Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey

Cassavetes was doing for cinematography and story pacing what Mamet attempts to do with language: try to make it so real it can be almost unbearable some times. Stories are not told in beats and there are no real “plots”. Cassavetes is interested in character studies, without any real arcs. Just a slice of this characters life, and in his later works the slice included a definitive moment. Here Cassavetes is reunited with Ben Gazzara whom he last worked with on Husbands. Gazzara is giving an understated performance to match the understated filmmaking of Cassavetes. When I watched this film I went with the Director’s Cut, released in 1978 and preferred by Cassavetes himself. The original cut was 134 minutes compared to the DC’s 108 minutes. When it comes to Cassavetes more is not necessarily better because he is always allowing his camera and scenes to meander until they figure out where they want to go.

Cosmo Vitelli (Gazzara) is a strip club owner and chronic gambler who is in the midst of paying back his debts to the mob in L.A. He’s so excited to have this debt gone that he spends an expensive night out gambling and ends up $23,000 in the hole. His debtors come up with a creative way for him to pay it off, they tell Cosmo to kill a bookie in Chinatown that has been giving them trouble. The mob refrains from telling Cosmo the whole truth about this man and sends the sad sack in to do their dirty work. Of course some things go wrong and we follow Cosmo for the rest of the night as his life is altered forever. There’s no moments of suspense or climax, but just the camera following this man. Where the film ends is abrupt and we can assume what becomes of Cosmo, but still open to interpretation.

Bookie is very much the American cousin of French gangster films, and I was constantly reminded of Le Samourai with Cosmo’s stoic calm during his assassination of the Chinaman and the resulting fallout. There’s the same slapdash style Cassavetes employs in all his work. Along with Cosmo, there is are some very interesting characters decorating the fringes of the picture. The dancers in Cosmo’s clubs are briefly glimpsed and a few feel like they have histories well beyond the walls of the club. The most fascinating figure in the club is Mr. Sophistication, the master of ceremonies who is a pathetic sort of showman. His nightly shows are themed around exotic locales and he sings pitifully as the women emerge from behind the curtain and undress. Mr. Sophistication is at times angry at his circumstances and others broken by them. A common theme with every character in the film, wanting to get out but eventually giving in to what they see as fate.

While Bookie is far removed from the suburban ennui Cassavetes typically followed, Cosmo is really no different than those characters. Everyone is a person fighting against an overwhelming tide. It might be their failing marriage, mental stability or a bullet, but every person is face to face with inevitability. But Cassavetes forces us to question whether these people are out of control of their lives or the ones completely responsible for their circumstances.

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