The “Killing” of John Cassavetes
True film-critic’s confession: I’ve never been able to sit through an entire John Cassavetes movie. For years, I’ve heard fellow cineastes as well as screenwriters, directors and actors — mostly actors, now that I think of it — singing Cassavetes’ praises for his emotionally raw, rough, real dramas that blazed a trail for a generation of independent filmmakers who followed. But every time I’ve tried to watch, say, Minnie and Moskowitz or A Woman Under the Influence (admittedly, in edited versions on TV), I quickly grew tired of enduring scenes of men and women drinking, crying and yelling at each other. If I wanted to see that, I wouldn’t have gotten divorced. (Personal note to my ex-wife’s lawyer: That’s a joke.)
But I had a first date with a filmmaker/professor this week who mentioned in her online profile that she’s a huge fan of ’70s cinema (as am I), so I thought I’d impress her by taking her to see Cassavetes’ 1976 crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. And I loved it. And she hated it. She admitted to me afterwards that she shared my previously held view that Cassavetes was overrated. Here’s true critical heresy: I enjoyed son Nick Cassavetes’ tearjerker The Notebook, in large part because of the performances by his mother (and John’s muse) Gena Rowlands and James Garner, more than anything I’d seen by his dad.
Until now. Maybe Bookie‘s gangster trappings captivated me more than any of Cassavetes’ domestic dramas, but I was absolutely riveted. Ben Gazzara, who’s such a perfect stand-in for Cassavetes that I momentarily forgot he wasn’t the filmmaker himself, stars as a seedy L.A. strip-club owner who gets himself deep in gambling debts to a group of mobsters, including the great character actor Timothy Carey (from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing and Paths of Glory), a proto-Nicolas Cage before he went off the rails, as well as Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel.
To reduce what he owes, Gazzara reluctantly agrees to, yes, kill a Chinese bookie, and the sequence in which he tracks down his target and escapes the crime scene is thrillingly shot and edited, while still allowing the story to breathe in a way that today’s cut-within-an-inch-of-their-lives action flicks like Jason Bourne never do.
The original version of Bookie ran two and a quarter hours, but Cassavetes wisely recut it to a tight 108 minutes (or at least I thought it was tight; my date’s first words as we walked out was, “I never thought it would end!”). Much of the lost footage came from scenes of the performers at Gazzara’s Crazy Horse West nightclub, a troupe of frequently naked women and a bizarro singer named Mr. Sophistication, played by Meade Roberts. Fun fact: Back in the late ’80s, I tried to take a New School screenwriting course taught by Mr. Roberts, who had cowritten two failed films with Tennessee Williams in the ’50s, The Fugitive Kind and Summer and Smoke, but dropped it after only one session because I found him to be nearly as pretentious as my classmates (who inexplicably almost all named Platoon as their favorite film).
Maybe I should’ve given Roberts another chance. I’m ready to give Cassavetes one.