THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE Directed by John Cassavettes
1976 / 109 minutes / Color

The Oscars are The Oscars. They are basically for the diamonds in the rough of the mainstream. Sometimes a filmmaker is able to merge their vision with that of the studio and make a compelling and beautiful work of art that justifies the inflated budgets of the studio films. But more and more, all we really see are corny story lines and over inflated budget’s along with compromised works. Or worse, we see a great filmmaker making studio garbage and slowly losing his or her artistic vision. That’s why a lot of viewers love independent film. It’s a play-land for the artist. With smaller budgets and less brass to worry about demographics, the filmmaker is left to their own devices to make an uncompromising work of art.

tumblr_mak3u6njev1rovfcgo3_1280Here is the Wikipedia definition: An independent film is a film production resulting in a feature film that is produced mostly or completely outside of the major film studio system. In addition to being produced and distributed by independent entertainment companies, independent films are also produced and/or distributed by subsidiaries of major film studios.

Independent films are sometimes distinguishable by their content and style and the way in which the filmmakers’ personal artistic vision is realized. Usually, but not always, independent films are made with considerably lower film budgets than major studio films.[1][2] Generally, the marketing of independent films is characterized by limited release, but can also have major marketing campaigns and a wide release. Independent films are often screened at local, national, or international film festivals before distribution (theatrical and/or retail release). An independent film production can rival a mainstream film production if it has the necessary funding and distribution.

Notice how the definition states that “subsidiaries of major studios sometimes produce and distribute?” Well, every year the film festival market is flooded by these “exceptions.” What is a low budget studio film? Technically less than 20 million dollars. Disney has taken over ladies and gentlemen. Ever since the 90’s when films like KIDS and PULP FICTION were being spun on us as indie darlings. So while there are amazing independent films out there, the ones being marketed to us are not independent of studio influence at all. The Independent Spirit Awards have also been hijacked by this thought process. The main awards are going to these studio films while they have one token award – The John Cassevetes Award – that is given to a movie made for $500k or less. Seriously.

So who is that award named after? Well, back in the 70’s the studio’s were lost and a lot of filmmakers like Coppola and Scorsese were able to push through ambitious projects. But there was one bad ass who stayed away from their money. The original indie maverick who made his films with savings from his earnings as an actor. John Cassavetes.

KillingBookieJohn Cassavetes came from the studio system. As an actor. He came from the method school of acting and he fell into directing on a dare almost, in the late fifties. His first film SHADOWS (1959), became a huge independent success in Europe. The studios came calling, and a three picture deal was made. He made two films and then bailed after differences. He went back to acting with a huge performance in ROSEMARY’S BABY, got nominated for an Oscar for THE DIRTY DOZEN. As those movies were being released, he premiered FACES (which he funded out of his own pocket) and continued to pump out little indie masterpieces over the next ten years. His films examine life in a personal way that only an independent filmmaker can do.

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE makes MEAN STREETS look like a student film. Mind you, I love Scorsese, but the independent master nails the gangster genre like no other. Ben Gazzara headlines as a night club owner with a gambling problem. Indebted to some very scary looking wise-guy’s, he has to debut as a hitman. Timothy Carey and Seymour Cassel show up as the main henchmen for the mob and are prepared to carry a devious double cross on Gazzara after he’s done his deed.

So, just take the performances here. Even for its time, this film is a standout for acting. Gazzara is the definition of a gritty leading man. He kind of looks like a Sinatra wannabe has-been who like’s his whiskey a little too much. The gangsters are all very understanding men at first. They happily grant Gazzara the loan he needs to continue gambling. And then they decide after a week or so passes that they aren’t going to be understanding anymore.

The script, performances and camera work are all meticulous. The locations were locations that were available. Everything looks realistic. The cinematography is well crafted handheld shots that follow the trajectory of Gazzara’s mental state as he slowly falls into a downward spiral.

This is real independent cinema.