Second Time Around

John Cassavetes, Actor and Director
In the many films he made as an actor, John Cassavetes -- a shifty-eyed brunet mistrustful of his own profile, grinning constantly to remind us of the phoniness good looks can signify -- only occasionally had a role worthy of his considerable talents. One of them, his panicky hood in Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976), may be the best of his career, the perpetual glibness on display in such disparate works as The Killers and Rosemary's Baby giving way to real terror as the jokes peel away like paint before a blowtorch. At first May's film seems close to one of Cassavetes' own, full as it is of rambling, quasi-improvised dialogue and mismatched cuts. Yet, as in May's other important work as a director (The Heartbreak Kid), the film's core theme is raw emotional betrayal rather than, as in a true Cassavetes film, the importance of knowing who you really are.

That, in fact, is the theme of Mikey and Nicky's co-feature at the Fine Arts in Berkeley this week, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, also from 1976, one of Cassavetes' most scorned directorial efforts. Ben Gazzara plays a nightclub owner who stupidly gets himself in debt to the mob in what is an allegory of the director's own dealings with Hollywood. (Gazzara supervises a gaggle of untalented performers as carefully as Cassavetes seems to have shepherded his own much-indulged casts.) Forced to perform a murderous errand, Gazzara rapidly finds himself adrift in a neon wonderland: Action sequences play as they might in real life in this amazing slow-motion noir. Both halves of this challenging double bill repay close attention even as the prospect of death concentrates their stars' attention wonderfully.

-- Gregg Rickman

Mikey and Nicky screens Sunday through Tuesday, March 15-17, at 5 and 9:30 p.m. (with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie at 7:15 p.m.) at the Fine Arts Cinema, 2451 Shattuck (at Haste) in Berkeley. Tickets are $6; call (510) 848-1143.

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