Director: John Cassaveteskilling-of-a-chinese-bookie_dvd
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Producers: Phil Burton, Al Ruban
Starring: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John Kullers, Al Ruban
Year: 1976
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 109/134 min

A smalltime L.A. strip club owner out celebrating after settling his gambling debts soon finds himself at a poker table with the mafia. Things don’t turn out too well, and he ends up deeper in their pocket than intended. Instead of paying his way out, they offer him a deal – if he kills the eponymous small time Chinese bookie then his debt will be cleared. Initially the man is reluctant to take the deal, but once he accepts, the assassination attempt doesn’t play out exactly as planned.

Director John Cassavetes is known for his handheld camerawork, semi-improvised performances and a haphazard approach to editing. What he is not known for, however, is an abundance of plot or coherent narrative structure, instead opting for more character-driven stories, centred around morally ambiguous folk whose inner motives are difficult to ascertain. This is especially evident here, as we follow Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara, of Road House and The Big Lebowski fame) as he struggles to keep his unconventional strip club show running, whilst the rest of his world crumbles around him.

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Gazzara, a very underrated and underutilised actor in my book, is on top form here. His Cosmo is equal parts charming and delusional (“I got a golden life, got the world by the balls, that’s right, I’m great,” he tells a random girl during his celebratory drinking binge), seemingly happy with his lot in life yet also disapproving of his club’s amateur performances, regardless of whether the jeering punters mind or not. This is a man not afraid to dance alone in a crowded bar, a man of confidence and style – could you look this cool in an off-white jacket over a crisp white shirt? I think not. At times the camera is at one with Cosmo – just watch his eyeline when a nubile young waitress introduces herself to him – and rarely is there a moment when he is off screen.

The majority of those moments though are the film’s biggest detracting factor. You see, on several occasions we are treated to long, drawn out performances of the girls at the club. These dances, accompanied by an avant garde comic musician known as Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) are uncomfortable at best, and unsettling at worst, never once edging towards arousing or provocative. I’m more prudish than most when it comes to these kinds of scenes, but it would be difficult to deny that their presence takes something away from the central story. They do, however, aid Cassavetes’ terrific portrayal of the grimier, seedier side to a town more often depicted with a glossy, freshly polished sheen. The camera doesn’t shy away from the cracked and flaking plasterboard walls resplendent in graffiti and questionable stains, a world that Cosmo seems better than, and one that he’d surely rise above if he could just get his vices under control.

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A similar aesthetic quality has been used for the supporting cast, featuring such weather-worn character actor faces as Timothy Carey (Paths of Glory) and Morgan Woodward (Cool Hand Luke), amongst others. Most of these guys are relatively unknown, but they all do a great job as the kind of menacing, imposing figures that don’t need to look when they cross a road – they know the driver that hits them will have a far worse day than them. The girls of the club, however, do not fare quite so well in the talent department, and their acting is often comically bad, but whether this is intentional or not is uncertain, as some are supposed to be bad at their stage performances as well.

There’s a wealth of unforgettable scenes on display – Cosmo collecting his favourite girls for a night on the town, later awaiting his fate in the casino’s back room as another victim pays his price, or the diner scene in which multiple mafia men outline the plan Cosmo must follow to eradicate his target, all talking over one another. For me, though, it has to be the assassination attempt itself that is the standout; a near silent affair, it is remarkably tense and wonderfully shot, but alas is let down by a level of implausibility in terms of Cosmo’s skills in comparison to his target’s guards.

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This is definitely not a film for everyone. Those expecting a straightforward thriller or noir narrative will be disappointed, however if you’re after a more artistic approach to what would otherwise be a standard crime drama, then this is probably more up your street. Immediately after the viewing I was definitely leaning away from this film, but now I’ve given it a few days to settle, I’m certain I’ll be revisiting it again in the future, if only to drink in those visuals and performances.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is out now on Dual Format DVD/Blu-Ray as well as a 3-disc Limited Edition. Included in both sets are both versions of the film, the original 1976 version and the shorter 1978 director's cut. For the 1976 version you can watch certain scenes from the film with a commentary by Al Ruban and Peter Bogdanovich. You get the usual BFI booklet too, which I'm sure will be packed with all the background information and thoughts on the film that you get with a BFI release.

The 3-disc edition has 3 extra films, Anything for John (1993, 90 mins) - a feature documentary featuring interviews with Cassavetes' collaborators Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk and Al Rubin, The Haircut (1982, 24 mins) - a rare 1982 short starring John Cassavetes and Tamar Toffs Interview (1993, 6 mins) - the director of The Haircut discusses her film and working with Cassavates.

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4 Responses

  1. David Brook

    Nice review. Which version did you watch by the way? I’ve only seen the shorter director’s cut. I’ve heard differing opinions on which is better.

    Reply
  2. JayCluitt

    I watched the shorter one, mainly because of time constraints, but when I revisit I’ll go for the longer version, because I hear it’s easier to follow. I’ll elt you know how I get on.

    Reply

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