John Cassavetes, the actor, writer and director, was one of the most influential American film-makers of the post-war era — a big claim, since he only had one hit movie and made many which were only shown in art houses. But, at one time, there was scarcely a film-maker who was not inspired by his improvisatory work and his capacity to achieve exceptional performances from actors. He has been called the first American independent.
His hit film was A Woman Under the Influence, in which Gena Rowlands, his wife, was celebrated for her portrait of a family woman pitched into manic psychosis by the pressures upon her. Otherwise, the films of Cassavetes were always more praised than seen and some of the fulsome tributes to him when he died in 1989 were nauseously hypocritical.
Cassavetes acted so that he could make his own films in the way he wanted. Shadows, his first, made well away from Hollywood in 1959, was a huge critical success that prompted Hollywood to sign him up for Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting. But both films were compromised and flopped, and he decided to go his own way with funds gathered from taking parts in films such as The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby.
The result was a collection of films, usually inhabited by Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Seymour Cassel. The films were called indulgent and disorganised by those who hated them, but they were adored by his supporters for their passionately truthful depiction of American life.
One of them was The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a film that displays most of the faults of his kind of on-the-hoof film-making – and all the virtues. Cassavetes always used to say that the emotion in his films was improvised but the lines written. There is no doubt, though, that when he let his actors loose on the set, there were considerable surprises in store.
Ben Gazzara is the star of Killing, the story of the owner of The Crazy Horse West, a failing LA strip joint he is determined to keep open because it’s the only thing he’s built up from scratch in his somewhat tawdry life. In order to remain solvent, he has to kill a Chinese bookie for the mob. The sequence in which he breaks into the old man’s luxurious apartment and does the job is as terrifying as anything in The Godfather.
The film is a thriller, but equally it is a treatise on the sleazier side of showbiz, and on the persistence of hope in almost ludicrously unhopeful circumstances. It’s about a man hanging on for dear life to dear life. As such, you could call it pretentious, bombastic, indulgent and full of actorly tropes, concocted by Cassavetes and Gazzara as they progress through a waywardly philosophical tale. Why, then, can one simply not forget it?
It’s principally because of its accurate summation of one man’s American dream in all its absurdity – the girls in the strip-joint are nurtured almost as part of him, and the club itself, which looks like a particularly seedy purgatory to us, is clearly heaven to him. You can see why he will do anything to save it and feel the sincerity of even the most portentous of his monologues.
Above all, Cassavetes orchestrates the whole thing almost as if it is a dream from which we are about to wake up. But even his most eccentric worlds have a point in them which seems to parallel our own lives. Most Cassavetes films were like that. They didn’t make you fantasise, like the best of Hollywood. They faced the messiness of life and then turned to you and said: “But it’s the truth, isn’t it?”