THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, JOHN CASSAVETES, 1976
Criterion often packages multiple versions of a film. Often the theatrical release is cut to shreds and the longer release is the director’s cut, which is usually the better version. As a habit, I’ve usually chosen the longer cut for the first viewing, and sometimes (usually never) will revisit the film by watching the shorter version. That’s how I approached this Cassavetes film, but I forgot one important difference between his work and all the others. He didn’t have to worry about studios, editors, or final cut. He wrote, directed, produced and usually financed his own films, so he had the ability to cut the film however he liked. So in this unusual case, the longer version is the inferior version.
Chinese Bookie has a lot going for it, especially the performance of Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli, a down on his luck New York cabaret club owner who finds himself in a difficult situation. He plays it with subtlety, but also with charm. He’s a likeable guy. He acts as a sort of caretaker for his performing girls, and feels very close to them. One of them is his girlfriend. He takes pride in his club, and puts all the money he makes back into it. Cosmo is a well-drawn character, like most in the Cassavetes world, and Gazzara plays him exceptionally well. He keeps himself calm and composed for the most part, and only loses control for a brief moment later in the film, a moment that is powerful because of how the character has been played.
As much as I liked the character and the actor, everything else was a slog. During the first 40-minutes or so, the film seems like it is going to be up to par with other Cassavetes films, mostly because of the strength of the performance and the character. He carries the momentum through his interaction with Seymour Cassell’s character. After that, the film just hits a brick wall. It should have been exciting when the titled act is carried out, but not really. It is hard to tell whether Cassavetes was going for artistic photography, pacing and editing, such as he had with Faces, but it simply didn’t work.
From there it gets worse. We go further inside the club. Most of the ensemble actors were amateurs and it shows. They show full musical numbers with a made up character named Mr. Sophistication doing the narration and provocatively dressed women playing out the parts. The catcalls from the audience suggest what the show is really about, as they bellow “Take it off!” and erupt in applause when one of the women momentarily pulls down her top. The problem is that we see too many of these numbers; they go on far too long; and they are not interesting. It is hard to imagine this show being popular. Early in the movie when Cassell visits on a Sunday, it seems that it isn’t, but during the performance sequences, the place seems packed. On screen, these performance sequences were overlong, awkward, and unnecessary. They took away from the character moments that bookended them.
After completing the film, being disappointed and navigating the supplements, I discovered that the longer version was, in fact, not the preferred version. Cassavetes felt that he was rushed to edit the film and did a poor job. The second version, released in 1978, is about 30-minutes shorter, but it isn’t simply fat being cut out of the film. Scenes are re-arranged. Many are cut, like the performance sequences that I loathed so much, and other scenes are included that weren’t in the longer version. The shorter version is supposed to be the definitive and preferred version. After watching the monstrosity of the longer version, I was not ready and willing to give it another try. Take this rating with a grain of salt because someday I will revisit this, and will probably prefer the 1978 version.
Film Rating: 3.5/10*
Interview with Gazzara and Ruban. This is where I learned much about the controversy with the versions. When the 1976 version was released, it landed with a thud. People hated it, just like I did, and the actor and producer talk about how difficult that was to deal with.
Cassavetes interview: I always enjoy hearing Cassavetes talk about his style and his films. He conveys his passion, which can also be seen on screen.
Aside from the two versions, this disc is relatively thin on extras. It is the weakest thus far from the Cassavetes box.
Criterion Rating: 3/10*
* Could change when I see the 1978 version.