|Rating: The Good – 87.7
Genre: Crime, Drama
Duration: 135 mins
Director: John Cassavetes
Stars: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel
John Cassavetes’ crime thriller is as inspired and masterful a contribution to the genre as you’ll find. Steeped in the experimental spirit of 1970’s cinema, it tells the story of a proud strip-club owner who is ordered by the mob to murder a local competitor of theirs in order to square off a debt. Ben Gazzara is phenomenal in the central role bringing a level of improvisation and focus to his character which is comparable to what De Niro did with Travis Bickle. It’s a powerfully confident turn and it must surely go down as one of the most under-appreciated performances of that decade. Yes, he is surrounded by a fine support cast with the highly idiosyncratic and combustible Timothy Carey adding strongly to the spirit of improvisation and unpredictability as the mob’s enforcer. However, it’s the understanding between lead actor and director which allows this film to work.
Gazzara and Cassavetes seemed perfect for each other in style and sensibility and the latter’s use of the camera and sound is every bit as inspired and unconventional as the former’s acting. Unafraid to let the camera linger, Cassavetes’ focus here becomes the moments in between the lines of dialogue or in between the more overtly dramatic moments. Moreover, the sense of space he evokes and manipulates is palpable and whether it’s through the physical blocking of his actors’ faces as they deliver their lines in order to focus our attention on the reactions of peripheral characters or the angled framing of the main characters’ facial reactions, Cassavetes makes us intimately familiarity with the characters and their dilemmas.
The most rewarding aspect to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is in its focus. This film is about pride and modest ambition, themes rarely deemed exciting enough to explore in a crime genre. But through the integrity of the central performance and incisiveness of the writing and direction, these otherwise soulful meditations become a cast iron pretext for the more ferocious aspects to the film. Thus, just when you think it’s going to remain an art house examination of such personal quandary, Cassavetes throws a hand grenade of swift and slickly captured action into the mix which gels perfectly with the subjective perspective he had built so completely. All said and done, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a remarkable film even by the 1970’s standards and one that should’ve had a more profound impact on its genre.