The slow burn is what fascinates me in films. It forces me to pay attention to every detail the director put son the screen, every word a character says and every action that results in a reaction in order to decipher where the film will be going. Cassavetes is a master of the slow burn. He gives you rich characters who say and do things that might not seem important at the time, but ends up having a major impact on their lives. Take Cosmo Vitelli. He is a cabaret club owner who likes to gamble and show how sophisticated he is. He takes out some of his ladies who appear in his show to a casino in a grand gesture. While at the casino, he gets into some major debts that he has no way of repaying. The casino is owned by a mob who will do anything to get their money and they dog him, threaten to take his club from him, if he doesn’t pay up or doesn’t kill one of their enemies, a Chinese bookie. With his back against the wall, he decides to do it, but ends up getting double crossed. Something that seems mundane like Cosmo paying a visit to a man at a coffee shop with an envelope of money, turns into back story for him. This isn’t the first time that he has got into trouble with his gambling problems. And if he lives through this situation, it will not be his last.
The film keeps cycling back to his club. There are whole scenes of his numbers that he produces being performed to the point that you have to ask yourself why. Then you realize that Cosmo put so much work and love into these numbers that he must be sensitive on how they are perceived. He is sensitive to how he as a person is perceived. He wants to be the elegant businessman who can drop twenty grand at a poker table and not think twice, and yet he is not. Just like his MC, Mr. Sophistication, is not sophisticated. Just like they aren’t really in Vienna or Paris, but instead in some sleazy club in L.A.
Another thing that Cosmo wants to be seen as is a ladies man. He takes several women to the casino with him just to watch him fail, he flirts with his dancers but only shows affection to one dancer (the black woman) and when he is approached by a young woman to audition for him privately he says yes although he knows that she wants something else that he is not willing or up to give to her. This last action brings about a scene that I found beautiful. Cosmo is in this hazy club watching this young woman dance with minimal clothing on. The black woman enters the club and becomes jealous and angry that he is not taking his situation seriously enough. As the music swells, she approaches her with a saturated white light fuzzing out her features. There is a crash and Cosmo is on the floor with the young dancer scared. He explains that he owns a club and it was only business. He pushes away the only person who actually cares about him in that moment.
I must mention Ben Gazzara for what an amazing job he did with this character. He recently passed and it is a shame that a man who is this great of a character actor would go so soon (if you call 81 soon.) He embodies this sleaziness with such an earnestness that it never feels fake or exaggerated. He embodies Cassavetes as a director so completely, that it is no mystery that they were good friends outside of the camera. This is how Cassavetes gets great performances. He knows the actors that will do justice to any script and he treats them like they were his family. It is a beautiful thing to watch Ben trot around in those big collar shirts. I hope he is having a rocking time in heaven.