RESCUING THE DREAM
Looking back on John Cassavetes’ masterpiece
As with many great films of the era, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a multi-layered exploration of self-identity and relevance. The late writer/director and independent film pioneer, John Cassavetes, paints a gritty picture against the sun-baked and moonlit backdrops of Los Angeles.
The film’s protagonist is Cosmo Vitelli (an extraordinary Ben Gazzara), a Korean War veteran and owner of the Crazy Horse West strip club on Sunset Boulevard. Cosmo choreographs and arranges the club’s awful numbers emceed by a sad-looking clown named Mr. Sophistication. Despite the pretensions and shoddy staging, Cosmo takes great pride in his work, which ultimately delivers naked beauties to his customers, and not much else.
During a night on the town with three of his dancers decorating his arms, including the African-American Rachel (played by former Playboy centerfold Azizi Johari), his most affectionate companion and presumed lover, Cosmo loses his shirt at a seaside casino and by the end of night, is indebted to its proprietors for $23,000. He makes it clear that he intends to pay every penny back, and you genuinely believe him, but his capability to pay is at issue. Feeling ripe to capitalize on Cosmo’s misfortune, the casino hoods visit the club and offer Cosmo an opportunity to square the debt by knocking off a low-level Chinese competitor, hence the film’s title. Cosmo declines and asks that the debt be reduced by some other favor and an alternative plan is presented in which Cosmo would meet the target, enticing and luring him to the club with the help of his beautiful strippers, and Cosmo’s creditors would take care of the rest. Cosmo agrees and initially sets out to hold up his end, but again backs out. With their ire up, they put the screws to Cosmo who ultimately folds and accepts the assignment. He carries out the hit with stealthy precision and composure, perhaps reaching back to his military days, while also taking a bullet to the gut during his successful escape.
Believing he’s now even with the casino, Cosmo heads back to the club after having his wound temporarily stop-gapped by Rachel’s mom. However, he is pulled back into the fray and learns that he was double-crossed. The bookie was actually a high-ranking Chinese mobster and the hit was a set-up with full expectation that Cosmo would go down in the gun battle. With Cosmo having already foiled the gangsters’ plan, he declines an ambiguous offer of truce and protection and kills their point man, Mort Weil (the excellent Seymour Cassel, a Cassavetes mainstay), and evades their ambush. The film ends with an ailing Cosmo back at the helm of the Crazy Horse West.
The film is made up mostly of a series of medium to tight shots in close quarters and small, dedicated exteriors. There are no panoramic views, or visual cues of L.A.’s expansiveness. Cassavetes creates a universe seemingly inhabited solely by the characters we see on screen.
The club is Cosmo’s figurative home. We are never shown where he actually lives, eats or sleeps. Perhaps Cassavetes is telling us something about Cosmo’s place in this world. Is Cosmo identified only by the strip joint? It’s his place. It’s his possession and in his control. Cosmo even reminds his audience of this fact over the club’s speakers early in the film.
The club’s stage acts are Cosmo’s creations. Cassavetes purposefully presents them as tedious and tawdry as if to say that Cosmo may not know any better, limited by his cultural tastes and environment. Nevertheless, there’s something beautiful here, something Cosmo cherishes, even if mired in the seedy underground of Sunset strip joints. He proudly peddles sexuality for a living. He spends his leisure time with the same girls he parades on stage. While on his way to the bookie, Cosmo still manages to make a phone call and check on the club. In L.A., Cosmo enjoys unabashed freedom. Free to associate, to work, and to live as he chooses. It is the so-called American Dream chopped to its fundamentals. The casino hoods are a threat to Cosmo’s freedom, which he won’t relinquish at any cost to these outsiders.
Cosmo’s confidence and resolve grow during the film’s third act. We follow Cosmo’s progression from being self-conscious and an unnerved gambler, clamoring for attention at the casino, to a stone cold assassin. This is what frenzies the casino hoods that set him up to be killed, and who are shocked and scrambling when they learn that not only did Cosmo survive, but he also succeeded in knocking off the Asian gangster. These characters seem out of place in their own city. They travel in a pack of five, as if sharing a collective brain. They even need to resort to detailed driving directions using a tourist map to ensure Cosmo gets to his target without obstacle. And there’s discomfort in their physicality. They are more fickle than frightening, more impetuous than intimidating. They sweat and become rattled, bumbling in their attempts to muscle and kill Cosmo. When Cosmo is being roughed up by Flo, the big man of the gang (played by the wonderfully offbeat character actor Timothy Carey), it looks clumsy and awkward. Sure they mean business, but they aren’t very mean. They mistakenly calculate Cosmo for a pushover, but with his entire existence at stake, attrition is a useless weapon.
The sense of relevance conditioned by a fear of loss is also echoed by the secondary characters, particularly Rachel and Flo. Using Rachel’s intimate relationship with Cosmo, Cassavetes breaks down racial tension and disconnect to show us that neither she nor Cosmo is affected by social conventions. Rachel is completely comfortable with her physical nakedness, as expected by her occupation, but also accentuated by Cassavetes plainly filming her in the shower and walking topless around the club. Her emotions mirror her body. Watch as Cassavetes keeps the camera on her in the casino, growing angry when the host refuses to extend credit to Cosmo, and how she attacks the white auditioning stripper, fueled by her feelings for Cosmo and the fear of losing him, and in turn, losing her place in this world.
Without specific mention, it can be reasonably inferred from their accents and mannerisms that Cosmo and Flo are east coast Italian-American transplants, most likely from New York (of which Gazzara, Cassavetes and Carey are all natives). Cosmo’s move out west in a fit of manifest destiny is something he arguably shares with Flo. In a terrific scene that takes place just before the casino hoods try to take Cosmo out, Flo recounts an emotional memory of his father and can’t bring himself to be present at Cosmo’s impending demise. It’s not hard to figure that Cosmo and Flo have similar backgrounds, probably as sons of immigrants, reflecting one another through mutual appreciation.
Cassavetes excels in moments of character reflection and lack of exposition. There is richness in all that is unsaid and Cassavetes shows great respect for his audience. He assumes we are intelligent, or at the very least, are comfortable with having our intellect challenged. One mark of a great artist is the ability to tell a story, reveal a detail, or express emotion without making it painfully obvious.
Some may be put off by the unpolished look of the film. The odd cutaways and audio overlays may give the impression that this amateurish work, not concerned with technical aspects. But this would be an inaccurate summation. Cassavetes is a deliberate craftsman plying his trade. The film is beautifully photographed, effectively using saturated color, lack of a conventional score and muted surroundings to exhibit that same sense of detachment that the characters feel. It defies traditional labels, though most would categorize it as film noir. This is the type of film that will surprise you with each repeated viewing and multiple viewings are recommended. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie succeeds on a number of levels – as a work of art, as pure entertainment, and as a lesson in engaging filmmaking.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Producer: Al Ruban
Starring: Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey and Azizi Johari
Release Date: 1976 (Theatrical Original), 1978 (Director’s Cut)*
*Review based on combined viewings of both versions available on The Criterion Collection DVD.