The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (rewatch)
Posted by martinteller on October 11, 2014
Movies that exist in multiple cuts sometimes present the viewer with a difficult decision to make. Sometimes the choice is clear… you’re probably not going to opt for the studio-butchered “Love Conquers All” cut of Brazil except out of morbid curiosity. Other times it’s not so simple. While I believe the “Final Cut” of Blade Runner is a better film, I still have lingering nostalgia for the Deckard narration in the original theatrical release. Chinese Bookie was released in 1976 in a 135-minute cut, which is the one I watched ten years ago. It tanked at the box office, was poorly received by critics, and was yanked out of distribution after a week. Cassavetes re-cut the film and in 1978 released on a 109-minute version. There isn’t a clear consensus on which is the superior cut, and part of that may stem from differing accounts of why Cassavetes did it. Some say the first cut was rushed and Cassavetes being Cassavetes, he wouldn’t have re-cut it unless that’s what he wanted to do. Others believe it was an artistic compromise to make the movie more accessible.
What I remembered most about the 1976 cut were the interminable cabaret scenes. In my review at the time, I said I should have watched the later version (which, although shorter, contains scenes that do not appear in the longer version, making the choice even more of a challenge). But part of me wanted to tackle that longer cut again. If I appreciate Cassavetes, shouldn’t I want more Cassavetes? Shouldn’t I want the pure, uncompromising, difficult Cassavetes? But the thought of watching all those tedious burlesque scenes again… the point is made well enough in just a few minutes. And so I went with the re-cut, with the idea that if I liked it enough then the next time I would revisit the first release. Besides, I’m inclined to agree with those who think he really wanted to re-edit the film. He’s clearly not the type of director who would go against his vision to please an audience, placate an investor or studio, or make more money.
And with this is mind, I now have a greater appreciation for the autobiographical nature of the film, about an artist who builds his own world, and that world is compromised by outside influences. Part of it is due to his own character flaws: he gambles money he doesn’t have, putting his business (and his life, and his art) in jeopardy. But part of it is the parasitic nature of the gangsters, who see an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone, in a very literal sense. Cosmo preaches that a comfortable man is a happy man, and the mobsters have invaded his comfort, forced him to be something he is not. Ben Gazzara’s performance is spellbinding, and you can see it in his eyes as he assesses a situation and tries to decide how to play it. You can see the passion he has for his show, an absolute shambles of a show but it’s his and it’s what he loves. It was also a treat to revisit this film with a much greater affection for Tim Carey, an actor who fascinates me to no end. I could watch that dude all day long.
Still, I can’t say I love the movie. The shorter cut has some wonderful character moments, but I must say it does seem to stick too close to the plot, which isn’t an especially original one. Somewhere between the indulgence of the ’76 cut and the leanness of the ’78 cut is a film that has a good mix of narrative and authorial personality. Or maybe not… maybe this material isn’t interesting enough to be molded into a great movie, no matter how you cut it. But it does have a certain unique something to it. It’s got that Cassavetes vibe to it, that nervous and excited feeling that anything could happen, that you never know what someone is going to say. Cosmo is an intriguing character because underneath the style you want to see what makes him tick. It’s enough to convince me that next time I’ll give the original cut another go. Maybe. Rating: Good (76)