I am currently making my way through the Criterion collection on Kanopy, and I came across an interesting film from 1978, called The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
On paper, it’s a pretty standard mob crime story: the owner of a strip club gets in too deep with gambling debts owed to the mob, and is tasked with killing a rival bookie to pay off some of what he owes.
What makes it notable is director Cassavetes and cinematographers Mitchell Briet and Al Ruban’s choices in how they shot the film. At first glance, it seems amateurish. It looked like the sort of movie that a film student who watched too much French New Wave would shoot. The picture is often out of focus, pointed at nothing in particular.
It wasn’t until I got to the end of the film, when the camera is rock solid and the picture is almost impossibly crisp did I realize what was going on.
The cinematography was being used as an extension of the main character’s state of mind. The camera wanders with his focus.
When Cosmo is distracted, the camera itself is distracted, focusing on seemingly random parts of the scene, out of focus, and wandering through the set. But when Cosmo is focused, the scenes are shot crisply and simply, focusing on what Cosmo is currently working on.
When the movie ended I immediately started it over, and this new insight really made me more invested in watching the film. It also reminded me that any time I watch a movie, I need to be more cognizant of these tools in the filmmaker’s toolbox, especially if I’m resisting the film for some reason.
If you can find this movie (I watched it on Kanopy) I cannot recommend it enough. And I hope my little observation helps you appreciate it a little more.
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