THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE A
USA (135 mi) 1976 revised in 1978 (108 mi) d: John Cassavetes
USA (135 mi) 1976 revised in 1978 (108 mi) d: John Cassavetes
I won't call [my work] entertainment. It's exploring. It's asking questions of people, constantly: How much do you feel? How much do you know? Are you aware of this? Can you cope with this? A good movie will ask you questions you haven't been asked before, ones that you haven't thought about every day of your life. Or, if you have thought about them, you haven't had the questions posed this way. [Film is an investigation of life.] What we are. What our responsibilities in life are – if any. What we are looking for; what problems do you have that I may have? What part of life are we both interested in knowing more about?
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Sophistication and his Delovlies will be along in a moment. My name is Cosmo Vitelli; I’m the owner of this joint, I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.
—Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara)
Following A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and the sense of friction it caused between the controversial Cassavetes working methods and his wife Gena Rowlands, they took a step back from working with each other. Cassavetes had an affinity for gangster pictures, largely because he had to work in them as an actor in order to support his career as a film director, and he felt the gangster genre could be commercially viable, where he could get out of the film distribution business, a time consuming and all too draining effort. While the idea for the film came in a discussion with Martin Scorsese, Cassavetes often thought of studio heads as men who associated with gangsters, and that they were dealing with mob money, which he felt filtered into many of the most powerful businesses in America. Also, one should not overlook the huge success of THE GODFATHER Pt’s 1 and 2 (1972, 74) in the early 70’s, a genre Cassavetes didn’t find terribly interesting, but he found a way to wield a storyline he was excited about into a gangster picture, imagining a nightclub owner owing a huge amount of debt, where he’s talked into killing someone who turns out to be completely different than what he thought, not a low rung bookie but a West coast mob boss. He got the idea of a strip club from Alain Bernardin’s Crazy Horse Saloon in Paris, recently depicted by documentarian Fred Wiseman in Crazy Horse (2011), largely because it was such a personal vision, where Bernardin founded, owned, and operated it, hired the girls, scripted the shows, and choreographed the acts, bringing all the girls into his extended family operation, much like Cassavetes own concept of making films, which are largely family affairs. In addition, Cassavetes drew upon the knowledge of actor Seymour Cassel and his mother, who was a burlesque dancer, where Cassel spent much of his youth hanging around strippers and old-time Vaudeville acts. One of Cassavetes’ favorite films was Arthur Penn’s surreal and criminally underrated Mickey One (1965), which features Warren Beatty as a night club comic who goes on a drunken gambling binge and ends up owing some astronomical amount to the mob, apparently so large an amount they won’t even tell him how much, where Beatty spends the rest of the film drifting in and out of his own imagination, a dreamlike, Kafkaesque nightmare where the interior landscape is portrayed as an existential wasteland. Both films today feel like modernist works, like a Waiting for Godot theatrical production where there's only one guy left talking to himself, stuck in his own Hellish purgatory.
A film infused with existential angst, first released in 1976 (but recut two years later to a shorter version, which was, for awhile, the only version available), this is an intimate character study of Cosmo Vitelli, a suave and debonair Ben Gazzara, who owns a lurid Los Angeles strip club, the Crazy Horse West, with club singer Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts, an American television and movie screenwriter who collaborated with Tennessee Williams on several plays brought to the screen) and a staple of beautiful girls he calls his Delovlies, and has finally paid off all his debts to a lowlife loan shark, with Cassavetes own lifelong producer Al Ruban playing the role as Marty, then recklessly gambles his way back into debt one night to the tune of $23,000. When faced with the loss of his club, which, in effect, represents his “life,” he settles with the mob, who orders him to kill a Chinese gangster to call it even, where they order a double cross to take him out afterwards. In a departure from the norm, Cassavetes actually shows action shots, chase scenes, and a hellish life and death meeting of the minds in a seedy looking garage. The last hour of the film follows Cosmo with a bullet in his side, slowly bleeding to death, like Johnny Depp in Jim Jarmusch’s revisionist acid western DEAD MAN (1995), as he revisits his girl friend Rachel (Azizi Johari), whose mother Betty (Virginia Carrington) kicks him out, not wanting any of that trouble making its way into her home, then his lovely showgirls, who he adores and who are his real family, as his life and its previous secrets pass before his eyes. This intimate portrait of a man whose world is crumbling, yet never once flinches or misses a day at work, keeping his best face forward so that no one suspects a thing, revolves around his staple of lonely hearts who faithfully get up on stage everyday, talent or not, just to keep the business afloat for Cosmo. This is a wildly idiosyncratic view of the human psyche, with similarities to Cassavetes’s own circumstances, gambling his own money on what were considered his crazy artistic ventures, offering some unusual views about what it takes to stay in business, expressed with a breath of fresh air, with theatricality and song, with a unique warmth and charm, a human face in the crowd, as Mr. Sophistication brings the film to a close singing the movie’s anthem: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.” There's a lifetime of lost opportunities wrapped into this film, where things could turn out a different way, but people struggle and persevere, and oftentimes redeem themselves, gloriously expressed in a song. Cassavetes finds the poignant moments. It’s hard to imagine, but he finds them.
There is some confusion about the two versions of the film, as the movie bombed at the box office, with critics finding it disorganized and unfathomable, causing Cassavetes to rework the film and release it two years later in a shortened version, but also introducing new footage, which was the only version seen thereafter. Today the film emotes a clarity of vision, with a semi-ragged, offbeat style that generates plenty of suspense, especially as he approaches the killing itself. Due to the rarity of the original longer version, it became the cut to see. After the Criterion label released both versions, there is rising support for the 2nd version, as this was not at a studio’s urging, but a newly revised vision from the director himself, not exactly a director’s cut, but perhaps an extension of his original vision, with both versions using as little artificial light as possible, creating a noirish mood, where people are often seen creeping through the dark, then in stunning contrast they’d shoot through color filters on the inside of the club. Because the camera stays on Cosmo throughout the entire film, and so much is filtered through his eyes, one would think the more time you get to experience Cosmo onscreen, which is the original version, the better idea you have of the complexity of his character, where he continually has to divide his interests, always trying to please others, where the moments spent alone are particularly devastating, where he expresses a profound loneliness. As Cassavetes sees himself in Cosmo, leading his own rag tag group of fringe characters, the story comes to typify his own experience with Hollywood. A case can be made that this experience is better expressed without the meandering scenes that tend to get easily sidetracked, where Cosmo is in a world of woe, having to be all things to all people. In the 2nd version, the editing eliminates any hint of excess, and actually changes many of the sequences, adding a different sense of focus to the film. In both versions, what’s central to the film remains intact, particularly the meeting scene with the gangsters, who may as well be the producers, which must resemble the hundreds of meetings Cassavetes attended where his ideas were undermined and he was betrayed, where you have to sit around and wait, as they go through this myriad of meetings with others first, and when it’s finally your turn, you’re outnumbered, as it’s eight against one, where you’re so worn out from waiting that whatever your original intent was has been worn down by the weariness and exhaustion of having to sit around, and the executives end up getting their way. Perhaps where Cosmo differs from the director is in Cosmo’s need to please, where he only felt comfortable as a snappy dresser, always looking sharp, surrounding himself with beautiful girls, and thinking he’s got it made.
In something of a blistering critique of American capitalism, Cassavetes invites the audience to share in Cosmo’s journey to survive in a cesspool of lies and broken promises, not to mention money and plenty of muscle that prevent you from ever succeeding. When Seymour Cassel invites Cosmo to their gambling club, they’re looking for a patsy to do the job. After a bit of gangster rough stuff, believing he has no other choice, Cosmo buckles, as would just about anybody if enough pressure is put on them, and reluctantly agrees to perform the hit, and surprisingly he gets out of it alive, surprising even the mob who figured that would never happen. He’s rewarded by the mob snuffing him out in a double cross, which is Cassavetes version of how artists are treated in Hollywood. Cassavetes sees gangsters as all the hired movie executives that prevent artists from doing what they want to do, as petty people that nag at you with details and restrictions, ordering rewrites and other various changes, all detracting from the artist’s original vision. Even onstage, Mr. Sophistication, a man of elegance and taste sharing a stage with strippers, is forced to deal with booing from the audience, who just want to see the girls, and repeated ridicule and humiliation from his fellow performers, as they can’t believe a guy would take himself so seriously, so they pull various pranks on him, which he doesn’t find so funny. In this environment, it’s impossible to create anything daring or new, as no one would ever come to see it, much less appreciate it, which was the story of Cassavetes’ career, largely misunderstood during his lifetime, disliked by audiences and critics alike, while anointed both critically and publicly after death to one of the founders of the American independent movement, though he remains something of an outsider, stuck as he is in the art world. This was certainly not Cassavetes’ choice, but became the only way to survive in an ocean of sharks to get his films in front of the public. He likely never anticipated the invention of the DVD in the mid 90’s, long after his death in 1989, or the effect of the Criterion label, where more people would view his films after death, and laud his artistry, than they ever would in his lifetime.
Looking at a few scenes from the film, one sees how the opening sequence has been altered in the two versions, as the original opening starts with an extended scene with the loan shark, Marty, Ben Gazzara in Killing of a Chinese Bookie - Opening 15 min: OneMinFilmSchool YouTube (13:48), followed by a bar scene with the cabdriver, who is cut out of the 2nd version, while this recut 1978 opening starts with Cosmo walking out of his club, “Things’ll pick up,” shortening the scene with Marty, the killing of a chinese bookie: opening YouTube (1:18), before moving directly to scenes at the club where Cosmo introduces himself. One of the more interesting scenes is a waitress who asks to audition for Cosmo, Morning audition YouTube (7:12), set to the song “Rainy Fields of Frost and Magic” by Bo Harwood, where his original music leaves a timeless impression, but ends up in a fight between Rachel and the potential new girl, culminating with the classic line, “I’m a club owner. I deal in girls.” Here’s a hilarious phone call expressing an incredulous state of mind as Cosmo is about to pull off the hit, but calls the club on a payphone while waiting for his cab, Ben Gazzara Phone Booth scene, Killing of a Chinese Bookie YouTube (1:39), which leads here The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - bookie gets whacked YouTube (1:27). Like Henry V, Cosmo gives an encouraging speech to revive his floundering troops, sad about losing Rachel, one of their stars who quits, where this entire rah-rah speech comes with a bullet in his side, Scene from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Ben Gazzara YouTube (4:13). The final moments are given to Mr. Sophistication, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie - end scene YouTube (1:55), a picture of futility, where an artist can expect to be humiliated and made a complete fool of, dying a slow death onstage, reminiscent of the Charles Mingus song “The Clown,” Charles Mingus - 04 The Clown - YouTube (12:13), narrated by Jean Shepherd, about a clown who in his efforts to please the audience is forced to endure more and more pain, where the greater the pain, the greater the applause, until eventually the clown dies onstage, to thunderous applause, as they all felt it was part of his act, where the public has always had a hard time distinguishing between illusion and reality, while Cosmo himself is too caught up exuding his own personal warmth and charm, ignoring the obvious reality.