Our definitions of film noir, and thus its later neo-noir offspring, offer a delightful lesson in how pliable the boundaries of genre can be – particularly since the relationship of noir to genre varies so wildly from viewer to viewer. Some will swear up and down that noir (and thus neo-noir) is itself a genre, which is understandable but not, to these eyes, accurate; while most of what we think of as film noir falls under the rubric of the crime film, be it detective pictures (The Big Sleep), heist movies (The Asphalt Jungle), police procedurals (The Naked City), or what we would come to define as erotic thrillers (Double Indemnity).
But there were noir dramas, noir Westerns, even noir comedies, and those boundaries get even looser once we get into the period, of the 1970s and beyond, of neo-noirs. These films – the focus of a current program on the Criterion Channel – include such clear homages as Chinatown, Farewell My Lovely, and The Last Seduction, but also urban reimaginings (Cotton Comes to Harlem, Across 110th Street), semi-satirical subversions (The Long Goodbye) and intersections with New Queer Cinema (Swoon), British gangster movies (Mona Lisa), and high school drama (Brick).
And thus the inclusion of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in Criterion’s selection is striking, because it’s similarly difficult to pin down what, exactly, a Cassavetes movie is – though, like noir, people are always insisting some movie or another is done in his style. You can usually narrow it down to a handful of stylistic devices or buzzwords (handheld camerawork, improvised dialogue, unconventional narratives, toxic masculinity, raw and unguarded emotion), just like film noir (urban settings, night photography, heavy shadows, film fatales, hardboiled dialogue). Those descriptors don’t apply to every Cassavetes movie, nor every film noir. But there are enough intersections to make The Killing of a Chinese Bookie a fascinating experiment.
Ben Gazzara stars as Cosmo Vittelli – everybody knows Cosmo, and everybody likes Cosmo. When we first meet him, he’s wearing a natty white suit, and when he tells the “lowlife” he’s meeting that he has “no style” (“I do business with you, but you have no style”), we get the sense that it’s the gravest insult he can deliver. He’s the owner, director, and emcee of the Crazy Horse West, a quote-unquote classy burlesque joint on the Sunset Strip; he’s also a bit of a gambler, and he’s meeting that un-stylish lowlife to pay off a long-standing gambling debt. But Cosmo is a guy who can only win for so long, and immediately – like, within days – he’s run up a new marker.
However, the Mob guys he’s newly in debt to make him a deal: they’ll wipe it clean if he’ll commit the titular crime. This summary makes the picture sound far more direct than it is, and one of the film’s small pleasures is the way Cassavetes slides the plot in sideways, almost under his breath – the title character is introduced by an edit mid-sentence, and rather than giving us a bunch of backstory about this underworld conflict, the filmmaker lingers on the logistics (like the comically convoluted driving instructions to his hideaway) and complications (Cosmo’s barely made it onto the highway before he gets flat tire.)
When the time comes to pull the trigger, it’s a gnarly, ugly scene; this is not a professional assassin, for God’s sake, but a strip club owner, so the execution is messy, and he doesn’t notice potential witnesses at first so he has to take them out too, and the gunshots all have an unappealing, high-pitched pop, rather than the bass-heavy boom we’ve come to expect from our criminal antiheroes. Of course, it turns out he wasn’t told the whole truth about his target: “It was the heaviest cat on the West Coast,” confesses his handler Mort, who apologizes “about the whole thing, Cosmo, but uh… it couldn’t be helped, y’know? I mean that’s why we’re here to talk about it. It just happened to be you. I like you, I personally like you, I felt it when I met you, it was just instinct.”
Mort is played by Seymour Cassel, part of Cassavetes’s recurring stock company; Gazzara was also one of the writer/director’s regulars, appearing in two other films, though this is their finest collaboration. It’s a livewire performance, veering from melancholy to brutality to pleasure, often within the same scene. That tonal fluidity – sometimes incongruity – complemented his commitment to an emotional truth that attempted to replicate the messy ugliness of real life, which may be why current film culture tends to treat his work more with a guarded respect (or acknowledgement of influence) rather than the unapologetic affection of the films of his contemporaries.
But that simple fact – that no one made movies quite like these, and few these days even try – is why they maintain their freshness. Indie crime dramas of the ‘90s and beyond might attempt to replicate the kind of atmospheric touches and character beats of a film like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but they’d tie it all together with a Woo-lite shoot-out and wrap-up; instead, the closest thing this gangster-infused crime movie has to an “action sequence” is an awkward scene of a mob hood trying to find our guy in a warehouse, just shooting at everything, clumsily.
In fact, far less time is spent in criminal circles than the charmingly low-rent numbers at the nudie bar, where Cosmo is trying to make art for an audience that only wants smut (“Take it off!” they shout impatiently). There’s a sense of autobiography here – that Cassavetes is making a crime movie, because that’s what a filmmaker like him could get financed in the 1970s, but he’s far more interested in his protagonist’s artistic frustration. (Similarly, his later Gloria ingeniously uses the tropes of the early-‘80s action movie to provide the structure for a dazzling Gena Rowlands character study.)
To that end, Chinese Bookie is a backstage movie – smaller in scale (and quite a bit sleazier) than his next feature, Opening Night, but in the same spirit. Cassavetes came from the stage himself, from small actors’ groups and off-Broadway shows, so it’s no surprise that he concludes his film not with a shoot-out or action sequence, but a backstage pep talk. “Let’s go down there and we’ll do a great show,” Cosmo tells his girls. “We’ll smile, we’ll cry big glistening tears that pour onto the stage, and we’ll make their lives a little happier, ok? So they won’t have to face themselves.” There’s an awful lot packed into that little speech. Especially that last line.