Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Slaying of a "Chinese" Rookie
Remember the good old days of video store browsing? Remember back before DVDs when every grocery store and even convenience stores had video sections? Every place had a weird ass selection of shit you'd never heard of, most of it stuff that should never have been made in the first place, but man I loved going up and down the aisles picking up every box and checking out the strange things you never heard about in the circles I traveled as a child. I grew up in a household that didn't care about film or television and exposure to them was strictly regulated, so I started from square one as a fan when I got my first video store membership. Everything was on equal ground, 'cause I just didn't know what I "should" like/see/love/avoid/hate, (I didn't see the Godfather films till I was twenty). One such grocery store visit when I was about twenty years old, I found a title called Killing of a Chinese Bookie directed by John Cassavetes, (which meant nothing to me). Basically it had a great title, so I picked it up. She-it I was floored by it. I was finding out that I was drawn to "crime" in film and literature and had started picking out some of the rhythms and themes as well as the cliches and pitfalls, but hell I had never seen anything quite like this one. Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, the owner/operator of a gentleman's club in San Fransisco. He's a Korea vet and takes a hands on approach and pride in the business he's built. His interest in his employees is good natured and his control over the place is absolute. He writes, produces and directs all the "numbers" that are performed by Mr. Sophistication, (the elegantly creepy Meade Roberts) and the girls who recite poetry, dance a bit, tell some jokes and eventually, sometimes take their tops off. One of the best scenes of the film finds Cosmo in a phone booth, at his breaking point, making desperate calls as his plan to fix everything is falling apart. While he waits on a taxi to arrive, he places a call to the club and demands to know what's happening on stage from the uninterested bar tender. "What song are they singing? What do you mean you don't know?" He proceeds to sing I Can't Give You Anything But Love into the receiver with such naked emotional investment that it defines his character. He is smooth and slick, dressed in odd colored suits with black bow ties, he seems sleazy yet holds the moral center of the film well because his smarminess is so sincere. When we first meet Cosmo, he's making the final payment on a debt and feeling on top of the world. He feels so good that he takes all the girls out on a date and they end up in a back room casino where he loses $23,000 which he doesn't have. "I pay my debts!" he tells the gangsters with a searing genuiness when they try to work out a payment plan and when the titular solution is proposed, Cosmo stands up briefly - I owe you money and that's what you'll get. But before long, he's leaned on harder and forced to go through with their suggested form of payment. What happens next, I'll leave for you to find out, but this one left me reeling all those years ago. It was shot with a hand held camera and the garish neon source lighting gives an instant immersion into the world. The acting is incredible too. Naturalistic and physical. Nobody spouts a "written" line, they talk like people talking and the fly on the wall feel of it heightens the stakes and the tension. There was talk of a Hollywood remake in the works not long ago and thank god it never happened because they would fuck it up, I guarantee. The focus would be on the mechanics of the hit, or the workings of the gangster's fiefdom. It would become a love story between Cosmo and one of the dancers, something only touched on and more powerful for its subtlety in the original. It would get into double, triple and quadruple crosses and have snappy dialogue and a snazzy soundtrack. The editing would be cool and retro, instead of intimate and ground breaking. I attended a screening of Killing of a Chinese Bookie the other night, the first time I'd watched it in its entirety in a while and it is one that I wish dearly I could go back and see again for the first time. I was hoping it would be a digital projection of the Criterion edition, but alas it was not. It was scratchy, hard to hear and dark... like drastically underlit, dark. Still loved the picture, but I'm going to have to go a while longer before seeing the Criterion edition. Can't afford that shit and there aren't video sections at the grocery stores anymore.