In 1976, John Cassavetes had his first real commercial failure with one of his independent pictures. While his early, rougher-hewn independent features like Shadows and Faces had drawn eager, curious crowds among the cognescenti, and 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence had attracted Oscar nominations for Cassavetes (Best Director) and Gena Rowlands, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie struggled with harsh reviews and probably also the overwhelming dominance, in the ’70s, of The Godfather as the “model” gangster film. (To me, writing 30-odd years later, The Godfather now seems unwatchably operatic, while Cassavetes’ film retains its firm grip on the textures of real life and the miseries of real crime.) Here’s Variety‘s unsurprising but needlessly snide lead from its 1976 review:
True to form, John Cassavetes challenges a Hollywood cliche: that technology is so advanced even the worst films usually look good. With ease, he proves that an awful film can look even worse.
And here’s Vincent Canby’s equally ludicrous attack on Chinese Bookie‘s climactic set-piece:
My suspicion is that either the film has been sloppily edited or that the director has no firm idea on how to film the sort of sequences in which one actor with a gun stalks another actor with a gun in a dark garage. In the trade this is known as an action sequence and it quickly becomes rather too existential if you can’t figure out who is stalking whom, or why.
That last sentence, whose fundamental premise has long since been overturned even in Hollywood (see, for example, the Sopranos episode “Pine Barrens,” in which Paulie and Christopher are stalked by their own supposed victim), is I think typical of what Philip Lopate means when he says, in his very fine appraisal of the film included with the Criterion DVD set,
Today the film seems a model of narrative clarity and lucidity: either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes, or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style. Now we are more accustomed to hanging out and listening in on the comic banality of low-life small talk; to a semi-documentary, handheld camera, ambient-sound approach; to morally divided or not entirely sympathetic characters, dollops of “dead time,” and subversions of traditional genre expectations.
In other words, once you’ve sat through endless Tarantino monologues about pot and burger joints and old cop shows, suddenly Cassavetes’ supposed “ramblings” seem incredibly urgent and to-the-point.
Narratively and visually, too, we’ve become accustomed, at least in the “film community” but also among the general public, to different things. Today, nine out of ten film students would recognize the brilliant economy of a shot like the one that opens this film. A cab turns a corner through traffic and abruptly pulls up onto the sidewalk outside a cafe; Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) gets out, walks through the patio area, sits down at a table, has a conversation, and sits talking to someone off-camera. Finally the off-camera guy gets up and walks away — we still haven’t seen his face at this point, but his distinctive checked shirt helps us track him through the scene that follows. All of this is a single shot. More happens in the cafe, but the scene ends with a reversal of the opening camera move: Vitelli stands up from the table and walks back out to his cab, and we move with him (practically into the backseat) in an incredibly slick follow-focus dolly-move.
So what does Variety object to in this? Nothing that would strike today’s viewers as odd, but it should be remembered that in 1976 the mainstream was still getting comfortable with blown-out skies, lens flare, murky interiors that drape blackly around their characters, and harsh overhead fluorescents in their movies. Then again, maybe viewers were fine with it, and it’s only the industry that had to catch up.
There are legitimate criticisms of the film. The story, of a small-time strip-club operator in L.A. who gets in over his head to the mob and has to assassinate a Chinese gangster to pay down the debt, at times does get lost in Cassavetes’ fecund inventiveness when it comes to character. Early in the film we spend several minutes discussing New York neighborhoods with a cabbie (in a film not even set in New York!), and later on there’s a long sequence about auditioning a new girl that is fascinating but hardly necessary. Moreover, certain elements are too obvious (do we really need to hear his bookie muttering, “Stupid son of a bitch, hasn’t learned yet…” about Cosmo in the opening scene?) or not obvious enough (I couldn’t figure out, the first time several times I watched the film, what connection the line “I want to reduce the debt, but not pay it off” had to do with the scene that followed it). And the Variety article notes, fairly, that Cosmo’s bullet wound seems to increase or lessen in severity depending on dramatic need. (On the other hand, nobody seems to object when John McClane runs around on shredded feet for two-thirds of Die Hard, and I’m almost inclined to see this as a little parody on Cassavetes’ part of similar contrivances in Hollywood action pictures.)
It takes a peculiar kind of audience to be interested in both strands of this story — the dumpy, pathetic theatre family of the the strip club, and Cosmo’s personal night odyssey as he first carries out the assassination and then deals with the aftermath. The nightclub side of the story is sad, heart-breaking. Cosmo arranges all the numbers — and what dreary, painful numbers they are! His singer and MC, “Mr. Sophistication” (Meade Roberts), is a balding sad sack with sweat-streaked make-up, and while his girls are large-breasted and without question beautiful (Cassavetes used real strippers and models in the roles), there’s something odd about them, too: one girl has a squeaky voice, while another is only 5’2″, which she notes is a couple of inches “under the limit” for dancers at other clubs. This theatre is a last stop for all kinds of failures, and their shows, which weirdly blend titillation with desperate stabs at art, are almost certainly Cassavetes’ funhouse mirror view of his own not-quite-good-enough but completely personal showmanship. If you can watch the “Paris” show and not want to turn off your DVD player, you’re a better man than I. (The hipster look of the crowd, too, suggests that the patrons come here more for irony and amusement than sexual excitement.) But Cosmo’s passionate devotion to the nightclub family drives the whole film, in the way that a man’s love for his nuclear family would drive the action in a more conventional man-against-the-mob thriller. He’s always protecting them (at one point he sends the doorman inside when the mobsters show up on the sidewalk in front of the club), and it’s unlikely that, without that motivation, he would have found the strength to finally meet the gangsters on their own ground.
Cassavetes’ response to the financial failure of the film belies the notion that he was a mulish “artist” type, stubbornly and selfishly pursuing his own “vision.” He spent two years re-editing the film and re-released it in 1978 as a significantly slicker, speedier thriller. My guess is that he was willing to do so because, while he was completely unwilling to bend to studio demands, he always idealistically believed that audiences wanted to see challenging, interesting pictures, and if a film failed it must have earned its failure. (He similarly re-edited his first film, Shadows, after its opening night, when according to legend it drove everyone except avant-garde critic Jonas Mekas out of the theatre.)
The 1978 release loses a lot of the richness of the opening scenes, which show life backstage at the club as well as explaining how Cosmo came to be involved with Seymour Cassel’s unctious, heartless gangster (the 1976 version suggests the gangster targeted him from the beginning). Little scenes that establish Cosmo’s class anxiety, such as one in which the family of one of his strippers pointedly ask him to wait outside when he comes to pick her up, or another in which he fruitlessly tries to impress a girl with Dom Perignon, have been deleted. On the other hand, he adds new material that makes the assassination plot much clearer. Not only do we get a better taste of how dangerous and ruthless the gangsters are (in a short, brutal scene, a woman negotiates to pay off her clueless husband’s gambling debt), but the scene at the diner, where the gangsters try to intimate to Cosmo what they want him to do, has been vastly expanded, helping us understand their demands better — but also, surprisingly, giving us a sense of their delicacy, their light touch. It helps us believe these guys as serious operators to see both the fist and the finesse.
The diner scene also reveals that Cosmo has killed before — albeit during war. But much more importantly, it’s a sly lampoon of a business meeting; in the 1978 edit, it opens with the almost-hilarious line from one of the gangsters, “I, uh, have Xerox copies, John.” All along Cosmo’s relationship with these men has been a back-slapping, fraternity-of-businessmen bonhomie, and throughout the first half of the film Cosmo consistently acts in accordance with a certain etiquette of business relations that seems drawn directly from the mid-twentieth-century capitalist manual for a “successful” life. Dale Carnegie suggested that this kind of behavior would lead to fortune and happiness, while Arthur Miller saw it as lead inexorably toward alienation and tragedy. But Cassavetes sees it as largely comical — albeit not without serious consequences. Cosmo is led down the trail to murder, step by step, because he submits himself to certain “rules of the game” — when he gets into debt, he thanks the loan sharks who surround him and humiliate him in front of the girls, shaking each one’s hand; he submits meekly to a beating when he fails in his first attempt to “reduce the debt,” and, most amusingly, he seems to accept the “official” nature of papers signed over to gangsters. The paper copies of his marker take on exaggerated importance in his transactions with the mobsters, to the point that when he finally relents and agrees to the assassination, they solemnly hand him his “contract” and allow him to tear it up — as though it’s the “legal” document, and not the threat of brute force, that they hold over him.
Strikingly, and this seems a direct rebuff to Mr. Canby’s criticisms, the back end hardly changes at all in the 1978 edit; once Cosmo is committed to the murder, it follows the original almost shot-for-shot. In other words, while Cassavetes may have re-evaluated the audience’s willingness to follow him through his meandering set-up, he doesn’t seem to have doubted his action sequences at all. Nor should he have. From the comic tire-blowout that forces Cosmo to take a cab to the assassination, to the awesome, suspended-in-time moment of recognition and acceptance on the part of the Chinese gangster (Soto Joe Hugh), to the agonizingly tense (and, yes, ambiguous) climax in the parking garage, the whole “crime picture” segment works just fine in both films.
I wish I could say that one version or the other was the “definitive version” — the one you absolutely must see. If you’re unwilling to commit 4-plus hours to seeing both versions, then I suppose I would recommend the second edit — it’s sleek and relatively fast-paced, and it’s a clearer, more concise narrative. But frustratingly, perversely, each has something to offer that the other lacks. If it’s true that Cosmo’s big problem is that he’s bought into certain ideals of the gentleman entrepreneur that cause him follow rules of social intercourse that don’t work to his favor (and in this, he’s basically like most of us who work for a living), then it would be helpful to see both the 1976 version’s early scenes of class uncertainty as well as the 1978 picture’s extended “business meeting” scene.
But both films ultimately end up at the same place. Because it’s when Cosmo stops acting according to his artificial code of etiquette and starts addressing these gangsters as human beings that he’s finally able to confront them. Tellingly, he’s different with each man who comes to kill him in that parking garage — gentle with the looming, tragic Timothy Carey character, ruthless and quick with Seymour Cassel’s slippery Mort, cautious and predatory with the third and perhaps most dangerous killer. When Cosmo stops worrying about how he’s supposed to act, and acts according to his relationships with individuals, he’s suddenly not a loser or a sucker anymore, but a very capable man. Call this romanticism if you will, but it’s goddamned appealing.
The remainder of the film (the part after the “crime film” sequence) is devoted to exploring how well Cosmo can maintain his humanness and honesty in the aftermath of what’s happened to him. Almost immediately, when he returns to his girlfriend’s house and has it out with her mother, he lapses into salesmanship again, and the mother, as honest and human as they come, skewers him easily and sends him away. When he returns to the club, his home of last resort, the results are mixed, if somewhat optimistic. Attempting to rally Mr. Sophistication and the girls when they’ve fallen to arguing, he opens himself up, admitting that he’s only happy “when i can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.” But he also stuffs his speech with seeming tautologies (“the only people who are happy are the people who are comfortable”) and cliches (“What’s your truth is my falsehood. What’s my falsehood is your truth and vice versa”), and ultimately he resorts, literally, to a song to get Mr. Sophistication motivated.
There are breasts. So many breasts. Not prim, these-breasts-are-necessary-to-the-plot breasts, either, but great big gratuitous boobs.
Mr. Sophistication, in a moment of mingled pride and self-pity, puts it this way:
I don’t want to pull a big star bit… but people do come here because i’m… well, some unique kind of personality, I suppose. A bit far out, a bit freakish maybe. But unique in my own way. And when things go badly, who gets the booing? I do. But when things go well… they… they, they, they get the applause and all the cheers — because they flash their tits.
To which Cosmo, momentarily caught between his conception of himself as an artist and his duties as an entertainer, replies uncertainly, “What’s wrong with tits?”
If Cassavetes’ earlier films were uncompromisingly works of “art,” whose pleasures were entirely emotional and cerebral, the director here, for the first time, flirts with feeding us those R-complex pleasures that cinema is so good at. At times he seems to be offering us a pure macho entertainment, a world of strong, confident men and cheerful, half-naked women. To his credit, Cassavetes is never contemptuous of his audience, and indeed he seems to be having a pretty good time himself, which is part of what makes this film one of his most accessible and most amenable to frequent viewing. More surprisingly, as noted above, Cassavetes seems never to have doubted his ability to deliver the “tits,” but substantially reworked and second-guessed the “unique kind of personality” of the film’s first half-hour.
At the same time, he’s not entirely willing to let himself off the hook as an artist and just deliver up a straight thriller, and the whole strip-club thread of the film allows him to comment on his own role as an artist. Cosmo, of course, is a stand-in for Cassavetes himself, the “padrone” who takes full responsibility for both the art and his artists:
I’m the owner of this joint. I, uh, choose the numbers… I direct them, I arrange them. You have any, uh, complaints, you just come to me, and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.
Most of the film could serve as some kind of metaphor for Cassavetes’ willingness to do morally questionable hackwork for the studios in order to independently finance (i.e., protect) his own projects. But the character of Mr. Sophistication calls into question whether this Faustian bargain is even worthwhile, because the “artwork” that Cosmo/Cassavetes is protecting is so profoundly unpleasant and alienating that he risks humiliating his performers. If the girls are giving us the tits, the easy pleasures, Mr. Sophistication is both bravely attempting to take the high road and sneering at his audience for hoping to enjoy the performance. (In the performance that closes the film, he sings sweetly as a heartbroken angel, then snarls at the crowd, “Grovel for it. Grovel.”) His anger, obviously, is a cover for the horrible embarrassment that self-expression always involves, the more so when it’s obvious that no one really wants to hear it.
You know, uh, they say everything is sex. Uh, sex is everything. Here at the Crazy Horse West, we give you a lot more than that.