A Strange Sun: Cinema and Theatre in John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night

Uploaded 1 December 2001

[T]heatre for Cassavetes restores that vital link between the spoken word, the script and physical actions that are forever rearranged in a surprising way, ready to come apart at any moment . . . In short, a script is necessary but not sacrosanct, since it is always being rewritten by life itself.
Thierry Jousse [1]

The idea of a play built right on stage, encountering production and performance obstacles, demands the discovery of active language, both active and anarchic, where the usual limits of feelings and words are transcended.
Antonin Artaud [2]

I. Burning down the house

Theatre and cinema: what type of passage can be found from one to the other? And, moreover, what do we make of a cinematic practice where theatre and cinema are placed side by side? At stake in this coming together in John Cassavetes’ films is an investigation into the limits and possibilities of a particular form of staging in which, as Thierry Jousse notes above, the spoken word, script and actions are subjected to a constant process of destabilisation and rewriting.

This conception of staging carries with it a history. In “Theatre and the plague” published in 1934, Antonin Artaud identifies in theatre the possibility of a “strange sun, an unusually bright light by which the difficult, even the impossible, suddenly appears to be our natural medium”. [3] The brilliance of this strange sun “resembles the plague’s freedom where, step by step, stage by stage, the victim’s character swells out, where the survivors gradually become imposing, superhuman beings”. (19)

The plague’s freedom, of course, comes at a cost for both human life and a certain type of theatrical representation in which performance and the mechanics of staging are in the service of a re-presentation of a previous text. This is a theatre bound to the authority of the script, a theatre where action and gesture are subordinated to the psychological requirements of character. Artaud affirms:

I am well aware that a language of gestures and postures, dance and music is less able to define a character, to narrate man’s thoughts, to explain conscious states clearly and exactly, than spoken language. But whoever said theatre was made to define a character, to resolve conflicts of a human emotional order, of a present-day psychological nature such as those which monopolise current theatre? (“Production and metaphysics”, 28)

In opposition to this tendency, Artaud prioritises the idea of the stage as “a tangible, physical place that needs to be filled and it ought to be allowed to speak its own concrete language”. (25) This concrete language is “everything that can be shown and materially expressed on stage, intended first of all to appeal to the senses, instead of being addressed primarily to the mind, like spoken language”. (26) Words can play a part, Artaud acknowledges, but only if they are granted the power to “create their own music according to the way they are pronounced, distinct from their actual meaning and even running counter to that meaning – to create an undercurrent of impressions, connections and affinities beneath language”. (26)

The significance of Artaud’s admonitions on staging extends beyond a specific theatrical context to raise important questions regarding representation more generally. Staging, in this account, does not simply abandon representation. Rather, the unusually bright light staging shines on words, actions and gestures puts into question representation as purely a mimetic process. Step by step, phase by phase, something is brought to light that has no prior reality other than that of the stage. This awkward something is not quite a character nor an element of story but more a kind of pressure or energy that works against or interrupts character or meaning – “like sudden silences, fermata, heart stops, adrenalin calls, incendiary images surging into our abruptly woken minds”. (17)

For Artaud, then, staging is a theatrical operation involving the coordination of corporeal and scenic elements, as well as a form of disturbance inherent within this very process. Hence those who partake in such a process are not at its centre, controlling or interpreting the performance, but find themselves subjected to an energy and power that carries them away.

II. A dual pathway

During the course of his career, Cassavetes scrutinised the relation between theatre and cinema from many different vantage points. Beginning with Shadows (US 1959), his career is marked by a dual pathway whereby the theatre, defined and created on the run, served as a crucial laboratory for an experiment continued within the cinema. The idea and basic premise for Shadows emerged out of a series of theatrical workshops Cassavetes established with Burt Lane. Although it was never performed, A Woman Under the Influence(US 1974) was originally written as a series of plays designed to be staged over successive nights. In 1981 Cassavetes opened the Center Theater in Los Angeles with three one-act plays in repertory under the banner of “Three plays of love and hate”. This production was intended as a way of presenting and revising the plays prior to making movies of all three. Of these, The Third Day Comes and Love Streams were collaborations with the playwright Ted Allan; and the third, Knives, was written by Cassavetes himself.

Late in his career, as Cassavetes’ health began to deteriorate and the chances of finding financial backing for his films became ever more remote, he turned increasingly to the theatre as a way of securing some sort of production for his work. [4] One of Cassavetes’ last productions was a three-act play, A Woman of Mystery, starring Gena Rowlands and Carol Kane. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, who offers one of the few available accounts of this production, Cassavetes was also hoping to turn this play into a film shortly before his death. [5] Except for some tantalising remarks in Rosenbaum’s description of A Woman of Mystery, not enough is known of the precise nature of these productions and the particular type of stagecraft employed by Cassavetes. Do any of the play scripts survive? Is there any audio-visual documentation of rehearsals or performances? And what of their critical and commercial reception? These empirical, historical questions concerning Cassavetes’ theatrical productions need to be answered in order to more accurately assess the nature of his body of work and its legacy across different media.

Even with the bare outlines provided by what is already known, however, it is still possible to piece together a history of mutual relations out of which emerges an understanding of cinematic writing defined in and through a relationship to the stage – the stage as both a physical place and as the catalyst for a scenario carried through into the cinema. In terms of the films themselves, this consciousness of the stage as a generator for the fiction is reflected in the way Cassavetes builds into his scripts situations in which the various life crises of his characters are structured around, and framed by, questions of performance and theatricality. In a comparison between Cassavetes and Orson Welles (for whom theatre-and-cinema also forms a constant refrain), Rosenbaum observes:

it might even be said that ‘acting’ was the subject of all of their films – not merely because of their passionate interest in actors, but also because their view of human nature and behavior had a lot to do with performance and the notion that everyone is an actor. [6]

In Husbands (US 1970), each person that Harry, Gus and Archie engage with on their extended drinking spree provides them with a new opportunity to rework their various routines and performances. Time is infused with emotions rising from alcohol; it is made subject to unforeseen consequences and outcomes. In A Woman Under the Influence the situation of the actor performing to and (in a sense) at the mercy of an audience is played out in much more harrowing terms. The attempts of Mabel (Gena Rowlands) to orchestrate a party for her children and those of her neighbor Mr Jensen (Mario Gallo), complete with costumes and Swan Lake imitations, end up going horribly wrong when Nick (Peter Falk) arrives home with his mother (Katherine Cassavetes) to find the house in a mess and his young daughter, Maria (Christina Grisanti), running around naked. In the aftermath of Nick’s violent response, Mabel’s breakdown is played out in front of Nick, her mother-in-law and the uncomprehending Dr Zepp (Eddie Shaw), who observe and appear to precipitate Mabel’s collapse.

While Cassavetes minimises the number of cuts or camera movements in this extended scene, preferring to allow the actor’s movements to dominate, the camera is never completely stationary. It is always adjusting position in order to accommodate the actors. This mise en scène is a key part of the way theatrical space is made both visible and responsive to the work of performance.

The theatrical scene for Cassavetes is not a hierarchical or script bound entity but an affective space open to a number of influences and crossings. “[T]ime is necessary here,” writes Gilles Deleuze, “a certain time is necessary which constitutes an integral part of the film”. [7] Time allows the actor and camera to explore and develop a set of gestures and viewpoints. “I get the idea that there’s some kind of conspiracy going on here”, Mabel tells Dr Zepp and Nick. In the ’70s critic Jean-André Fieschi used conspiracy as a metaphor for mise en scène: the idea of something coming together almost without notice, gradually. [8]  When Nick violently claps his hands together under Mabel’s nose in an effort to bring her back to earth it is as if we too are shocked, as brutally as if someone had called ‘cut’. Nick’s sudden gesture both arises from the emotional arc of the scene and shifts it course.

This sudden shifting can also be seen during the spaghetti breakfast when one of Nick’s work mates suddenly finds his voice and begins to serenade Myrtle. Both moments remind us of the dynamic potential that defines the nature of the scene in Cassavetes’ work: a capacity for a sudden and sometimes violent interruption to work against the very foundations of a scene, as well as our ability to define its general direction.

III. A pocket full of blood

“Theatre is probably less considered, whether as a positive or as a negative influence on the cinema, by film historians today than at any other time”, [9]  suggest Lea Jacobs and Ben Brewster in their study of the influence of stage pictorialism on early feature filmmaking. Taking my cue from the type of theatricality that marks Cassavetes’ mise en scène, I want to suggest another way of considering the relationship between cinema and theatre: not as a series of historical and formal influences but an idea of representation at its limit, pushed along and placed in check by the physical processes and mysterious energies that are central to the act of staging. It is not a question of one form working upon or interrogating the other, rather, a process in which cinema and theatre are mutually implicated and displaced.

Near the halfway point of Cassavetes’ career, two films produced back to back bring this dual relation always present in the films into direct relief. At the end of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (US 1978), Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) stands outside the club whose proprietorship he has tenaciously defended. As part of his efforts to retain control of the club, Cosmo manages to perform a seemingly impossible hit and also to turn the table on the mobsters who tried to double-cross him. Cosmo’s triumph is signaled in his penultimate scene when, for the first time in the film, he abandons his position in the wings as the unseen announcer and maestro and walks on stage to quell his audience’s hostility and impatience at the show’s delay. Cosmo is last seen standing outside the club gazing at the blood which seeps through his coat pocket – seemingly more annoyed than actually concerned about the mortal threat the bullet wound poses to his life.

“You think you’re gonna live with the bullet in you”: these words spoken by Betty (Virginia Carrington) resonate within the film’s final moments. The wound in Cosmo’s side is a low priority bit of business that must wait for more important matters such as the show. Given Cosmo’s apparent indifference, it seems appropriate that Cassavetes’ camera does not dwell on his discomfort and instead returns one final time to the stage of the Crazy Horse West and Mr Sophistication (Meade Roberts), who is struggling through a rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”. In his painted on suit and tie, pancake makeup and deadpan expression Mr Sophistication is both master of ceremonies and fall guy to the Delovelies who taunt and disrupt his act much in the same way that the gangsters had taunted Cosmo when they first visited his club in pursuit of the debt.

The on stage entertainments over which Mr Sophistication just barely presides are a strange combination of ribald strip tease and lowbrow cabaret. Mr Sophistication’s slow, half spoken, half sung numbers cover the stage with a hypnotic sense of world-weary exhaustion. There is something truly grotesque in this odd combination of forms and styles that works against any harmony or unity of approach; a mélange of theatrical forms high and low. The only pattern guiding the numbers performed by this bizarre theatrical troupe is comprised of interruptions, false starts and errors. None of the numbers are allowed to flow to the end; they are cut off half way through by the film which switches its attention elsewhere.

IV. Staying in touch

The applause that greets Mr Sophistication, as well as the lyrics of his theme song, are echoed during the first few minutes of Opening Night (US 1978): “they want to be loved. They have to be loved. The whole world . . . Everybody wants to be loved”. These words are spoken by Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands), Broadway theatre star. When the film begins, Myrtle is getting ready to go on stage. She walks towards her entry point accompanied by her dresser and the props boy, who provides her with one last drink before she goes on. As she moves towards her entrance, Cassavetes cuts to a shot from the point of view of the audience watching the play. On the stage, Virginia – Myrtle’s character – has just arrived home, unaware that Marty is sitting on the stairs waiting for her. The set design is of an open plan living room and entrance area. At the back of the room a set of stairs lead to an upper level door through which the members of the cast exit and enter. What grabs our attention, however, is a banner size photograph of an old Greek woman dressed in the dark garb and head dress common to village widows. The photograph covers the entire height of a double wall. Just to the other side of the stairs is another photograph, not as large, of what looks to be the same woman’s face. And to the left of this photograph is yet another large photo – which we only just glimpse – of a small girl naked from the waist up. Their sheer size dwarfs the actors, thus immediately establishing a spatial disproportion.

This disproportion between the actors and the images coincides with an overlapping and multiplication of temporal destinies. “I can stand here. I can look at this woman, this old lady, and I can count every wrinkle on her face. And for every wrinkle there is a pain and for every pain there is a year and for every year there is a person, there’s a death, there’s a history, there’s a kindness. And you look at this kid over here, she’s not kind”. Marty’s words draw attention to the way that the stage in Opening Night is populated not just by Virginia and Marty but other figures and, importantly, other ages that loom large: middle age, old age, youth.

The play being performed by Myrtle and Maurice, we will discover, is on one level about aging, most particularly as it effects Myrtle and the relationships in her life. Questions of aging, the passage of time and its corrosive effects inform all of Cassavetes’ films. Like a coat too large or too heavy, time weighs down the actions and gestures of the characters in Faces (US 1968) and Husbands, who are burdened by what Jan Dawson aptly described as a sense of “emotional fatigue”. [10] Routine, habit, going through the motions, drinking too much in an effort to stay alert: this is exactly what Myrtle seems to be doing at the start of Opening Night. Hanging over this scenario is the threat of burn out, voiced by Myrtle towards the end of the title sequence: “when I was seventeen I could do anything. It was so easy. My emotions were so close to the surface . . . I’m finding it harder and harder to stay in touch”.

Opening Night deals with the way Myrtle is shocked out of dissociation and lethargy. The crisis Myrtle experiences is initiated by the death of a young fan, Nancy (Laura Johnson), knocked down by a car just outside the theatre. But, as horrific as this incident is, it is merely a prelude to a crisis that attains its full dimensions in and through a relationship to the stage. The stage in Opening Night is not a comfortable place that allows one to ‘stay in touch’. It is, as Jousse suggests:

[a] fluid space, subject to variations of mood, the feeling of the moment, the unpredictability of the present moment, when a moment of madness could at any time cause the scene to shift and jeopardise the performance and the very idea of performance itself. (16)

V. As if alive

The first version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was released in 1976. It was greeted with mixed reviews and poor box-office returns. Cassavetes then went on to direct Opening Night. After completing that film, however, Cassavetes went back and extensively re-edited The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, shortening its length but also adding segments not in the first version. “I’d like to make that film about four or five more times”, Cassavetes tells an interviewer at the time, “because it had interesting characters, interesting people”. [11] This inability to be done with the characters in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was a trait that marked a number of Cassavetes’ productions.

The result is a sometimes explicit, sometimes subterranean crossing-over of dramatic scenarios, characters and even musical elements from one film to the next. The tendency is clearest in the carrying-over of the central relationship – and performers (Rowlands and Seymour Cassel) – from Minnie and Moskowitz (US 1971) into Love Streams (US 1984), in a sense the chronicle of a couple from first meeting to divorce. [12]  More mysterious are instances such as the brief appearance of Falk, dressed in the same style tuxedo that he wore in Husbands, in the theatre foyer at the end of Opening Night. The obsessive, memory-laden nature of Cassavetes’ films and mise en scène contradicts widespread assumptions concerning their supposed lack of structure.

At stake here is cinema’s capacity to register a sense of lived time. Walter Benjamin wrote of Proust: “his true interest is in the passage of time in its most real – that is, space-bound – form, and this passage nowhere holds sway more openly than in remembrance within and aging without”. [13]  We can identify something similar in Cassavetes’ films. By going back over and revisiting characters and relationships, Cassavetes creates a sense of time made visible through an act of recognition in which aging and remembrance operate simultaneously. “In the theatre”, writes Stanislavsky, “a living being alarms us, consoles us, makes us happy or unhappy, while everyone and everything in the cinematograph is as if alive”. [14] Cassavetes’ films complicate this distinction through the creation of a cinematic duration that passes from one film to the next, from one performance to the next, a time in which character and actor seem to age simultaneously.

VI. A Relationship of Accomplices

If theatre and cinema are always present in Cassavetes’ films, caught in a process of reciprocal exchange, why, we might ask, does he feel the need to literalise this scenario in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night? These two films reveal something rarely associated with Cassavetes: an attempt to theorise the impulses and drives at work in his films. This theorisation, however, does not take place somewhere apart from the films; it emerges in tandem with the work of performance. By turning towards the world of theatre, Cassavetes is not taking a step away from cinema but looking at it from a certain vantage point, taking in a particular truth of the work.

In this sense, the different theatrical environments explored in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night also link up with a number of other important films and discussions which utilise the theatre and the idea of the theatrical scene as an oblique mirror on the cinema. Of contemporary filmmakers, it is probably Jacques Rivette who has made greatest use of the kinship between theatre and cinema. In films such as Paris nous appartient (France 1960), L’amour fou (France 1968) and Out one/spectre (France 1973), Rivette continually turns to the theatre as a way of reflecting upon and redefining the nature of cinematic practice. Rivette argues that by focusing on the theatre, the cinema is able to examine its own operations yet also maintain as part of this self-reflection a certain distance: “[I]f it looks at the theatre, [the cinema] is already contemplating something else: not itself but its elder brother”. [15]  He argues:

if you take a subject which deals with the theatre to any extent at all, you’re dealing with the truth of the cinema . . . . It isn’t by chance that so many of the films we love are first of all about that subject, and you realise afterwards that all the others – Bergman, Renoir, the good Cukors, Garrel, Rouch, Cocteau, Godard, Mizoguchi – are also about that. Because that is the subject of truth and lies, and there is no other in the cinema: it is necessarily a questioning about truth, with means that are necessarily untruthful. (27)

A key to Cassavetes’ investments in staging theatre and cinema side by side can be found in Rivette’s comments regarding his impetus for returning to the world of theatre in L’amour fou. In an interview with Cahiers du cinéma he notes: “I hadn’t forgiven myself for the way I had shown the theatre in Paris nous appartient, which I find too picturesque, too much seen from the outside, based on clichés”. (10) With L’amour fou it was a case of doing justice to “the feeling that work in the theatre was different, more secret, more mysterious, with deeper relationships between people who are caught up in this work, a relationship of accomplices”. (10)

In L’amour fou this relationship of accomplices works across a number of different levels. Perhaps most obviously it is figured in terms of the complex interpersonal networks connecting those working on the play and their past and present relationships. In turn, this network of relations serves to reshape our understanding of the play in rehearsal. In L’amour fou the theatre is understood as a place of conspiracy – both real and imagined – where intersecting plots come together and where a double parallel life is formed. The director’s wife, Clare, is convinced that her husband is unfaithful and a conspiracy exists amongst the cast to drive her mad. And slowly what evolves before our eyes is a drama of possible relations between the drama on stage and the one unfolding in the spaces surrounding the stage. The apartment where Clare and Sebastian live becomes its own stage where Clare’s obsession and paranoia gather force and the last rites of a relationship spinning out of control yet desperately trying to find a new point of connection are enacted. Obsession seems to be the inevitable outcome in a situation where domestic life and professional life, acting and being are from the start intertwined.

VII. Will she Make It?

Like L’amour fouThe Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Nightfall into that category of films in which there is a constant metastasis of energy, emotion and role from the stage to the world around it. In these films the dilemma faced by the characters is not, as Deleuze identifies in Renoir’s films: “where, then does theatre finish and life begin?” (86), but something more practical or mundane: how to continue to work and survive in an environment where performing and being are synonymous? As Lesley Stern puts it, for Myrtle the problem of “how to act” is “acutely professional and therefore practical, but insofar as it is a matter of identity, it is not separate from her personal or ‘private’ life”. [16] The questions of “will she make it?” or “will the play take place?” work hand in hand with another set of imperatives, more mysterious and harder to fathom, in which at stake is the simultaneous multiplication and dispersal of the stage.

This is an affirmation of cinema’s capacity to open up and multiply the boundaries of a theatrical scene that, from the start, is understood as fundamentally unstable and open to renegotiation. To borrow Jean Narboni’s evocative description of Straub and Huillet’s Othon[West Germany/Italy 1969], we might say that Opening Night” combines the construction of a theatre stage and its cinematic transformation in a single operation; it simultaneously effects a theatrical setting and its subversion”. [17]

As in L’amour fou, in Opening Night we are lead along by a series of echoes and possible connections from one scenario to the next, from the drama on stage to the drama that takes place in the world surrounding the theatre. Myrtle’s ex-lover Maurice (Cassavetes) plays her lover on stage. There are also references to Myrtle’s past involvements with both the director and producer of the play. From the snippets of The Second Woman that we see in performance and rehearsal, it seems that Myrtle’s stage character Virginia is also caught between various relationships and emotional dilemmas.

As a result of this echoing and doubling of roles, it is at times impossible to tell when the actors are sticking to the script or reflecting on their lives. The script that guides the performances is less a stable index of the events unfolding on stage than a complex network of allusions and coincidences that, as is the case for Myrtle, leaves one dizzy and out of sorts. Early on in the rehearsals Maurice tells Myrtle, “I was very much in love with you, Virginia”; and she replies, “when was that? I really want to know”. From the tone of her voice and Maurice’s bemused and evasive response, we assume that the rehearsal has broken down and Myrtle is reflecting upon her relationship with Maurice. It is only later, when these remarks are repeated during an actual performance, that we realise Myrtle’s comments are in fact part of the script. This continual rewriting of expectations and responses ensures that the dilemmas presented in the film are not just Myrtle’s; they are incorporated into the very process and structure of the film. As Laurence Giavarini puts it:

[t]here are not two scripts in Opening Night, a theatre fiction and a film fiction, but a single script with an assumed ambivalence, a deliberate, voluntary ambivalence equally valid for on stage and off-stage and which makes up the one visual space of the film. [18]

Although it is assumed that Myrtle is suffering from a confusion of reality and fiction, it could also be argued that she is the least confused of all the characters. When Myrtle attempts to explain to the playwright, Sarah, the problems she is having with the role of Virginia, she tells her: “once you’re convincing in a part, the audience accepts you as that”. It is those characters in Opening Night who attempt to maintain a clear-cut distinction between theatre and life that fall into confusion. During a rehearsal, Myrtle collapses on stage after being slapped by Maurice. While Myrtle lies prone on the stage screaming and unable to continue the rehearsal, David, the producer, calls from the audience, “bravo!”, interpreting Myrtle’s display of anguish as a clever performance. Although at first it seems that David’s response is inappropriate, it is impossible to judge, because of the constant blurring of role and character, to what extent Myrtle’s collapse is genuine (in terms of either her role in the film or the character she is playing on stage) and to what extent it is a performance directed at those watching the rehearsal. In Opening Night the stage provides a crystallisation of fears and anxieties that inhabit everyday and theatrical life.

The sense that events on- and off-stage have become irredeemably intertwined is heightened by Cassavetes’ approach to the filming of the performances. Just after the film begins, the camera positions itself within the audience watching the play. We see the play from the perspective of the audience, our view of the stage partially obscured by the heads of the spectators sitting in front. At this point, we are still able to separate the manic events and preparations taking place back-stage from the smooth unfolding of events on stage. As the film proceeds, and the border separating the actors from the characters they are performing starts to dissolve, Cassavetes’ camera is physically drawn into the apparent chaos unfolding on stage.

On a number of occasions we are presented with close-ups of Myrtle’s face as she moves across the stage. The most notable of these moments occurs in the scene involving Virginia’s visit to her ex-husband. Confused and unable to deal with the situation she has placed herself in, Virginia appears to panic. The camera leaves the perspective of the audience watching the play and follows Virginia into the bathroom where we are shown the actress raising her hands to her eyes and struggling to maintain her composure. Our immediate response is to assume that Myrtle can no longer “perform” and that she is, in reality, close to collapse. However, the proximity of Myrtle’s situation to the crisis of confidence that she must act out in her role prevents us drawing definitive conclusions about the situation. The disorientation brought about by this overlapping of roles is heightened by the way in which Myrtle’s hotel room in New Haven resembles a cavernous stage. The red bedspread and furnishings match the red carpet and decor of the stage set upon which she performs the role of Virginia. And, just as Virginia and Marty conduct most of their conversations in The Second Woman from either side of a bar in their living room, an almost identical bar appears in Myrtle’s room. Even the staircase in the centre of the stage seems to echo the one leading up to Myrtle’s apartment.

VIII. A Contrapuntal Composition

The movement of Cassavetes’ camera across the footlights during the opening moments of Opening Night serves as the founding gesture for a series of other movements, passages and shifts that are played out. Myrtle and her co-performers are continually framed entering and exiting various spaces, moving from one audience to another, one performance to the next. On a number of occasions, Cassavetes matches a shot of Myrtle passing through a door in one particular location and at one particular point in time with a shot of her emerging in a completely different location and at a different point in time. Near the beginning of the film we see Myrtle return to her dressing room. She takes a long drink from a bottle and prepares to go back on stage. Cassavetes dovetails the shot of Myrtle leaving the dressing room with one of her emerging from the back entrance of the theatre and being swamped by autograph hunters. Such deliberately misleading match-cuts serve as the visual equivalent of the growing disorientation that affects the performance of the play.

On other occasions, Cassavetes uses the characters’ movements through a doorway to initiate a subtler – yet no less effective – shift in perspective. Such a moment occurs when Myrtle and the play’s director, Manny (Gazzara), whom we assume have just spent the night together, are shown approaching the back entrance of the theatre. They are surrounded by beseeching fans and reporters. As they make their way through the crowd and enter the theatre, the camera cuts to a shot just inside the theatre taking in their confrontation with Manny’s wife, Dorothy (Zohra Lampert). While Myrtle quickly departs, Cassavetes’ camera remains on Manny and Dorothy. Nothing is said between the couple, just a sense of shared resignation and a barely audible sigh. In the space of a single edit, Cassavetes shifts our perspective on Manny and Myrtle from amidst the crush of adoring fans to the private space of a highly charged personal drama unfolding between husband, wife and former lover.

These rapid shifts of perspective are an essential part of what Jousse refers to as Cassavetes’ “contrapuntal composition” (15). We see the production of The Second Woman from a range of different and often competing perspectives: that of the producer, the audience, the stagehands, the personal dressers, the playwright, the director, the director’s wife and the resentful co-star. As Jousse notes, the effect of this composition is to engage the viewer in the tension of the performance, to, in a sense, lift us out of the comfort of our seats and force us to experience something of the confusions, anxieties and competing perspectives which inform the play’s production.

[T]his game of variation and combination of point of view is part of what makes the energy level spin in all directions, capturing the unexpected wherever it may arise, depriving the audience of its conventional position, seated in its chair, by involving it in the risks of performance and, most importantly, toppling this performance down from its pedestal. (15-16)

The tension between competing viewpoints is often played out within a single shot. Near the end, Myrtle storms out of the theatre during a rehearsal and David and Sarah chase after her. Just near the entrance to the theatre, Myrtle pleads with them to take her crisis seriously. In this scene our ability to focus solely on Myrtle’s dilemma is undermined by the silent presence of Dorothy standing just behind and to the side of Myrtle. This coupling suggests that the story of The Second Woman not only bears upon Myrtle’s predicament but also resonates with Dorothy’s situation. And a key part of the film’s mystery is the way Dorothy – quite literally a background character in the story – negotiates her own relationship to the drama surrounding Myrtle’s performance, neither subsumed to nor removed from the scene. Dorothy is, as Jousse observes:

a witness who sees all, a guarantee that all has been witnessed by an effectively virtual audience, so that we do not leave the framework of a performance in a truly theatrical sense of the word. (87)

The confrontation outside the theatre illustrates how Opening Night accords a special place to those ambiguous spaces backstage, in the wings and outside the theatre – fluid, in-between spaces that are at once part of and apart from the stage. In Cassavetes’ films, both cinema and theatre are figured in the crossings and passages between actor and character, off-stage and on stage. It is within these very spaces of passage, we could say, that Cassavetes’ cinema takes place.

IX. “I have this dead girl”

“I dream funny dreams . . . I’m not myself”. In Opening Night the turmoil surrounding the rehearsals and the actual performances seem to be, for Myrtle, part of the work of making the role meaningful. “I’ll do anything to make my character more authentic”, Myrtle states at one point, “I always have”. In Opening Night this process is both controlled by the actor – a key part of their training and art in bringing characters to life; yet also beyond their control. “It is often unclear whether we are watching, in Myrtle’s hysterical reactions, a consummate drama queen going over the top, or simply a woman cracking up” (Stern, 29). Opening Night highlights an understanding of performance and acting as not simply a process of imitation but something more akin to a process of possession by roles, feelings and physical urges, some of which are clear and spelt out, while others more vague and barely acknowledged.

In a discussion of Maggie Cheung’s performance in Irma Vep(France 1996) – a performance in which she is both playing herself and at the same time taking on the role of an actress struggling to make sense of a role – Olivier Assayas describes a process of theatrical possession similar to that found in Opening Night:
I mean that if one films in the first person, one only looks for one thing, first of all, which is to reproduce real feelings, that is to say, ones that are lived. And the actor puts himself in the position of embodying them, being the intercessor, letting them go through him as a medium would do. And in these medium-like instants, the I of the actress – or actor – is entirely taken over, absorbed by the spirit of the fiction – which at that moment, is precisely no longer there – it is no more than pure mediation. [19]

Assayas goes on to note that “this relationship, basically, only takes on its meaning because the possibility exists that it might go too far; what legitimates it are precisely those moments where it goes too far” (64). Both Irma Vep and Opening Night suggest that the end result of this going too far is a type of possession that effects both the actors and the films themselves. In both films the narratives draw much of their fictional energy from the everyday exigencies of constructing a performance. Yet, at certain key moments, both films pass from this everyday world into the realm of the supernatural, the realm of ghosts and doubles.

Such supernatural figures indicate a fundamental uncertainty between the actual and the imaginary. In Opening Night this is first intimated during the opening credit sequence when the sound of audience applause and laughter is an ominous roar of discontent akin to the opening of a horror film. The imbuing of the cinematic landscape in Opening Night with a supernatural element is made overt by the appearance of Nancy in Myrtle’s dressing room. Myrtle is shown in close-up gazing at her reflection in a mirror. This is followed by a series of extreme close-ups of Myrtle’s face and hands. It is only when the camera pulls back to a side-on shot of Myrtle that we notice the blurred outline of a head in the extreme foreground and realise that someone else is in the room. There are no traditional rhetorical tropes to indicate that Myrtle’s encounter with the dead fan is an elaborate hallucination. The particular space in which Nancy appears has stayed the same. Yet, through the dead fan’s presence, it has also quite suddenly become transformed – it has become a space given over to the sway of imagination and extraordinary forces.

X. Coup de théâtre

At first it seems as if Nancy has been conjured into being by Myrtle as a device for the performance – an attempt to “stay in touch” with a set of emotions that are fast receding and a way of transforming the scenario of aging and passivity built into the role of Virginia. What quickly becomes apparent, however, is the danger of such conjurings, registered in the dead fan’s brutal actions and Myrtle’s equally violent, final response. As Myrtle is pummeled by Nancy, the threat of madness that hovers over her struggle with the role of Virginia is steered away from a question of psychological crisis to one of physical disintegration. Despite Myrtle’s assurances that she has created Nancy and can make her appear and disappear at will, Opening Night never resolves the issue of Myrtle’s relation to the dead fan or the place of this apparition in relation to the rest of the film.

In an interview conducted soon after the release of the film’s release, Cassavetes himself voiced an uncertainty as to Nancy’s place:

here’s a theatrical story, and suddenly this apparition appears – and I started giggling. Everybody knows I hate that spooky-dooky stuff, and they said, are you going to leave that in? [20]

Nancy is neither simply a figment of Myrtle’s imagination – her presence is too carnal and the final exorcism too brutal – nor a separate, paranormal presence seeking vengeance for an act of neglect outside the theatre. She is, over and above these other possibilities, a physical force or energy of disruption that overwhelms not just Myrtle but the film’s own time and space. If a defining feature of Cassavetes’ films is the capacity to take on and be taken over by states of extreme emotion and corporeal crisis, then Nancy serves as a mark of this affective exorbitancy or sudden fall under the influence taken to its limit.

Nancy is quite literally a coup de théâtre. According to Samuel Weber, this concept can be defined as “a stroke or blow, something that more or less violently interrupts an expectation or a conscious plan”. [21]  Such abrupt, violent turns of events interrupt and call into question “unity of meaning, of action, of the subject, and above all, of time, space and place“. (18) As a coup de théâtre, then, Nancy cannot be said to simply belong to Myrtle – a manifestation of her crisis, something she controls; rather, she represents that point or moment of disturbance when Myrtle and the film itself are taken over by the work of performance and staging.

XI. A Strange Sun

In their treatment of dreams and visions, Cassavetes’ films recall Artaud:

to consider the theater as a second-hand psychological or moral function, and to believe that dreams themselves have only a substitute function, is to diminish the profound poetic bearing of dreams as well as of the theater. [22]

The dreams and visions in Opening Night and Love Streams serve as a reminder of the proximity of Cassavetes’ films to a theatre which “reforges the links between what does and does not exist, between the virtual nature of the possible and the material nature of existence”. (Artaud, “Theatre and the plague”, 17) This is a type of theatre that “can only happen the moment the inconceivable really begins, where poetry taking place on stage nourishes and superheats created symbols”. (17)

Intriguingly, Artaud came to believe for a time that this type of theatre could be better executed in the cinema than on the stage. In “Witchcraft and the Cinema” he proposes that the cinema manifests “an unexpected and mysterious side which we find in no other form of art:

even the most arid and banal image is transformed when it is projected on the screen. The smallest detail, the most insignificant object assume a meaning and a life which pertain to them alone, independently of the value of the meaning of the images themselves, the idea which they interpret and the symbol which they constitute. (…) Essentially the cinema reveals a whole occult life with which it puts us directly into contact. [23]

The hallucinations and visions found in Opening Night and also Love Streams have been replaced in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by a theatrical space that from beginning to end verges on the hallucinatory. This is perhaps the most abstract of Cassavetes’ films. As a number of writers have pointed out, the film is full of harsh variations of lighting and colour. Both Carney and Richard Combs comment on the way it deftly translates the harsh tonal juxtapositions of classic ’50s film noir into the medium of colour film stock. [24] During the course of the film, we continually move between the glare of spotlights and the afternoon sun to darkened corridors and corners that seem to both draw us in and hide their contents. Most of the action takes place at night or under the garish artificial lighting of the club. In this nocturnal environment the faces and expressions of the characters are isolated against backgrounds that are often either out of focus or shrouded in darkness.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie seems to retrace one of cinema’s first lessons, about light and its capacity to both bring forth an image or action yet also lose it in an uneven flow and distribution of luminous force. How is it possible to build and maintain a figure in the midst of this uneven luminous wash? What are the attributes of this figure that is at once both flesh and blood and shot through with light? In Alexandre Astruc’s account of Murnau’s films he describes a tension between composition and annihilation in the very construction of the image:

the shooting angle, the placement of the people within the frame, the distribution of lights – all serve to construct the lines of a dramatic scene whose unbearable tension will end in annihilation . . . Each image is an unstable equilibrium, better still the destruction of a stable equilibrium brought about by its own élan. [25]

At times, Cassavetes’ filming seems to eat away at the characters and situations. When Cosmo is bundled into a car by mobsters and given his instructions on how to perform the hit, the ensuing scene is filmed in almost total darkness. It is impossible to tell where all the voices are coming from and who is speaking. Like Cosmo, we remain suspended in a world whose contours and borders are always at the point of receding into darkness.

This perceptual transformation of the world is crucial to the film’s effect and its construction of a specifically cinematic form of theatricality. In terms drawn from the work of Jean-Louis Schefer, Deleuze describes the cinema’s capacity to replace the presence of bodies found in theatre with a different type of presence:

it spreads an ‘experimental night’ or a white space over us; it works with ‘dancing seeds’ and a ‘luminous dust’; it affects the visible with a fundamental disturbance, and the world with a suspension, which contradicts all natural perception (Deleuze, 201).

It is just such a disturbance that one finds in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. In the blink of an eye, day turns into night and night back into morning. “Jesus Christ, it’s night,” exclaims Cosmo as he steps out of the movie theatre at the end of fruitless trip to Chinatown to locate the bookie. Cosmo’s startled response captures the sense of something happening too fast, of time getting away. No sooner does Cosmo pay off the debt than he once again plunges back into debt. Between these two events there is no cataclysmic turning point or moment of fatal error but rather a series of low-key incidents – often just to the side of where we imagine the central action to be occurring. Each has its own mystery and drama: a solitary drink in a bar, the preparations for a night out, the boredom and discomfort of Cosmo’s female entourage waiting for him to finish the game, and the final humiliation of waiting to be called in by the mobsters to render an account, trapped in a florescent hell of white walls, nautical themes and deck chairs.

These events follow on from each other in a consecutive pattern, yet what has been lost or curtailed is the motivating connection that could adequately explain how we have come to be where we are, how we get from one point to the next. The various events that push the narrative forward lack a gravitational pull and tend to constantly deviate our attention away from the central drama. (“Nothing remains fixed, and everything becomes ominous”, as Rosenbaum said of Out one/spectre). [26] Deleuze identifies this breakdown in the line or fibre that connects and prolongs events as a defining feature of a certain sector of post WWII American cinema beyond Hollywood. In Altman’s A Wedding (US 1978), Nashville (US 1975) and Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie:

ellipsis ceases to be a mode of the tale (récit), a way in which one goes from an action to a partially disclosed situation: it belongs to the situation itself, and reality is lacunary as much as dispersive. Linkages, connections, or liaisons are deliberately weak. Sometimes the event delays and is lost in idle periods, sometimes it is there too quickly, but it does not belong to the one to whom it happens (even death . . .). [27]

If one face of time in Cassavetes’ films is about repetition, habit, fatigue and the elongation of actions to the point where meaning is lost or overturned, time in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is more elusive, yet also more abrupt. For Jean Epstein, cinema’s ability to mark an event or an emotion with a sense of constant temporal dispersal constitutes one of its principal links to modern life: “you look at your watch, the present strictly speaking is already no longer there, and strictly speaking it is there again, it will always be there from one midnight to the next”. [28] There is a gnawing senses of distraction in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, of always being too soon or too late. It is as if the turning point that could reveal events and their significance is always just about to happen or has already happened prior to our arrival.

This disturbance of tempo is strikingly reflected in the centrepiece of the film’s rereading of the gangster genre: Cosmo’s performance of the hit on the Chinese bookie. After receiving an extraordinarily complex set of directions, Cosmo finds his journey to the bookie’s house suddenly interrupted by a blowout on the freeway. He uses this unexpected delay to make a quick phone call back to the club to check on the progress of the act. When neither Vince nor Sonny are able to tell him which number is being performed, Cosmo is forced to sing into the receiver a few bars of Mr Sophistication’s signature tune, “I can’t give you anything but love”. The neon light of the phone booth seems to operate as Cosmo’s own personal spotlight demanding that he come up with an appropriate performance.

During such moments the execution of the hit seems to fade into the background, pushed aside by a movement of performance that, much like the routine acted out on the stage of the Crazy Horse West, seems continually on the verge of dissolution. The trials and interruptions that waylay Cosmo indicate that the tempo of an event is not something inherent to it but have to be performed and staged step by step, subject to possible rearrangements. In his book on the pre-cinematic motion studies of Etienne-Jules Marey, François Dagognet provides an apt description of the implications that arise once our view of an action or gesture is subjected to a temporal discontinuity: “the universe knows only surges and drops, fragments that we reassemble and that we thereby diminish. We ourselves fabricate a smoothed-out, rounded spectacle”. [29]

XII. A Golden Life

When Cosmo arrives at the bookie’s house, the camera travels through a series of exits, corridors and doorways following Cosmo but also at times seeming to lose him in the maze. Eventually the camera stumbles upon an old man contently humming to himself and splashing around in a large communal bath. For a time the film seems to forget about Cosmo, intent instead to observe the playful behavior of the old man. When the old man moves to a different bath in an adjoining room, he glances a number of times in the general direction of where we assume Cosmo is standing, without registering his presence. When he finally acknowledges Cosmo’s presence, the old man blinks hard as if trying to assure himself that what he is seeing is not a ghost. The only verbal contact between the two occurs just before the old man is shot, when he mumbles in a barely audible tone, “I’m real bad. I’m so sorry”.

After completing the hit and making it back to the club, Cosmo is taken by Flo (Timothy Carey) to a warehouse for execution. In the ensuing scenes, Cosmo manages to outplay each of the hit men sent to dispose of him. The first, who seems to fall apart in front of Cosmo, is dismissed as “an amateur” and told to “take a walk”. The second is caught unaware by Cosmo’s ability to appear out of nowhere, and the third blindly wanders through the warehouse while Cosmo patiently waits in a dark corner until he is able to escape. In Cosmo’s final performance, he manages to return to the club, soothe Mr Sophistication’s wounded ego and get the show back on the road. Cosmo’s triumph is signaled when he goes on stage to address his audience and introduce the act.

In a film dominated by truncated framings, oblique angles and disjointed representations of space, Cassavetes’ framing of Cosmo’s on stage appearance in a classic medium close-up shot is one of the few moments in which the central character is located within a stable representation of space. This moment suggests that, despite everything, Cosmo has finally achieved that state of grace he describes simply as “being comfortable”. But the light that shines on Cosmo’s face as he addresses his audience carries with it a sense of menace. The illumination is too bright, almost erasing facial detail. The intensity of this illumination suggests that it is not just a matter of light but also the generation of heat burning a hole within the image and placing the figure it illuminates under an intense pressure. Like the fires that Artaud identifies in his description of the painting Lot and his Daughters, there is a violence carried by this illumination, “something horribly forceful and disturbing . . . like active, changing features in a set expression”. (23) This intense illumination burning away at the end of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie serves as a reminder of the unpredictable, often volatile and highly dynamic nature of theatrical space in Cassavetes’ films.


[1] Thierry Jousse, John Cassavetes (Paris: Editions de l’Etoile/Cahiers du cinéma, 1989), 17. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in parentheses.
[2] Antonin Artaud, “Production and metaphysics”, in Collected works, vol. 4, trans. Victor Corti (London: Calder and Boyers), 28. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in parentheses.
[3] Antonin Artaud, “Theatre and the plague” in Collected Works, vol. 4, 19. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in parentheses.
[4]m  For a summary of Cassavetes’ plays and unfinished film projects, see Ray Carney, “Unfinished business”, Film Comment, (May-June 1989): 48-49.
[5] Jonathan Rosenbaum, “John Cassavetes”, Sight and Sound 60, no. 2, (Spring 1989): 102-103. For another eyewitness account of the play, see Bill Krohn, “Post-scriptum”, Cahiers du cinéma 417 (March 1989): 30-32. Cassavetes’ program note for the play is reproduced both in Krohn and Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 156.
[6] Rosenbaum, “Love films: a Cassavetes retrospective”, in Placing Movies, 161.
[7]Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 154.
[8]Jean-André Fieschi, “Jacques Rivette” in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary vol. 2, ed. Richard Roud, (London: Secker and Warburg, 1980), 876.
[9] Ben Brewster and Lea Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 5.
[10] Jan Dawson, “Faces”, Monthly Film Bulletin (December 1968): 192.
[11] Ray Carney (ed), Cassavetes on Cassavetes (London: Faber and Faber, 2001), 405.
[12] Carney relays the story concerning Cassavetes’ insistence that, for his role in Love Streams, Cassel regrow the walrus moustache that was such a memorable part of his earlier characterisation of Seymour Moskowitz in Minnie and Moskowitz. See Ray Carney, “Love dreams: the work of John Cassavetes”, Persistence of Vision, vol. 6 (Summer 1986): 46.
[13] Walter Benjamin, “The image of Proust” in Illuminations ed. Hannah Arendt (Suffolk: Fontana, 1982), 213.
[14] Konstantin Stanislavsky, Cine-phono, 1914, no. 16, 23. Quoted in Yuri Tsivian, Early Russian Cinema and its Cultural Reception, trans. Alan Bodger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 158.
[15] Jacques Rivette, “Time overflowing”, in Rivette: Texts and Interviews, ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum, trans. Amy Gateff and Tom Milne (London: BFI, 1977), 27.
[16] Lesley Stern, “Perhaps I want to be Gena Rowlands”, Real Time, 4 (December-January 1994-95): 29.
[17] Jean Narboni, “Vicarious power”, in Cahiers du cinéma: 1969-1972: The Politics of Representation, ed. Nick Browne (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990) 156.
[18] Laurence Giavarini, “You can make it”, Cahiers du cinéma, nos. 455/6 (May 1992): 12.
[19] Olivier Assayas, “Apropos of Maggie”, Metro no.113/114 (1998): 64.
[20] Carney (ed), Cassavetes on Cassavetes, 410.
[21] Samuel Weber, “The greatest thing of all: the virtuality of theatre”, in 100 Years of Cruelty: Essays on Artaud, ed. Edward Scheer (Sydney: Power Publications and Artspace, 2000), 17.
[22] Antonin Artaud, quoted in Jacques Derrida, ‘The theatre of cruelty and the closure of representation’, in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 243.
[23] Antonin Artaud, “Witchcraft and the cinema”, in The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on Cinema, ed. Paul Hammond (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1991), 113-114.
[24] See Carney, American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 226; and Richard Combs, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”, Sight and Sound vol. 40 no. 1 (Winter 1976/77): 61.
[25] Alexandre Astruc, quoted in Lutz Bacher, The Mobile Mise-en-scène: A Critical Analysis of the Theory and Practice of Long-Take Camera Movement in the Narrative Film, (New York: Arno Press, 1978), 217.
[26] Rosenbaum, Placing Movies, 145.
[27] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 207.
[[28]  Jean Epstein, quoted in Leo Charney, “In a moment: film and the philosophy of modernity”, in Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 287.
[29] François Dagognet, Etienne-Jules Marey: A Passion for the Trace, trans. Robert Galeta with Jeanine Herman (New York: Zone Books, 1992) quoted in Charney, “In a moment”, 290.

About the Author

George Kouvaros

About the Author

George Kouvaros

George Kouvaros is Professor of Film Studies in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW. His most recent book is Awakening the Eye: Robert Frank's American Cinema (Minnesota UP, 2015).View all posts by George Kouvaros →