In an essay about his obsession with John Cassavetes, novelist Jonathan Lethem begins with a couple parting ways after seeing a Cassavetes film. “Well quit saying you love me,” one of them says, “because if you don't love that movie you don't love me because I am that movie, that movie is me.” You'd be forgiven for thinking he was speaking here about me and my favourite film, Cassavetes' 1976 masterpiece, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a gangster tale, a love story, a film noir and an experiment in light, colour and form. It is a rambling, churning, caring film that is difficult in parts and splendid in others. In short, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazarra) stumbles into debt, and in an attempt to keep his failing but beloved nightclub, the Crazy Horse West, murders a bookie.
There are moments that floor me: a girl's face cut through with golden light and the rushing movement of her arms and legs as she lashes out in unspeakable rage; the intense red and pink of a beaded curtain as it swings, out of focus, across the screen; the way the lens flare washes out Cosmo's face again and again, as though the film stock itself is reminding us of how easy it is to lose sight of ourselves. But what I love best is how all these elements come together to create a film that is alive.
The performances here are the most embodied I've seen, and made even more so by the generous camera work. When we eventually see the Chinese bookie, he is an old man with thick glasses and a sinking chest. As Cosmo trembles with his revolver at the ready, the bookie wades through his indoor swimming pool, whistling softly to himself. The moment is so private and the camera so present, moving right there with the actor, that it's hard to believe that this is a film. The man is giving the performance of his life. In Cassavetes' films the camera always manages to dance with the actors as they cavort across the screen, but in this film the connection is uncanny. This 'presentness' is why I'm never skeptical when Cosmo manages to shoot the guards and flee the scene. He may be an ordinary man, but he is in the zone and we are in it with him.
The film is a string of these flights and caesuras, moments of action followed by mundane interruptions, hesitations broken by bursts of untrammeled energy. The camera pauses on a door handle, breathes, and then rushes forward as Cosmo collapses into a room. A girl, running, is stopped by a sticking door and there is a moment of stillness, then the door bursts open, light floods in, and the film goes on.
I didn't always love The Killing of a Chinese Bookie like I love it now. At first, parts of it lost me, I felt bored when the film took detours and wasted time drifting over walls and floors, pulling in and out of focus. The love came slowly as I watched the film again, and then again, and now I barely go a day without recalling a gesture, a streak of light, or some cackling line. And I think often of Mr. Sophistication, the Crazy Horse West's exhausted, frustrated, frontman, who ends the film with a grinding rendition of 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love'. After one of the strippers lights his shoulder and coos, “He thinks we don't love him, but we really do,” he wanders offstage, his makeup smeared with sweat, his shoulders heavy. It's a perfect image of life in all its fleshy disappointment.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie reminds me how to live and act, how to stay in the moment and hold onto the things I treasure — “to practice, the best thing in this world; to be comfortable.”
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