situated himself optimally to work his experient cast to their utmost, substantiating both his trademark verisimilitude — essentially a motional still-life in close-up — and the veneer of staged artifice as parts parallel personalities. More indisposed than incapable of tackling her role’s rigors, the frailties of Rowlands’ lead dissolve the fourth wall to her attendees’ mixed disdain and ovation — indulgences culminating at the contemporaneity of her drunken prostration and the play’s premiere in New York as an extemporary episode of unexpectedly triumphal compliance to her production’s burden and audience’s appetites. Regrettably, this feature’s transient, overlooked theatrical runs in L.A. and NYC didn’t mirror the eclat of its conclusion.

Palatable: Big Trouble

Big Trouble (1986)
Directed by Andrew Bergman, John Cassavetes
Written by Andrew Bergman
Produced by Mike Lobell
Starring Alan Arkin, Peter Falk, Beverly D’Angelo, Charles Durning, Paul Dooley, Robert Stack
Last and least ambitious of all Cassavetes’ features is this amusing farce in which the stars of The In-Laws are reunited as a squirrelly insurance agent (Arkin) desperate to pay his musical triplets’ prohibitive tuition and a charming, chronically fraudulent optimist (Falk) of putatively ailing health whose foxy wife (D’Angelo) solicits the former’s abetment of her mariticide to bilk his firm for their mutual benefit. From a slow start, progressively outrageous contretemps and felonies throughout yield some priceless moments cunningly interpreted by seasoned players precisely apt for their respective roles. One of but a few movies helmed for hire by Cassavetes, it still bears many of his trademark conceits: oblique composition, detached wide shots, overhead close-ups, twain L cuts. The institutional modesty of this picture may portend its independent luminary’s lapsing directorial fortunes, but his flair for exploiting the inelegance and quirk of a fair script in his last years is irrefutable.
Recommended for a double feature paired with Illegally Yours.