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Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Criterion Chronicles - The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

This is an ongoing series in which I chronicle the films of the Criterion Collection that I watch. I will include a brief synopsis and my thoughts. I usually watch these films on Hulu Plus' Criterion Channel..... I am currently paid by neither...

Cosmo Vitelli is a very confident and well liked strip club owner who just doesn't know when to fold a bad hand. He gets in over his head in a poker game and ends up owing the local crime syndicate $23,000. When he is unable to pay, they offer him an alternative solution. His task is to murder a book keeper that is being protected by his Chinatown neighborhood. Cosmo knows the score. If he refuses, it will only be a matter of time before they come for him.

This is a film from the movement sometimes referred to as "New American Cinema" or "American New Wave" that started in the late 60's. It is a movement that you can tell had trickled down from the French New Wave movement putting pressure on studios to give more artistic freedom to the directors. This is when auteur style film making began to flourish. Artists were allowed much more freedom to make films with less than traditional narratives. This lead to films like Francis Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation", Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider". It is also no coincidence that this explosion of creativity here in the states coincided with the end of the Hays Code in 1968.

John Cassavetes was a very successful television and movie actor in the 50's who began directing his own films in the 60's. Many of his films were slice-of-life melodramas featuring great performances from the likes of Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Cassavetes' own wife, Gena Rowlands. I would easily put Rowlands' performance in 1974's "A Woman Under the Influence" as one of the greatest on screen performances of all time.

This film however, at least begins with a more traditional narrative. It almost takes place in a noirish world of moral tales we found a to be so popular in the cinema of 50's. Ben Gazzara plays the lead as Cosmo.  He is the quintessential lady's man, well liked, confident and charismatic. He is so calm and collected that when he gets himself into trouble, its hard to really tell the full weight of the situation. This turns the plot of the film into a very good slow burn. By the end of the film, its hard to fathom exactly how we've found ourselves in this position. This is what made me think of the moral tales of the noir films from years past. I would almost consider this to be Neo-Noir but the plot doesn't crescendo in a true noir fashion. It's actually more of a underworld melodrama. Even after the film climaxes, it slows down back down and ends with an existential monologue.

All of the performances were great in this film, especially Gazzara's. I think it was the acting combined with the semi-realism style of camera work that gave this film its uniqueness. The wide aspect ration of 1.85:1 captures the Los Angeles area and all of its bright sunlight as well as its dark corners very well. It is reminiscent of Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece "Chinatown" in more ways than one.

This isn't my favorite Cassavetes film but I would highly suggest it as a piece of American cinematic history. Its important to take note of the major changes this country's cinema experienced at the end of the Hays Code era. Although I think "A Woman Under the Influence" is his best film, this one has a very different edge to it and is absolutely worth a watch.



  1. "A Women Under The Influence" and "Faces" are my two favorite Cassavetes films. I haven't seen this film in long time but I think this will be the next film I revisit. Good review again sir.

    1. Yeah, I can't really overstate how amazing I think Gena Rowlands' performance in "AWUTI" is... It is not easy to watch. In fact, I tried re-watching a while ago and only made it about half way through...

      "Minnie and Moskowitz" is available on Netflix right now and I've never seen it so I threw it on my ever growing list......


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