John Cassavetes and The Haircut

DVD producer James Blackford tells the story of a very rare 1982 short starring John Cassavetes, featured as an extra on the new collector’s edition DVD/Blu-ray of the director’s classic The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

22 July 2013

By James Blackford

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Over the last year and a half the BFI has presented several of John Cassavetes’ much-loved independent films in Dual Format (DVD/Blu-ray) editions, packed with special features and including detailed booklets.

This week sees the release of one the director’s finest works, gangster drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which stars Cassavetes stalwart Ben Gazzara as the small-time Sunset Strip entrepreneur Cosmo Vitelli, a loveable rogue who gets caught up in a murky world of loan sharks and crooks, and is blackmailed into accepting a murderous commission.

Despite being a commercial flop when first released in 1976, the film was rereleased in a shorter, sleeker cut in 1978, and subsequently found favour with audiences and critics alike. DVD editions have presented both cuts of the film and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is now rightly appreciated as one of Cassavetes’ greatest achievements.

The Haircut (1982)

Since it has received the ‘special edition’ treatment on DVD before, the BFI wanted to create a bespoke release for its Blu-ray premiere – something that would provide a worthwhile upgrade for lovers of Cassavetes’ work; not only presenting the film in the best possible quality, but also offering a raft of new, informative and entertaining extras.

With this in mind, we have released The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in both a standard DVD and Blu-ray edition (presenting both cuts of the film in HD with a selected scenes audio commentary) and a Collector’s Edition, limited to 1000 units, which includes a third bonus DVD.

One of the extras we were very pleased to be able to source for this limited three-disc edition, is a 22-minute short film starring Cassavetes called The Haircut (1982) – a fascinating but rarely seen curio which has sadly slipped into obscurity and has been long sought after by followers of the great man’s films.

The Haircut is a charming, oddball musical comedy written, produced and directed by Tamar Simon Hoffs (mother of Susanna Hoffs, of The Bangles fame). Made in 1982, it was one of the first films made as part of the American Film Institute’s prestigious Directing Workshops for Women programme.

The Haircut (1982)

One might wonder how a heavyweight like Cassavetes came to star in such a modest student production. As she explains in an interview included on the bonus disc (filmed in the actual barber’s chair featured in the film), Tamar Simon Hoffs had met Cassavetes through her friend Elizabeth Gazzara (Ben Gazzara’s daughter). She gave him the script, he loved it, and was keen to star; his only stipulation being that his co-stars must be entirely rehearsed and ready to go, so he could just come in and perform as if he really was the customer. Even in a little film such as this, Cassavetes was still searching for those perfect moments that come from the spontaneity of early takes.

Cassavetes stars as an unnamed music executive who stops off at a barbers for a quick 15-minute haircut before an important meeting. Little does he know he is stepping into an establishment like no other; one where time seemingly stands still while he is treated to suite of pampering services, refreshments and entertainments: a haircut, a shave, a massage, a manicure, a pedicure, a shoe-shine, a glass of fine wine, tap-dancing and even a performance from The Bangs (an early incarnation of The Bangles). The film ends with Cassavetes heading back out onto the LA sidewalk, somewhat bewildered but fully reinvigorated.

The Haircut (1982)

The Haircut is a beautifully crafted, happy film that benefits from an upbeat pace, sharp dialogue and consummate comedic performances from Cassavetes and his lesser known co-stars – the manicurist (Joyce Bulifant), the shoe-shine man (Meshach Taylor) and the barber (Nicholas Colasanto).

Cassavetes is unusually relaxed and understated – his physicality and charisma are the focus of the piece, and it is a joy to see his stressed out music exec seduced by the caring treatment he receives. The Haircut is simply great fun to watch, and was, if Cassavetes’ performance is anything to go by, great fun to make.

The Haircut was warmly received when screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, which perhaps prompted Universal Studios to acquire the film. It was then chosen as part of the official selection of Telluride Film Festival and screened again at Sundance in 1989 where it received praise from Robert Redford.

Since then it has been pretty hard to see. We are extremely grateful to Tamar Hoffs and Universal Pictures (UK) for helping us make the film available to new audiences on the BFI’s new three-disc special edition of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

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