The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was the first John Cassavetes film I saw, on a late night BBC broadcast when I was in my teens. It’s unsurprisingly that this film, as opposed to, say, Opening Night or Faces was considered suitable for mainstream TV broadcast, given that it’s the closest of Cassavetes’ highly personal, intimate films to a genre piece – a crime / gangster film involving strippers and murder is probably an easier sell to Friday night viewers than a drama about alienation or the fear of ageing. But of course, what this film is about on paper and what is really going on are two very different things. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie stands out as something unique.
There are two different cuts of the film – the original 134 minute cut that was released to harsh criticism in 1976 and the 109 minute re-edit re-released in 1978 to wide public indifference. We can’t call either the ‘director’s cut’, given that Cassavetes chose to make the edits to what he admitted was a rushed original version. Both versions are included here and both are worth watching.
Having finally paid off loan shark Marty (Al Ruban), burlesque club owner Cosmo Vittelli takes a few of his girls out to a shady gambling club, where he proceeds to run up a $23,000 debt. The Mafia hoods who run the club suggest that he can clear the debt by assassinating a gangland rival – the Chinese bookie of the title. Desperate to save his club and forced into a corner, Cosmo agrees but then finds himself badly wounded during the ensuing shoot out and double crossed by the Mafia who want him out of the way to clear up any loose ends.
The two versions of the film offer varying insight to this chain of events. In the opening part of the longer cut (and it’s the early part that has lost most footage), we see gangster Mort (Seymour Cassel) visiting Cosmo’s club, The Crazy Horse West and flattering the keen-to-impress owner, suggesting he visits the gambling club – effectively setting him up as a patsy. Cosmo’s ego, his weakness for gambling and his misguided self-belief are all it takes to make him beholden to the Mob. This scene is missing is the shorter cut, but that version has a couple of important additions – we see earlier footage of gambling losers being lined up to be asked for ‘favours’, showing earlier on the ruthlessness of the gangsters, and later in an extended conversation where the killing of the Chinaman is first mooted, we get the revelation that Cosmo has experience of killing in the Korea War. These two significant moments really ought to have been in the original cut.
Other than that, the differences between the two versions are mostly reductions. An early scene that establishes Cosmo as a man who likes to play at sophistication – sitting in his chauffeur-driven limo giving Dom Perignon to stripper Sherry (Alice Friedland), who would rather just have Vodka – has been severely reduced (we also lose a very awkward encounter with her family while he waits for her to get ready) and an early dressing room pep talk to the girls at the club – mirrored at the end of the film – has also gone. There’s slightly more use of incidental music in the shorter cut (the only music in the longer version is that which is heard within the story) and the whole thing is a little tighter. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the shorter version is compromised or commercialised in any way. This remains much the same film, just edited differently. I would suggest you watch both, but I wouldn’t say that order in which you do so really matters.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is, in the end, less about gangland murder and blackmail (the titular killing happens offscreen) and more a study of emptiness. Cosmo seems to be living the good life, but he’s ultimately lonely. He’s consumed by the need to impress, yet also seems bored with everything apart from his one overriding obsession – his club. Everything that happens is about saving his club, even if he is dooming himself in the process. En route to the killing, he stops off to phone the club to see how the show is going; when shot, his one concern is to get back to the club. The final moments see him making a heartfelt on-stage tribute to his staff and rallying his argumentative performers – including down-at-heel but ego-driven comic Mr Sophistication (Meade Roberts) – before heading out into the daylight to find his pockets full of his own blood. The ending is ambiguous – we don’t know what will happen to Cosmo. Does he die? Does he live? Is there more retribution to be faced for his actions? The viewers will have to decide that for themselves.
Ben Gazzara is on top form as Cosmo. Even when he seems happy, you sense the emptiness within. This is a man not driven by passion (when a cute waitress asks to audition, he seems disinterested even though she seems to be attempting seduction) and his laughter is hollow. And you soon realise that his aspirations are self-delusional. His club offers a somewhat tacky cabaret – bad humour, little actual striptease (at one point he complains “this is supposed to be a strip club but nobody ever takes their clothes off!”) and his attempt to seem sophisticated seem misguided – the gangsters are laughing at him and his club behind his back, even as they consider taking it away from him. It’s not a huge leap to see that Cosmo is, in fact, Cassavetes – a man wanting to make art but hampered by the requirements of the commercial world. As an actor, Cassavetes made films he didn’t give a damn about just to be able to finance his own movies. Cosmo is forced into doing something much worse than starring in The Devil’s Angels to save his dream, but the principal seems the same.
Gazzara is more than matched by the supporting cast – Timothy Carey is one of the most chilling thugs in cinema history (his final smile – only in the longer cut – is astonishingly creepy), while Cassel is creepily smooth as the outwardly friendly mobster who is manipulating Cosmo. The dancers– including Cosmo’s girlfriend Rachel (Azizi Johari) and Russ Meyer regular Haji – are all made more human than most films featuring strippers manage, giving give great, naturalistic performances – and they are not presented as damaged or victims, thank God. The dialogue – apparently mostly scripted – feels improvised and the almost documentary realism of much of the film is helped by Cassavetes shooting mostly hand held, often with tight close-ups – when Rachel attacks an auditioning would-be dancer, it’s represented as much by sound as by frenetic vision, something that actually increases the violence of the act without actually showing it. Alongside the colour palate – the club scenes bathed in an otherworldly neon glow – this intensely intimate shooting style is the making of the film.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie remains my favourite Cassavetes film – and Cassavetes is one of my favourite filmmakers.