Criterion Sunday 254: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Back in the day I used to say this was my favourite of Cassavetes’ films, and though I probably like Shadows or A Woman Under the Influence better in retrospect, it’s still pretty powerful. Cassavetes approaches an almost genre theme — as the title suggests, there’s a gangland hit involved — but he approaches it obliquely. Watching the original 1976 135 minute cut, it takes almost an hour or so to even get to that point, and what we see is a portrait of a man who runs a nightclub (a strip club), arranging and putting together the shows. For all his evident sleaziness and self-absorption, he also clearly cares about his club and his dancers, but he also has a gambling problem that leads to the title’s killing, and ends up being his downfall. The film, however, remains focused at all times on Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo (who could be read as a directorial stand-in, in the way of many great films about art made by artists), on his flaws but also his strange, sweet integrity.

The shorter 1978 cut of the film certainly gets to the plot a lot quicker, and does a better job overall of setting up the machinations that lead to the action of the title, though we still get a strong sense of Cosmo’s world, particularly his drab nightclub with its ridiculous amateurish routines that nevertheless he is still utterly invested in. But once the hit happens, it seems to slip back into the rhythms of the longer cut, upping the existential angst of its protagonist as he faces (possible) mortality, with things unravelling on the business side as his ties with the mobsters who keep him afloat seem to fall away, even as he desperately tries to keep everything under control. The way Cosmo pretends everything is normal, that he is in (creative) control, even when he seems to be slowly losing everything is at the heart of both films ultimately.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban speak in the mid-2000s to the Criterion Collection about the film, with Gazzara in particular unpacking it as the portrait of a misunderstood artist (Cassavetes himself).
  • There’s also a short audio interview with two French critics from the time, where Cassavetes gets a little tetchy about his film being described as a genre piece — although the point the critics were making is that it uses such conceits as a starting place, but certainly doesn’t define the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Azizi Johari; Length 135 minutes [original version] and 108 minutes [1978 re-edit].

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 15 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, January 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 6 July 2019 [original version] and Wednesday 24 July 2019 [1978 re-edit]).

Advertisements

Criterion Sunday 253: A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

In my ongoing Criterion watching project, I stalled a bit before this film. I’d seen it before, and I’d rated it highly, but it’s one of those films that you need to take a big breath and a bit of time before you launch yourself into it because it is unrelenting. It’s not bleak exactly, but it’s exhausting because Gena Rowlands — who utterly dominates the film — just fills every empty space with her presence. She’s Mabel, the mother to three kids, and the wife to Peter Falk’s construction engineer Nick (or some kind of municipal worker), and if the way I’m defining her life seems a little regressive, well that’s the world of the film, and it’s strongly implied that part of her problem is the way that she has been pushed into this role, and the way she comes apart at the seams trying to live up to expectations made of her. That’s also partly why it’s so heartbreaking, because although she’s clearly become unhinged, it’s Nick who’s the bully and the bad person. He can be sweet and understanding at times, but every time he loses control of Mabel, he starts shouting and gets pushy and violent, and the kids, who are there most of the time, can’t do much about it. Cassavetes keeps the camera tight in on them for much of the film, only at the end disappearing behind a closed curtain as he leaves them. It’s a film of towering acting performances, not least from Rowlands, although Falk is also on brilliant form. There are these characters around the edges (parents, kids, co-workers of Nick’s), who feel almost like non-actors and perhaps they are, but for all its age, it feels continually fresh and perceptive about its characters, and about mental health.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographers Al Ruban and Mitch Breit; Starring Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk; Length 147 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 12 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 2000, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Thursday 4 July 2019).

Criterion Sunday 252: Faces (1968)

This is in some ways the ur-Cassavetes picture, which came after a few unsuccessful studio pictures in the early-60s as a return to the improvisational quality of Shadows, not to mention developing the verité-style black-and-white high-contrast camerawork into a grander form. Although it was all scripted, it does still feel like the actors are using the script as a means to finding the emotion, and that’s what Cassavetes is ultimately most interested in, those unforced moments of feeling that come through in the actors’ performances. Frequently the scenes as written feel rambling or unfocused, and often the actors are playing drunk, which doesn’t always pay off, but it captures something that a lot of cinema wasn’t doing in the US of the 1960s (Bergman is namechecked within the film, and that feels like a more fair comparison point). Thus, for all that it’s a film about an older man confronting mortality and a fairly unremarkable working life, as well as people trapped somewhat in the past, it also feels quite fresh and honest in a way.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • As with most of Cassavetes’ films, there are multiple versions that exist. The original cut was around three hours, and there was also a 147 minute cut, from which 18 minutes of an introduction feature here as an extra.
  • Making ‘Faces’ (2004) is a fairly standard making-of Criterion extra, which is structured around interviews with four key members of the production who were still alive: the cameraman/editor Al Ruban, and actors Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin. All of them provide stories from the film’s set that suggest Cassavetes’ methods, how he helped actors to find the performance, as well as the way his artistic direction manifested itself (he wanted actors to find their own way into the characters, rather than providing notes, as one example). Al Ruban (the cinematographer and editor) expands on some of the technical challenges, such as finding all the sound was un-synched at the end, or having too few lights to film the big club scenes.
  • Ruban also contributes a separate 12-minute extra just about his choice of film stock and lighting for the film’s relatively restrained number of locations, which is probably more for those with an interest in lighting.
  • Finally, there’s a two-part interview for the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps, conducted during the making of and after the release of Faces. We get much of his credo and philosophy of filmmaking — and one which has informed a lot of independent cinema ever since: the idea that even if you don’t have any money, you should go out and make your vision, in the hope that at least someone will share your passion somewhere down the line. Cassavetes comes across as supremely relaxed and chatty in the first part, filmed presumably in some manic period during production, as he paces around his offices and home, and introduces the people around him, all bonhomie and gregarious host, which the filmmakers cannily intercut with footage of laughter and joviality in the film he’s made, suggesting the direct line from his lived experience to his art.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer John Cassavetes; Cinematographer Al Ruban; Starring John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel; Length 130 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, March 1999, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Monday 27 May 2019).

Criterion Sunday 251: Shadows (1959)

Cassavetes had great success as an actor but his directorial recognition came somewhat belatedly, though it’s what he’s most known for now, and this, his first film, feels at times like an experiment that doesn’t always work. But when it does work, it has the energy and spontaneity that little of the rest of American cinema of the time had, though it shares some genetic material with, say, the location-shot films of Ruth Orkin and Morris Engel, so it’s not entirely sui generis. However, it feels most of a part with contemporary trends such as the French New Wave, and there’s so much of this (literally) jazzy first film that recall the flights of fancy of the French directors. Much of that revolves around the three or four key actors in the movie, and especially Lelia Goldoni as the mixed-race Lelia (the actor is Italian-American), though even her drama with a white guy who comes home to meet her brothers feels like just one small part of a wider story that feels at times more like it’s documenting a scene or capturing an era — though that’s probably the benefit of hindsight. Even after 60 years, this still feels like a fresh and interesting film, and there’s a lot more laughing and joking around than I remember, and that’s how the film leaves us: a little bit light-hearted about the young people in NYC.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are some mid-2000s interviews with the star Lelia Goldoni, and with Seymour Cassel, who even this early in Cassavetes’ career was already working with him (and served as associate producer on the film).
  • There’s silent footage from the acting workshop that Cassavetes ran during the late-50s, including some images of the actors in this film.
  • There are some images from the production and posters in a small gallery section.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Cassavetes; Writers Cassavetes and Robert Alan Aurthur; Cinematographer Erich Kullmar; Starring Lelia Goldoni, Ben Carruthers, Hugh Hurd; Length 87 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 8 May 2002 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, July 2001, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Friday 10 May 2019).

The Gunfighter (1950)

I do love a western, especially an existential one — because if there’s one thing that The Gunfighter lacks it’s gunfights (sure it has some shooting along the way, but as the local ladies of Cayenne are keen to point out to their Marshal, this isn’t Deadwood or Tombstone or one of those lawless places). And the crisis of Gregory Peck’s character is that while trouble is what he’s trying to avoid, in every town he pulls into the bored local youth want to pick a fight with him because of his ‘fast gun’ reputation. What I like about this Henry King western, aside from its hardboiled dialogue, is that Jimmy Ringo (for that is Peck’s marvellous character name) seems pretty well liked by everybody in the service industry: the barkeep in Cayenne knows him from way back, and so does the Marshal (Millard Mitchell). The local kids skip school to get a look, and when the town ladies (as mentioned) drop by the Marshal, they don’t recognise Ringo and find him quite charming and persuasive (it’s a delightful scene all told). But trouble will catch up with a man, especially when he’s looking to settle down and turn a corner, and so it does here too, and it’s clear right from the start as he rides into view from out of the darkness.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Henry King; Writers William Bowers and William Sellers; Cinematographer Arthur C. Miller; Starring Gregory Peck, Helen Westcott, Millard Mitchell; Length 85 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Thursday 27 June 2019.

Criterion Sunday 248: Videodrome (1983)

I had this idea that I watched this film with my stepbrothers when I was a kid, but if I did I certainly didn’t get it at the time (nor do I remember any of it upon rewatching so I may just be imagining it). However, as a result, I’ve probably spent more of my life than is reasonable believing I wasn’t really ‘into’ David Cronenberg’s brand of body horror combined with media satire. That said, I’ve seen plenty of his films since, and I’ve liked most of them quite a lot, but yet still retained some core of that original belief, perhaps modified somewhat into some idea that he’s just an outré auteur who panders to horror-soaked fanboys’ wet dreams… and clearly — look, you all know this already — but I’m wrong.

Videodrome looks from the outside as something nasty and exploitative, but it feels more like an advance warning from a Nostradamus of the early-1980s about everything we have in our culture now. The technology may look a little clunky but the effects still hold up really well. It’s the kind of film that you probably need to rewatch a number of times to figure out its particular configuration of the televisual exploitation of sleaze, sex, sexual violence and depravity, the way that links to notions of masculine performance (James Woods, who nowadays probably really is that guy he’s playing here, hallucinates a literal vagina opening across much of his torso), added to which there’s the fetishisation of videotapes. There are also so many layers of hallucinatory dream life that it stops being clear what’s real and what’s just in the head of Max/Nicki/Prof O’Blivion/Cronenberg/whoever else might be imagining this stuff.

In short, it opened up my head like Barry Convex’s in this film, and I don’t know if I can be the same again. The 1980s was the decade of Cronenberg, no doubt.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer David Cronenberg; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring James Woods, Debbie Harry, Sonja Smits; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 6 May 2019.

Criterion Sunday 244: Elena et les hommes (Elena and Her Men, 1956)

There’s a lot of flustered rushing about in this film that feels familiar from Jean Renoir’s work (like The Rules of the Game most famously, of course). It’s all bright and colourful, and so very very French in its way. Ingrid Bergman as a Polish princess with her many suitors is a delight, too. I’m not sure it’s Renoir’s wittiest film, but everyone comes across as a bit of a fool, even (and especially) the grandest of military and political men, when compared to the effortless charm of Bergman’s Elena, and that feels like the point of the film really. And it’s a good point to make once again, of course.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Jean Serge and Renoir; Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Ingrid Bergman, Jean Marais, Mel Ferrer; Length 104 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Sunday 11 June 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Monday 11 March 2019).

Criterion Sunday 242: Le Carrosse d’or (The Golden Coach, 1952)

I think the tendency of post-war European cinema around this time, especially in Italy, was towards neo-realism, shooting on the streets, giving that documentary sense of gritty immediacy, and so Renoir shooting a very theatrical film on the soundstages of Cinecittà in Italy, with a very stylised use of saturated colour and glorious, ornate sets and costumes, with Italian and American actors speaking in English in a story set in Latin America (Peru, apparently) feels like a very studied riposte to all that. In fact, it feels like a more deeply-felt commentary on the nature of acting and performance to make this kind of film at this time, a film that dwells on spectacle as something which almost seems corrupting: the obscenity of the golden coach at the film’s centre makes the government lose their minds, and becomes a tool of bargaining between men and, ultimately, the church — in a penultimate speech by the Bishop which is interrupted by Renoir cutting between all the assembled faces, expressing wry delight or shocked disdain. There’s a subtle comment on the nature of imperialism, too, as this Latin American colony becomes enthralled to the Italian Anna Magnani and her troupe of actors, threatening to depose the viceroy and create a new life fighting for the rights and sovereignty of the native peoples (though this at least feels a little in passing). I think Renoir’s later films are some of his finest work, operating at a different register from much of contemporary cinema, and all the better for it.

[NB Criterion lists the year as 1953, although this film appears to have been released in Italy in December 1952.]


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Jean Renoir; Writers Renoir, Jack Kirkland, Renzo Avanzo, Giulio Macchi and Ginette Doynel (based on the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée); Cinematographer Claude Renoir; Starring Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Duncan Lamont; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 March 2019.

Criterion Sunday 235: Il gattopardo (The Leopard, 1963)

There’s something about Visconti’s The Leopard that makes it feel like a relic from a previous era of filmmaking, or perhaps its ultimate summation in many ways. Of course, it’s set in the past (the 19th century), and tells a story of an aristocratic family headed by Burt Lancaster’s paterfamilias, confronting a new era of Italy’s reunification under Garibaldi. However, it has that period detail and a certain patina of widescreen cinematography and big, lush melodramatic action that suggests the prestige Hollywood pictures of the 1950s. The confrontation between the aristocracy and the middle-classes — the resigned sense of a world that’s changing beyond one’s control (which plays out primarily across Lancaster’s face) — is very much the kind of grand theme that feels of its time, rather less common in modern cinema (though entitled aristocrats will also be a staple of the costume drama). The way the film works best comes down in large part to Lancaster’s stillness while everything whirls around him — literally so in the last third, which is set amongst a grand ball. Those who are attentive to acting, as to sumptuous set design, will find a lot to like here, and there’s something about the grandeur of the entire undertaking that feels like it will only become more suggestive and richer the more times one watches it, so perhaps by the time I reach Lancaster’s age, I will unreservedly love this. For me now, the film feels like an exemplar (a glorious, expressive one admittedly) of a certain decadent form, just as Lancaster (and his nephew played by Alain Delon) represent that decadence in practice.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa, Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico (based on the novel by Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa); Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon; Length 185 minutes.

Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Friday 6 June 2003 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Sunday 6 January 2019).

Criterion Sunday 231: Das Testament des Doktor Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse, 1933)

Fritz Lang’s last film in Germany is this reprise of his silent film character, a venerable archetype of the genre (a mad scientist locked up for his criminal mastermindery). This film takes the character and creates a mystery thriller with another mad scientist who appears to have been possessed by the spirit of Dr Mabuse, inspired by Mabuse’s detailed writings into committing a series of heists and crimes. There’s a lot of gripping cross-cutting, and some genuinely thrilling scenes as characters look like they’re done for, many of which have been reprised in subsequent cinema history. It’s a top jaunt, and good fun too. Of course, there’s also a subtext about Nazis there if you want to find it (it may have been too early to be specifically about the rise of Hitler, but it’s certainly premonitory and presumably tapped into the stirrings within contemporary German society).


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Fritz Lang; Writers Thea von Harbou and Lang; Cinematographers Karl Vash and Fritz Arno Wagner; Starring Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Otto Wernicke; Length 124 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 25 June 1998 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 21 October 2018).