Stepping outside his comfort zone of intimate character dramas, writer-director John Cassavetes took a stab at genre filmmaking with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which takes place in the criminal underworld of Los Angeles. Regular Cassavetes collaborator Ben Gazzara stars as Cosmo Vittelli, the proprietor of a dingy strip club. After incurring a large gambling debt he can’t repay, Cosmo agrees to murder an Asian criminal on behalf of the mobsters holding his marker, ostensibly to erase his debt. Unbeknownst to Cosmo, the mobsters plan to take him out after the hit.
The story is simple enough to generate pulpy tension, but Cassavetes explores the narrative through his signature prism of on-the-fly filmmaking and semi-improvisational acting. In fact, the indie auteur’s first cut ran an excruciating 135 minutes, thanks to unnecessary discursions like vignettes of performances at Cosmo’s club. Cassavetes released the original version for one disastrous week in New York during 1976, then pulled it from exhibition and chopped the movie down to 109 minutes for a better-received 1978 re-release. Today, both cuts of the picture are held in high esteem, largely due to the widespread critical contention that everything Cassavettes did was surpassingly wonderful.
Assessing the 1978 cut, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie offers an interesting spin on the usual tropes of crime pictures. Intense realism heightens the drama in pivotal scenes, because Cosmo comes across as a completely believable character. Therefore, even though he’s responsible for his own problems because he arrogantly places bets he can’t cover, it’s easy to feel sympathy for his plight. (That’s different from actually liking the character, of course, since Cosmo is a sexist pig.) Nonetheless, there’s a strange disconnect between the film’s simplistic action scenes, which include a tense foot chase in an abandoned building, and the picture’s loose conversational sequences. Every time it seems like Cassavetes is about to step on the gas, he slows down to admire the scenery.
Another jarring element is the overpowering ugliness of the milieu. One doesn’t expect much dignity in a story about killers and strippers, but Cassavetes seems to revel in the unattractiveness of supporting actors with the same zeal he brings to close-ups of strippers’ breasts. There was always more than a bit of the voyeur in Cassavetes’ directorial style, but since the storyline of Chinese Bookie gave him license to film sleaze, one senses a lurid fascination with sex and violence. (For instance, Cassavetes cast pin-up models and strippers for key female roles instead of hiring proper actors.)
Still, one could argue that Cassavetes was simply capturing the right atmosphere for his story, and, indeed, Chinese Bookie has a seedy vibe of which Scorsese might be envious. It’s not, however, a particularly well-made film. Seeing how poorly Cassavetes handles standard-issue scenes like shoot-outs reveals the crude nature of his visual artistry, even though his ability to create a comfortable working atmosphere for actors is on ample display.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: FUNKY