CRIMEWATCH: The Killing of A Chinese Bookie
Director John Cassavetes‘ work in cinema was focused on exploring the joy and sadness of being alive. It was evident in everything he made, from his debut Shadows (1959) to A Woman Under The Influence (1974). With The Killing of A Chinese Bookie (1976) he brought his love of focusing on human complexities to a story set within the crime genre. This film was clearly inspired by friend Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets which had been released 3 years earlier. The two films are actually connected in another interesting way as well. When Scorsese made his first studio production, the low budget period drama Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman and AIP, he showed it to Cassavetes who told him he should tackle something more personal on his next project. Scorsese agreed and wrote the script for Mean Streets which was based on his own background and it went on to establish him as a filmmaker with a very strong voice upon its release.
Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a successful gentleman’s club owner on the Sunset Strip in L.A. When we first meet him he’s walking out into the night, it’s late and the scene is jumping. As the cool opening score pulses, we feel the buzz of the exciting atmosphere and the camera begins following Cosmo taking us right into the midst of his smoke and booze filled world. Cosmo has a drink at a bar and declares to himself he’s living the life he always wanted. For all appearances he is. His days consist of keeping an eye on the club, auditioning pretty girls for the skits and MC’ing the shows. They feature a wacky performer, Teddy aka “Mr Sophistication” (Meade Roberts) someone that brings a more artistic aspect to what are basically strip numbers.
After a long night Cosmo stops at a nearby cafe where he meets with a loanshark (Al Ruban) he owes money. After paying him, he continues with his tasks around the club then decides to go out on the town for some fun with three of his dancers. They hit a movie and stay too long, but arrive back to the club in time before anyone notices. Cosmo attends another poker game this time losing a whopping $23,000 leaving him in a worse position than before. Soon after, the local underworld boss (Morgan Woodward) along with his soldiers, “Flo” (Timothy Carey) and Mort Weil (Seymour Cassel) talk with Cosmo explaining the seriousness of his latest debt but inform him of a unique way he can settle it. Angry and frustrated from being backed against the wall, he assures them he’ll pay them back no matter what.
One night at the club, Mort stops by and asks Cosmo to step outside. Flo then takes him across the street, works him over in an alley and forces him to take the special job they need done. There’s a Chinese bookie that they want him to kill and if he pulls it off his debt will be forgotten. What Cosmo doesn’t know is that this man (Soto Joe Hugh) is actually the head of the Chinese mob on the West Coast. Cosmo is given directions to the home and a stolen car that’s been hotwired to get him there. Knowing it’s a do or die situation, he speeds off to complete his mission, but while driving down the highway the car stalls out leaving him stranded. He then has to call a cab and then pick up some hamburgers to feed the dogs that are guarding the bookie’s home. Cosmo succeeds in killing the old man and shoots several of his bodyguards as well and hops on a bus back to the city. When Mort, Flo and the other guys are informed he actually made the hit, instead of being happy, they can’t believe it because they’ve now got to get rid of him too. Cosmo has had experience with killing before since he was a Korean war veteran and wants to prove he isn’t the poor schlub they expected him to be.
Ben Gazzara is in prime form as Cosmo, a guy that has built a business from the ground up and lives life on his own terms but has his demons that ultimately take him down. One of the standout performances of this film is the character actor Timothy Carey who was often cast as heavies (see The Killing, One Eyed Jacks, Bayou and The Outfit). He was such a unique, eccentric personality in the way he talked and reacted, it’s just marvelous stuff. He adds so much life to the show with just a few bits of dialogue.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie marked the second collaboration between friends John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara and it’s their best. What sets this film apart from other crime genre films of its day is how Cassavetes used his trademark cinema verite style to take us right into the space the people inhabit. You get to be up close and personal as opposed to watching their lives unfold from a distance. Cassavetes’ was especially brilliant at finding the honesty and humor in any subject he dealt with no matter how serious. He also had a way of making his characters extremely intriguing through quirkiness even when they were just sitting in a bar drinking or at a restaraunt. In comparison to movies like The Godfather it was less about the Hollywood flash and more about the ‘down at the heels’ realism of people who live in the shadows. All of John Cassavetes’ works took smaller personal stories about everyday situations and made them very entertaining to watch and he did it better than anyone else in cinema. A few years after this film, he made another crime related masterpiece with Gloria (1980) starring his wife Gena Rowlands which we also highly recommend.