Editor’s note: This essay, one of five in a line-up, complements the theme of this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), ‘Mean Streets: Viewing the Divided City Through the Lens of Film and Television,’ presented Nov. 11-13 at the Missouri History Museum. Find a full schedule of this year’s SLIFF offerings here.
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Too Late Blues (1961) by John Cassavetes is a film about the divided city. The jazz band at the heart of the film breaks up over the racial divide. The guys in John “Ghost” Wakefield’s band, all of them white like Ghost, are unwinding in a Greek tavern where they like the tavern keeper, who lets them drink beer and eat sandwiches on credit between gigs. A crew of Greek guys are running the billiards table, living and letting live, until the Alpha Greek male gets distracted by the beauty of Ghost’s date, a pale girl named Jess Polanski, elevated to the nickname “Princess” by an ardent Ghost. Sexual jealousy brings the two groups of men into close contact, but it is when the leering Greek says he and his boys, unlike jazz musicians, do not mix with “spades” that the tavern brawl breaks out. Ghost might be a white jazzman with an all-white jazz band and a white lady love, but every one of them is willing to fight for the right to hang out with black people. Ghost loses the bar fight, then keeps losing things—his girl, his band—all because a divided city needed to be confronted, not accepted.
Too Late Blues starts with a tableaux of young black people listening to Ghost’s combo. They swing their feet and photo-bomb the camera while white men play them the jazzy blues their grandparents invented. In a pause between sets, one boy breaks the color line between audience and band to pick up the saxophone and run off with it. The black youth makes skronky noises with the sax until its rightful owner, Charlie, chases him down and takes his horn back. It is a screwball piece of stage business about stealing music, but Cassavetes knows where Ghost got the blues he says he owns because he wrote it himself. Ghost first comes across Jess, soon to become Princess, being taken through her vocal paces by a wise, old black jazzman at a piano (Slim Gaillard playing himself). The old head’s depth of musical awareness, shown in his coaching of the unsure young singer, overshadows anything we hear out of Ghost.
“They don’t do day here.” With the rest of Cassavetes’ work before us now, it is hard not to hear a later, more expansive and grander Cassavetes character, Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and his most unforgettable line. “I gotta go,” Cosmo tells his girlfriend’s mother, the last time he sees them, “because there are no rivers here.”
But, wait a minute. Why is a jazz band playing for a bunch of school children during the day? That is what the saxophone player, Charlie, wants to know. This band used to back up strippers and close down clubs, but Ghost got soft and turned to day jobs. Now they play for charities during the business day and at park picnics while the sun shines. (One park gig leads to perhaps the most distinctly American screwball episode on film. The band gripes their way through another day job in a park, with a baseball team distantly warming up in the field behind them. We have people playing the American music, jazz, and the American game, baseball, combined in one frame, which is almost impossible to do. When the band roadies their own gear out of the park, the ball players challenge them to a duel, and the jazzmen join them on the diamond. The contest ends when Ghost’s entire band pushes the opposing team’s catcher away from home plate so that Princess can score on an inside-the-park home run.)
The band never does fathom why Ghost prefers the day. Charlie, in particular, who is darker-complected than the other, whiter guys in the band, wants to go back to the night. What they need is the insight of Jim Morrison, waiting to be sung six years in the future, in 1967, on “Break on Through (to the Other Side),” the opening track from The Doors’ eponymous debut album. Morrison begins his breakthrough lyric with a shared assumption—“you know,” he sings—but Charlie and the other guys in Ghost’s band really do not know. “You know that day destroys the night,” Morrison sings. “Night divides the day.” The city is divided between the night and the day. Ghost tries to explain this to Princess the one night he almost spends with her. She wants him to stay, but it’s the night, and Ghost is a vampire inside out, a man of day who shuns the dark.
What he says to her is strange and could mean more than one thing. “Don’t do day here,” is what he seems to say.
As something mumbled by a drunk musician after an after-party, it is unclear what he has actually said. Was that a complete sentence, and therefore a direct order, as in: “Don’t you do day here”? If so, then what does he mean? “Here” is Princess’ apartment, of which we only see (in two scenes, with Ghost and then with Charlie) her bedroom, and of that, mostly her bed. It is as if Ghost has excluded the bedroom from the day, from where he wants to live. He walks away from almost certain sex and asks to see her the next day instead.
Or has the mumbling, after-hours jazzman chewed up the beginning of what he tried to say? Maybe what he is trying to say is, “They don’t do day here.” This is not an order, but a statement of tragic fact, because Ghost is looking for day jobs, day dates, a lady of the day, so if they don’t do day here, then “here” is no place for him to be. And, indeed, the next time he comes to Princess’ apartment—again, in the night—she rushes outside to bar him entry.
“They don’t do day here.” With the rest of Cassavetes’ work before us now, it is hard not to hear a later, more expansive and grander Cassavetes character, Cosmo Vitelli in “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976), and his most unforgettable line. “I gotta go,” Cosmo tells his girlfriend’s mother, the last time he sees them, “because there are no rivers here.”
All of these characters—Ghost, Princess, Cosmo, his girlfriend and her mother, even Jim Morrison—are creatures of Los Angeles, a divided city: both the land of endless sunlight and the dark cradle of noir. Ghost came from the day and got trapped in the night, and Cosmo came from a city of rivers, New York City, and got trapped in the irrigated desert of show business dreams. Cosmo is a Hollywood club owner, crafting corny theatrical premises around softcore strip tease acts. Like Ghost, Cosmo tries to crawl his way into the day. One day he takes out a group of his dancers—including his girlfriend, Rachel, a black woman (their interracial relationship is no big deal on the other side of the sixties). But, you know, the night destroys the day. A tender day, when Cosmo presents each woman with an orchid and a glass of champagne, becomes a long night lost at a Mob-run poker game. Cosmo loses everything. After losing all of his money, and more on credit that he can not repay, he settles the score (after a little roughing up) by agreeing to kill a rival mobster, the Chinese bookmaker of the film’s title. (The city’s underworld is a diverse house divided.) Cosmo honors his end of the deal, but gets shot in the abdomen during his getaway. At the end of the movie—all night scenes, of course—Cosmo is back at the club, hiding his wound and still trying to run the show, but the sense is that he will bleed out before the dawn. They don’t do day here.
The divide in the city and its underworld was expressed most succinctly in “Atlantic City” by Bruce Springsteen, released on his Nebraska album in 1976, the same year that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was released (and, sadly, tanked; commercially, the film was a major loser that damaged careers). “Down here there are just winners and losers,” Springsteen sings, “and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line.” The city is divided between winners and losers, and Cosmo got caught on the wrong side of that line. When Springsteen goes on to sing, “Last night I met this guy, and I’m gonna do a little favor of him,” it could have been scripted for Cosmo.
In both films, there is a more primary divide than between winners and losers, night and day, white and black. It divides the city and millions of homes and beds. It’s the divide between women and men, and these are both show business movies where men run the show. To some extent, our two heroes are trying to break on through to the other side of gender respect and equity.
The screwball bits in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie are not physical set pieces, like in Too Late Blues—Charlie chasing down the boy who took his horn, the jazz band playing baseball against the baseball team—but rather the utterly awful stage show at Cosmo’s club, Crazy Horse West. It is hard to believe that death in the form of a Mob assignment to kill a dangerous rival can walk in on these pathetic acts, but that’s exactly what happens. Then, after Cosmo gets beaten into playing hit man for his Mobbed-up creditors, they give him absurdly detailed oral instructions in how to carry out the job, with more than 10 intricate steps, all the way down to the condiments on the burgers he needs to buy to distract the guard dogs (hold the mustard, pickles, catsup and onions). Then the club owner moves in for the kill, armed with nothing more than a cigar, a stolen pistol he has never handled before, and a sack of well-done hamburgers. Yet he manages to kill the Chinese Mob boss, get away alive, then evade the double cross the Italian mobsters pull on him when they are surprised to find that he survived the caper.
In both films, there is a more primary divide than between winners and losers, night and day, white and black. It divides the city and millions of homes and beds. It’s the divide between women and men, and these are both show business movies where men run the show. To some extent, our two heroes are trying to break on through to the other side of gender respect and equity. In Too Late Blues, Charlie, the burly and swarthy sax player who protects Princess, gets the girl, only to discard her. He is segregated deeply in the male sector of the divided city: to him, women are “birds,” an alternate and less substantial species. But Ghost says Princess is the girl he wants to marry, tries to see her only in the clear light of day, but then loses his cool, and everything else, after the beatdown by the racist Greek. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cosmo takes his women dancers with him into the back room at the Mob-run poker game where the house settles accounts. The goon guarding the door to the payout room looks like he has never seen that one before. “Do your biscuits follow you,” the goon asks Cosmo, “whatever you do?” Biscuits? It is an evolutionary step back from birds; women are inanimate in this divided city.
Cosmo is not a cad as a strip tease club owner. Unlike, say, Donald Trump, who liked to burst into women’s dressing rooms to surprise his pageant contestants in states of undress, the green room at Crazy Horse West is co-ed. Both Cosmo and his swishy male impresario, Mr. Sophistication, prepare and unwind alongside the show girls. And Cosmo is not trying to titillate anybody. He stares into nowhere, talking about two girls he heard about who caught a gopher, cut off its tail, cooked its tail, ate it, and died, while semi-robed dancers put on their makeup and move about the room.
Both films are screwball noir about show business. Ghost is the jazzman, the man of the music defined by “After Midnight,” who only wants to work day jobs. Cosmo is the cornball club owner with a heart of gold, the least likely of assassins, who gets roped into a brutal contract killing. The next evolution of screwball noir would await more than twenty years for the Coen Brothers, who always give sly winks to the sources of the ideas they steal. The late Ben Gazzara may have given the performance of his career as Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but many more people have seen him in a role that offers an ironic commentary on Cosmo, for he played Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski (1998). Updated for the new millennium, the Cosmo character produces slick hardcore porn, rather than clumsy softcore strip tease. And while Cosmo Vitelli was the victim of poker-table loan sharks, Jackie Treehorn is the loan shark. His sexy city is not so divided by gender, either, and he has turned the objectification of women into biscuits upside down and inside out, as far as the hero of The Big Lebowski, the Dude, can perceive. “Jackie Treehorn,” says the Dude, “treats objects like women, man.”