Old is New – The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Tuesday, June 09, 2009 4:02 PM
After graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1950, John Cassavetes began acting in theater. He would go on to appear in many television productions and Hollywood films, but his work as a writer and director of independent films is what makes up the bulk of his enduring legacy. His works have an improvised quality to them by making use of a hand held camera to achieve a truthfullness he found lacking in most films. Many deal with troubled marital relationships and feature his wife, actress Gena Rowlands. I have never been interested in these (Faces, Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence), but may reconsider after seeing his lone film in the gangster genre, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Mr. Cassavetes expressively reveals much about his characters and allows his actors so many unique moments in a film which is otherwise structured in a conventional fashion.
Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) is not a winner. But that doesn't stop him from gambling. In the first few moments of the movie, the owner of a hole-in-the wall topless joint repays a substantial gambling debt. To celebrate his freedom from the loan shark, he picks up three of his lovely employees in a limo for a night out. After giving them each a corsage (ever the suave gentleman) they go out for drinks and... a little gambling.
By evening's end Cosmo owes the house $23,000. He meets with the gangsters running the place (which include Cassavetes' regulars Seymour Cassel and cult figure Timothy Carey). After a discussion in which he promises to repay the debt he leaves and takes the girls home. It isn't long before the underworld figures show up at his club to collect, giving him an option that will free him of his debt - the mob wants him to assassinate a local Chinese bookie. After some persuasive interchange, he finally agrees. Cosmo sets out alone to do the deed and become free again. But of course, the task will not be that simple.
As previously mentioned, Cosmo is a loser. His whole life is dedicated to a lowly topless club. The people there serve as his family. The girls perform ridiculous routines with the laughable master of ceremonies, Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts). The setting is not remotely erotic, only sad and embarassing. But Cosmo is a professional, dedicated to giving his audience a "good" show. He is a mess, yet constantly has a positive disposition. His earnestness makes him endearing to the point that we care what happens to him as he heads down the street to the bookie's house. Gazzara gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. The film has points where it lags a little, but its virtues outweigh its flaws.
The best way to view this movie is on the disc from the Criterion Collection, part of a five part collection of Cassavettes titles. It is a new transfer with widescreen image and surround sound, including the 135-minute cut as well as the tightened 108-minute version (which is the version I reviewed). Both were edited by the director in the 1970s.
Several films in the 1990s made wonderful use of Cassavetes regulars Seymour Cassel and Ben Gazzara. Mr. Cassavetes progeny have directed several films as well. Nick has directed The Notebook and Alpha Dog. Zoe wrote and directed Broken English. Alexandra made the superb documentary, Z Channel: A Magnificant Obsession.