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Friday, April 04, 2014

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) d. John Cassavetes

Movie Review
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
 (1976) d. John Cassavetes
Criterion Collection #254
Part of John Cassavetes: Five Films
Criterion Collection #250

  If you look at that Google Ngram comparing the frequency of mention for Cassavetes, Truffaut, Bergman & Godard between 1960 and 2000, you can see that as of 2000 Cassavetes gets a "3,"  Truffaut gets a "9" and Bergman and Godard both get 11's.  So Truffaut is approximately 3x as popular and Bergman and Godard are both close to 4x as popular as Cassavetes.  Comparing the long term trends for all four film makers, only Bergman is on a path of long term decline (he peaked at "25" in the mid 1970s, and since then has dropped by 14 "points.")

  I'm looking into this because I feel strange about never having seen one of Cassavetes' films before a couple weeks ago.  How did this happen?  He's obviously a key, key figure in American independent film- perhaps THE key figure.  I am someone who claims to be "into" American independent film, so it seems unlikely that I would have missed such a key artist...unless he's not actually that key.  I think the chart above makes a clear case that Cassavetes is roughly a third as popular as Truffaut and a fourth as popular as Bergman and Godard.

  That makes sense to me, since I am placing great stock on no one ever saying anything like, "Oh well you HAVE to watch this Cassavetes film."  Needless to say, watching a Cassaevetes picture in 2014 is a familiar experience because so many of his techniques have been adopted lock stock and barrel by subsequent American film makers.  Cassavetes himself is adopting techniques that were either developed or logically derived from techniques by the European directors of the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism and Bergman, but he contributes an improvisational FEEL (his films were tightly scripted and not actually improvisational) and an immediacy that are intimately familiar to a generation raised on video tape and now digital video.

  The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is what you call a noir picture, though Cassavetes is so far from classic noir conventions that this movie is more like the take of an art film director on the genre of noir.  Ben Gazzara is amazing as low level strip club/burlesque club owner Cosmo Vittelli and Cassavetes take on the conventions of noir are as elliptical and personal as all his other takes on everything else. Character mumble and bullshit- it's like the direct inspiration for several decades of American independent cinema in terms of the underlit scenery and shaky camera work.

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