Wednesday, November 3, 2010
#254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
I rather enjoyed The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but I watched it on Netflix, and for some reason they decided to include the 108-minute version instead of the original 135-minute version. I don't know if those extra 27 minutes would have turned this film from good to great, but it didn't quite make me want to go back and find out (if someone really thinks it's worth it, speak now). This was obviously an experiment on the part of Cassavetes, attempting to insert his style and approach into a conventional gangster story. Deep down, I was kind of hoping the movie would reference some of the great French impressionist gangster masterpieces, but I didn't actually expect that to happen. The movie ends up being for more Cassavetes than Melville, which inevitably has its pluses and minuses.
The big plus is undoubtedly Ben Gazzara, who is understated, deceptively deep, and ultimately heart-wrenching as the club owner forced to murder in order to resolve his debts. He reminded me very much of Philip Baker Hall's broken man in Paul Thomas Anderson's Hard Eight aka Sydney, and both performances transcend their respective films as a whole.
The movie itself reminded me of two movies. The first is Donnie Brasco, Mike Newell's seemingly forgotten portrait of the mafia underclass. It's easy to look at the films that are produced about nightclub owners, organized crime, and hitmen and decide that it's a glamorous world ruled by men who know what they are doing and live the good life doing it. It's movies like this which take you beneath that myth and explore the people who attempt to live this way, but aren't able to actually succeed. Gazzara is broken in the film long before his debts are called in, long before he is forced to do something that is against his best instincts. His whole life, as he basically explains in his final monologue, revolves around pretending to be someone else, performing for the crowd. It's just unclear whether that crowd is the people around him or the audience.
The second film is a Criterion film and a masterpiece of crime cinema, The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Like Gazzara and Hall (and Pacino) Robert Mitchum is struggling to make ends meet as a member of the "glamorous" underworld. But The Friends of Eddie Coyle, certainly a precursor to the greatest television show of all time, The Wire, is all about reflecting reality, intertwining so many people and their motivations that the story is no longer so cut and dry, and the viewer is left with an empty feeling that the system is ready to choke down and spit up anyone that's no longer useful. With this in mind, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is no more realistic than the gangster movies to which it is a counterpoint. That doesn't make it a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, it just means that time has somewhat passed it by, whereas Eddie Coyle, made three years earlier, feels fresher than ever.