The Audition: THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE

In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976), it’s not just the ownership of a nightclub that is at stake, but a whole way of life and of being. A bit old-fashioned, charming, gentlemanly, a practitioner of the art of being comfortable, Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) runs not so much against time, as against the times. His striptease joint, the Crazy Horse West, offers a show that, while wholly conceived and staged by its proud owner, seems a low-key version of the German cabarets of the ‘20s (Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel comes to mind, and there’s a picture of Marlene Dietrich in the dressing room). Several times, we hear Cosmo saying that “money is just paper” – but, when he’s not around his faithful crew, he’s surrounded by a bunch of gangsters who are more like bankers: life-suckers. The signs are all over the place. It’s the twilight of an era. And the film is pervaded by an energy that I would call crepuscular.

However, the light that bathes the film is not crepuscular. The action of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie happens either at night (naturally, since the film revolves around the life of a nightclub) or at morning. There’s quite a few scenes happening at morning. They are drenched in that beautiful, Californian light. And you can always tell that, for Cosmo, this blazing sun is a bit uncomfortable. Too bright, this light; too harsh to bear. There’s a strong feeling of heaviness threatening the very image, as if the film could burn at any moment, consumed by its own exhaustion – maybe, because for nocturnal people, morning is, in fact, their twilight.

My favourite scene of the film [1] happens at morning, but inside the Crazy Horse West – therefore a morning that has been nighted (and what is the Crazy Horse West if not a cave that makes night a time of promise?). The scene happens, in fact, the same morning that Cosmo, out and celebrating that he’s just paid for his joint, contracts a new gambling debt that puts the club at risk again. He leaves his girlfriend, Rachel (Azizi Johari), at home after uttering the two most brilliant lines of dialogue: “I am sexual. I don’t know how I am” (I can only marvel at the fact that someone, actually, came up with that way of putting it). As Cosmo sits in a terrace, near his club, the young waitress (Trisha Pelham) insists on auditioning for him. Without much enthusiasm, Cosmo takes her to the place, shows her the dressing room, and walks down to wait for her.

If there’s a moody film, it is The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Every shot, every scene, the film as a whole, is mood-driven and mood-weighted. What’s the first thing Cosmo does upon descending those stairs? He picks a song (notice that he does not pick the first song, in the same way that later he won’t pick the first chair: there’s a very embodied, constant calculus). The song is Bo Harwood’s glacial and melancholic ballad “Rainy Fields of Frost and Magic”. Why this song? Because of its mood. And what about the next two shots of Cosmo walking across the club? One could say that these two shots function to map the space, providing Gazzara with a walk-and-think moment that is wonderful to watch in itself, while stretching the waiting, and building up to the audition. And all that is true and right. But the thing is: those two shots are, in themselves, drenched in mood. The space radiates it. And it permeates and is permeated by everything else. In fact, these two shots give us a very intimate moment when character and space apprehend and breathe each other.

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To me, to talk about this film only in terms of story, action and character psychology is almost a joke. Not because these things are not part of the film, but because its world is so much larger than that. Most of what happens in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie happens in the form of flickering combinations of elements, constantly in motion, constantly rearranging themselves. Sometimes, to highlight the importance of certain elements, people uses expressions like “light is a character” or “colour is a character”. Allow me to dissent.

Take pink, for instance. Pink is a constant presence in this film, it brims everywhere; but pink, certainly, is not a character. Rather, pink is a gradation, a flux, an alternation, always changing, always unstable, veering into purple, or red, or fuchsia – pink becoming, sometimes, just a subterranean shade of an imaginary palette. When we see Cosmo standing next to the stairs, smoking against that chilling, emptied background in maroon and pink – a very rare shot in a film that loves cluttering and blocking the frame – colour does not affect us in the same way as when we see the girl in the dressing room, enveloped by that blurry, softcore pink and mauve. The curtain of little, pink crystals does not titillate in the same way as the curtain with plastic pink stripes. Pink can be an invasion of out-of-focus stains, traces and patches, or an aura, a reflection changing the colour of surfaces. Pink is so multiple, it “takes” so differently depending on what it touches, on how it touches. We’d learn more about this film (and perhaps about film in general) if we started talking of characters as colours rather than if we kept talking of colours as characters.

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Despite improvisation being the keyword most often associated (lazily, when not plain wrongly) with Cassavetes, this scene is meticulously and magnificently staged, from beginning to end. I’d like to look briefly at the first three shots in order to start talking about the role played by the camera [2] in the shot composition (notice I say shot, and not frame). First shot: the camera films Cosmo frontally as he exits the dressing room; when he turns to the stairs, the camera pans and tilts slightly so we can see him descending and standing at the bottom. Second shot: the camera is at a low angle, next to the pink curtain, catching Cosmo from the waist down as he enters the stage; while he walks toward the background, the camera pans and tilts again, opening up the space, giving us that striking image of him next to the staircase that looks like a postcard of an Edward Hopper painting. Third shot: Cosmo jumps off the stage, walks to the back of the place and hangs his jacket, then walks back and turns to the table zone – all this is shot by the camera using the same kind of movements (here, more elaborate and repetitive, but responding to the same idea).

So, what we have here are three instances where the camera is not tracking, nor is it handheld (there will be some handheld shots later), but simply sitting on a tripod, panning and tilting. This is not exclusive to these three shots – it is, as we shall see, the main strategy of the camera across the whole scene. However, it’s not so much the specific movement that interests me here, as the principle that animates it. We could say that the camera’s movement is dictated by the character’s movement – but the camera is not merely following the character, nor is it roaming at free will or without direction. The movement of the camera is autonomous, but conceived always in relation to the character. This is not so much a token of modern cinema (and certainly it is not a token of contemporary, independent cinema which tends to be much less elaborate, and exhibits a more mimetic understanding of the camera-character relation); this is a token of classical cinema and of the invisible style that characterises its mise en scène. Inside the classical tradition, the camera work can feel invisible because its movements are subtle, unobtrusive, unostentatious (though this is not, by any means, always the case); mostly, what makes the camera work go unnoticed is that it is part of a larger, complex choreography – always in a closely studied and perfectly integrated relation with all the other movements happening inside the frame.

So, there’s a lot to be studied about Cassavetes’ mise en scène in relation to classical cinema. However, Cassavetes is not a classical director. And, in this scene, the camera work finds itself in the mix with other elements that are, often, not at all classical: the very conception of character, story and narrative; the timing (with a tendency to stretch the action, or to abruptly cut it); the architecture of the space and the expressiveness of certain details (like that pink curtain); and, above all, the intense and inventive work with lighting (especially when it involves light sources that are, as well, part of the action, fictional props).

The way light is played with, in this scene, is amazing. A sudden flash can cue (or function as) an editing cut. The figures are not lit in a conventional way; rather, they are in constant interaction with the light sources, creating all sorts of dazzling effects with light growing, shrinking, sparking, leaking, splitting in different directions; sometimes, light is obliterated by the characters, provoking sudden blackouts, or auras around their figures, before suddenly exploding again. We see things changing shape and colour right in front of our eyes. The space is not just the place where the action is staged; it is, itself, in action, in transformation. See, for instance, how, in the third shot, as the camera pans, the space unfolds from something resembling a film studio drenched in blue (where dreams come true) to the reds of the table zone.

What is a scene? Some books and manuals say that a scene is a portion of a film where the action has a spatio-temporal unity. Well, maybe that’s what some people call a definition but, personally, I’m amazed that anybody can do anything with that. I like to think of a scene in terms of its internal movement: how it shifts parameters from one shot to the next; how it builds sections animated by different energies; how it introduces, combines and recombines its elements; how it brings something new to the atmosphere or transforms the atmosphere altogether; how it stages and resolves (or not) its tensions. And, in that sense, this scene is just glorious.

See, for instance, the transition from the scene’s first section to the audition proper. Until now, the scene has been defined by that feeling of intimacy between character and place, and by a waiting (capped off by those alluring shots of the girl, half naked, in the dressing room) that can still be called hopeful. But the moment the girl jumps onto the stage, a very different energy starts brewing – one that takes us closer to the uneasiness of the previous scene on the terrace. We can feel the friction, like a snap of fingers, between that sound and sight of the curtain rustling and the fast, vertical tilt across Cosmo’s body – his face already consumed by impatience, his fingers nervously tapping the table. In this fantastic, nervy shot, we can see it and feel it: restlessness is piling up. Yes, maybe Cosmo wants to get laid (and, maybe, he will even get laid); but, easy as she is offering it to him, this girl clearly annoys him.

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The audition happens in one, single, lengthy shot. The framing is eccentric: both characters are defaced – Cosmo is seen from the back; the girl, from the waist down. This framing has already been somewhat prefigured in the previous scene on the terrace – where, at one point, during a shot of the girl, the camera tilts a bit, cutting off the top of her head, leaving her eyes out of the frame. The audition shot is both hilarious and ironic: so much waiting, so much build-up, and here is the camera ridiculously panning left and right, following the girl who trots across the stage like a cute, little deer. We all know, and so do the characters, that she won’t be required to perform all those tours jetés at the Crazy Horse West – and this, somehow, makes her insistence more touching. Cosmo swiftly alternates between kindness and irritability: he tries to be charming, but he’s clearly running out of patience – his hand nervously wavering left and right as he mutters: “You don’t need to jump anymore, sweetie”. It is as if we are witnessing an all too known, but somehow unavoidable, preamble.

In relation to what I’ve discussed before about the camera work, it’s worth noticing that the set-up, here, has been chosen considering not just the audition itself, but also the moment after it. And one can only marvel at the elegance and simplicity of it all. The camera needs to do nothing special, just halt its movement behind Cosmo. It’s the actress who will descend the stairs and position herself in a frame that has already been established for her. In the space of the same shot, we’ve passed from the most eccentric framing to the most stereotypical image of seduction: the girl, now in front of Cosmo, half covered by his figure, her arms up and her negligee open.

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But that’s not all: there’s this great moment where she lifts her eyes and finds the other woman’s gaze off-screen. While most directors would have used this cue to cut to Rachel, Cassavetes doesn’t. He sustains the shot; Cosmo turns and, now, the camera slightly reframes to keep his head in the centre. Why? Because Gazzara is about to give one of his most wonderful bits of performance. If you want to hear a man in trouble, listen to how he utters to his girlfriend: “Hey. Come on over”. Is that a teenager caught jerking off in the toilet? Or a courtly lover pretending that nothing is happening? Look, please, at the birth of that smile! (I could rave about this moment forever, but I’ll just add this: Cosmo tries to put on a face as he puts on a show; the effect – all so visible and audible – is not so different than that achieved, for instance, when a shirt suddenly blushes under the red lights but we can still divine its original colour).

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Azizi Johari, who plays Rachel, is given some of the most extraordinary close-ups in this film. But her entrance here – divided into two shots, intercut by a brief insert of Cosmo standing up – is astonishing. Look at the way she walks, at how her disappointment is already inscribed in her body’s hard containment. She advances toward us and, when she’s about to block the light source in the background, the camera tweaks the speed, creating an incredible flare that seems to be what produces the slow motion. It’s a magical moment, lasting barely a few seconds, where she seems to float, half suspended, surrounded by that golden glow. Then, she completely obliterates the spotlight, walking straight into a magnificent, extreme close-up – her tiger eyes burning. Sure, we can talk about characters and human relations when discussing Cassavetes; but, frankly, when I see this moment – the way it is conceived, performed, staged – I feel like Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich are reborn. No, I don’t think Cassavetes is just filming a woman here; he’s filming a goddess. Dressed in everyday clothes and with a thermos of coffee in her hands, but a goddess: a black goddess, hurt and scorned, about to let her anger explode.

The fight between the two women is filmed in a way that rivals, in anti-spectacularity, the striptease numbers at the Crazy Horse West. A flurry of shots (actually, only five, but they look like a flurry) where one can hardly distinguish the cuts or see what’s happening. All we have here is messiness, indiscernibility, abstraction. Not one hint of realism or verisimilitude (sound and image are evidently and willingly out of synch), but pure and proud artificiality. Amidst the hustle, the screams, and the noise of chairs and tables, two powerful shots with a violent, vectorising force: a waist swirling like a mechanical ballerina and Rachel’s face suddenly turning to the right.

I’d like to look a bit closer at the last shot of this fight, because it is a great example of how intricate and virtuosic the camera work can get: the incessant play with the mobile frame, the focus and the zoom exudes dynamism, despite the camera not actually physically moving across the space; and there’s a sense that things have been studied and planned, but there’s also a strong feel for the moment’s pulse. The shot begins out of focus, with Cosmo’s body evading a chair thrown at him by Rachel. Then, the camera tilts up and concentrates on Cosmo’s face as he keeps fighting with her. During this confrontation, the camera pans nervously, left and right, to keep the characters in the frame – until, suddenly, they disappear, leaving us with an empty, maroon background. Then, a fast pan across the wall and we find the couple again, still fighting. The camera racks focus and tilts as Cosmo lowers Rachel to the floor. Then, once more, it pans slightly to the right and we immediately find the girl next to the couple. As she stands up, runs up the stairs, and disappears behind the stage’s pink curtain, the camera reframes to keep her in sight.

This could have been the scene’s conclusion but, instead, we are about to experience a daring and unusual transition to the final section. A shot of Cosmo’s back – who is still containing Rachel on the floor – will become the anchor used by Cassavetes to bring the tension down. Bo Harwood’s song reaches its end and we are left with silence for a few seconds. As is often the case in Cassavetes, now we enter into processing mode: after the hyperbolic explosion of feelings, it’s time to deal with what remains of each character. The glacial plateau of “Rainy Fields of Frost and Magic” is traded by the warm and silky song that follows. Cosmo stands, the camera reframes and racks focus, and we are left with that painful image of Rachel, still on the floor, breathing heavily.

For those still unconvinced of Cassavetes’ complex mise en scène, here comes a moment to behold. Cosmo walks to the bar, picks a glass from one shelf, a bottle from another, and pours brandy into the glass (how do I know it’s brandy? I don’t; but, in Hollywood films, this is what ladies are served when they get upset, so I’ll risk it: brandy). The timing of the scene has turned tighter. Cosmo’s actions (and their sounds) are precise, rhythmic, unthinking, direct, clinching with the song’s tempo. The camera pans, following him; but, as he walks back to Rachel, the girl appears stomping through the pink curtain again, eager to escape this couple’s private hell. There’s a moment in which Cosmo and the girl almost intersect, allowing a fantastic relay: abandoning Cosmo, the camera accelerates its panning in order to keep the girl in frame, while performing a beautiful semicircular movement that opens up the space. Still half dressed and laboriously putting her shirt on, the girl runs through the tables, tracing a big S, approaching and detaching herself from the camera, until she reaches the exit. This is, in fact, a favourite figure of Cassavetes’ mise en scène: that elastic play with variable distances between the actors, and between the actors and the camera (for more on that, see this).

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Now, Cassavetes comes back to the couple for the ending of the scene. What I like best in these final shots is the poignant sense of intimacy they exude – even if you knew nothing of the story of these two characters, you’d be touched by the impression of a shared love. These final shots – like Rachel’s earlier entrance – are filmed with a handheld camera, which adds closeness and vulnerability to the moment. Notice that there’s nothing here resembling those conventional shot/reverse shots so typical of romantic arguments – though, this isn’t your typical romantic argument either, because it’s premised, precisely, on the opposite: the refusal to talk. Despite Cosmo’s attempts, despite the momentum of the music (which seems to push toward reconciliation), Rachel won’t speak, won’t interact, won’t open up. She’s hurt, and it’s her whole body language that is so striking: almost as if catatonic, with her gaze lost, she’s barely there. Cosmo tries to make her drink from the glass, but she refuses to open her mouth, and the liquor spills. As he lies next to Rachel, trying to brush off the importance of what has happened because he “deals in girls”, we can feel both the authenticity of his caring and the deepness of her pain. Nothing is set, here; nothing is neatly resolved. And, in one of his favourite moves, Cassavetes cuts to the next scene, leaving us suspended in this inconclusiveness.

 

© Cristina Álvarez López, May 2020

[1] There are two versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, one released in 1976 and running 135 minutes, and a shorter version (108 minutes) – incorporating new material, but eliminating other scenes – reedited by Cassavetes in 1978. The audition scene appears in both versions, though it’s edited differently. While the main action is the same, the earlier version is to me clearly superior and is the one I’ll be discussing here.

[2] Al Ruban was in charge of the cinematography of the film, except for the scenes at The Crazy Horse West that were lit by Mitchell Breit. Frederick Elmes and Michael Ferris were the two camera operators for the film, but it was Cassavetes himself who operated the handheld camera.

2 thoughts on “The Audition: THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE

  1. I’ve seen this scene a million times. Thank you for making me watch again and with a whole new pair of eyes. Beautiful writing.

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