My journey through the works of John Cassavetes has admittedly been a rough one. I’ve found things to like in each of them (except for Faces), but the films themselves are rather hard for me to get through, mostly because of how rough and neorealistic they are. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, his final film on the list, turned out to be no different, despite the film’s efforts to the contrary. The Book calls this a post-noir film, and Wikipedia’s opening cites it as a crime and an art film, which I don’t really get, but I won’t dispute too much, mostly because I’m too unsure of what other label to give the film. As a post-noir, it misses too many of the hallmarks of a noir to really fit the bill, and it is far too mainstream to be classified as an art film. Really, the crime label is the one that fits the best, but that’s only because the main character commits the titular crime, and little else. This is a film, much like Cassavetes’ other work, that defies labels.
Ben Gazzara stars as Cosmo Vittelli, a small-time club owner and gambling man who ends up gambling a little too far, owing $23,000 to the mob. The enforcers of the debt give him an out; kill another small-timer, the Chinese bookie of the title, and the debt is cleared. Little does Vittelli know the true nature of the request given to him, or the toll it will take on him personally. I know this is my fourth Cassavetes film, so I should expect something along these lines, but I still couldn’t get over how amateur the film looked. Independent director or not, there were way too many moments that I had a hard time keeping up with what was going on solely because the camerawork was so sloppy. The quality of the print I watched wasn’t all that great regardless, but I’m usually able to see through that and tell how the film itself is built and shot, and here, there were a lot of times that the focus was fuzzy, or the cinematographer didn’t account for the elements in the frame, or other errors that made the film look and feel the way it did. The audio was another rough aspect, as I’ve come to expect from Cassavetes, but seeing as this was the film that he followed A Woman Under the Influence with, I couldn’t help but still feel a bit let down. The one aspect that was very well done, in almost a mirror of Cassavetes’ previous film, was the acting; Gazzara’s central performance is a career-defining one, and while it’s not up to the level of Gena Rowlands, it will still be very difficult to watch Gazzara in just about any other film and not see Cosmo Vittelli in him.
It took me a few attempts over a couple of days to get through this, which is largely how I ended up the way I did on the film, and indeed it took me a little while to figure out why I really didn’t like it in the way that I did: it was too empty. There’s several critiques of this film that make mention of how human it is, and how warm the story surrounds the character of Vittelli, but I just didn’t see it, or anything else for that matter. I was reminded of Elephant, though this has a couple of things over the vacuum that was that film, but not by all that much. That, and the third act of this film dragged on far too long, but I’d be splitting hairs if I went on any further. I’ve seen other reviews and reviewers that have cited this film as not the best Cassavetes they’ve seen, but it was still their personal favorite. I didn’t end up the same way as these people; I’d probably say Shadows was my favorite of his, with this and A Woman Under the Influence a distant second, and really I’d put the latter over this one just because of the level of the central performance. As much as I wanted to, I didn’t see this getting into the masterpiece territory that most everyone else seemed to put this. I guess Cassavetes as a director just isn’t really for me.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10