DVD Review Of The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 4/8/07


  John Cassavetes’ The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is a film that is one of those overlooked gems that is not only a great film, but a great record of its time, even if it might have more properly been titled The Murder Of A Chinese Bookie. As much as I love the early, raw films of Martin Scorsese- who reputedly thought up this tale with Cassavetes a few years earlier, no film I’ve ever seen so perfectly captures the mid-1970s Underworld as I knew it as a child. There is a sense that on can even smell the cheap liquor and cigaret smoke that pervades its images. While Scorsese’s Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are also great films, they are so highly stylized, scored, and choreographed that they attain mythic qualities, and are shorn of much of the realism Cassavetes’ filmic world inhabits. What set Cassavetes apart from his contemporary American peers was that his films did not mythologize- they simply depicted. In this sense, he did for modern urbanity what German filmmaker Werner Herzog does for historical films- i.e.- brings them down to ‘eye level realism’. He also depicted his society with the same level of universal realism as Yasujiro Ozu did Post-War Japan.

  In watching the two versions of this film, made available as part of The Criterion Collection’s five disk John Cassavetes Five Films collection- the original 135 minute 1976 release, and the 109 minute 1978 re-release, one also gets a good representation of how greatness can be achieved. The longer version has only a few scenes more than the shorter version, and some of the same scenes go on a bit longer, but the tale is basically the same, for the extra scenes- while interesting, are not essential; such as Cosmo’s banter with a cabby about their New York pasts, a tale on a gopher tail’s causing botulism, and scenes outside a club. Even though the order of several scenes change, or are altered a bit, and there are a few segments unique to the 1978 version, the editing on the later version is generally superior. Rarely has a film- either version, cored so deeply into masculinity and the idea of territoriality. The longer version features a deeper portrait of the film’s main character, Los Angeles strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara)- a low man in the Underworld, and greater details his connections to the mobsters of the old guard who resent the rising criminal power of different ethnic groups.

  Despite his bad 1970s era white suit- predating John Travolta’s turn in Saturday Night Fever by a year, Gazzara’s Cosmo is as pompous as many of the 1970s dickwaving icons- such as Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now, or Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. When he tries to play the gleeful club host of The Crazy Horse West, and says, seemingly jokingly, ‘If you have any complaints, any complaints at all, I’ll throw you right out on your ass,’ you know that he’s really a bulldog pissing in his own corner. Yet, despite its dead on portrayals of gangsters- not as the mythic icons of The Godfather films nor the semi-buffoonish goombahs of Scorsese’s filmic world, but as real human beings with a tunnel vision where it concerns money, this is no mere gangster film, for, late in the film, one of the gangsters, Flo (Timothy Carey- best known from Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory), even says that Karl Marx was wrong, that religion is not the opium of the masses- money is, and that ‘Money is Jesus.’ Only in the world of Cassavetes do murderous goons wax poetic.

  Yet, I might argue that depth, intelligence, and realism are- if not the opium, then the bane, of the filmgoing public, as well as the critics, who drubbed the film upon its 1976 release. Cassavetes pulled the film from distribution after a week, and decided to pare the film down by a half hour. This speeds up the tale, and lessens, albeit slightly, the character study aspect of the film’s first half, but it also focuses the film more on the milieu, and this is a good thing. Yet, critics still pilloried the film upon its re-release. Many critics felt the film was still too slow moving and had no story. But, what occurs- which is that Cosmo is wrangled into taking out the fading mobster’s Chinese rivals’ top dog (Soto Joe Hugh), to pay off his skyrocketing gambling debts from a poker game, just after he has gotten above water from a prior debt that was slowly being paid off for years- is less important than the ways that Cosmo and the others react to this act. This puts the viewer right into the film, as if sitting next to the characters rather than merely watching them.

  The infamously obtuse New York Times film critic Vincent Canby (who died long before his body stopped moving) wrote, of this film, ‘Watching the film is like listening to someone use a lot of impressive words, the meanings of which are just wrong enough to keep you in a state of total confusion, but occasionally right enough to hold your attention. What is he trying to say? It takes a little while to realize that maybe the speaker not only doesn't know but doesn't even care to think things out. He hopes that if he continues to talk he may happen upon a truth as if it were a found object.’ I would counter that stolid film viewers like Canby were simply deaf, or so attuned to another, inferior, wavelength that when a Cassavetes unfurled a great film like this at them they were so deafened by listening to hard rock (or Richard Wagner) that the subtleties of a Carole King (or Erik Satie) were not even heard, much less actually listened to.

  Also, one of the overlooked reasons for the popularity of ‘gangster films’- from the Jimmy Cagney era on, is that the suburban white middle class (that which bourgeois critics like Canby embodied and pandered to) loves to thumb its collective nose down on the impoverished classes whose organized crime entanglements so mirrors their own evils in corporate boardrooms- save the overt violence. This film does not play into that Lowest Common Denominator urge. This lower class guy, this man a half step above a pimp, does not lash out the way a Jake La Motta does, in primal urges. Instead, much of the middle part of the film shows him actually ruminating on the murderous act he’s being asked to commit. This is the epitome of character driven rather than merely plot driven art.

  The film ends with Cosmo being double-crossed by the thugs who sent him to kill the Chinese bookie. They expected him to fail- because they told him that ‘the Chinaman’ was just a small time crook, when really he’s the head of Chinese organized crime in the City Of Angels, but they did not realize Cosmo was a skilled killer- from his days in the Korean War. Now, with him alive, and his having to not only kill the bookie-cum-don, but two of his cohorts, they know the heat is on, for the gangland triple murder is all over television. Cosmo killed the naked gang head in his Jacuzzi, and two of his goons, but the old man’s young lover got away, and knows what Cosmo looks like. So, the gangsters send a couple of their goons to take out Cosmo, but one of them relents. He is Flo, who earlier wanted Cosmo dead, but learns to respect Cosmo for his successful hit, and refuses to kill him. He tells Morty Weil (Seymour Cassel) and another guy to do the deed. But the other two prove no match for Cosmo. He kills both of them. The second one dies offscreen, in a great bit of editing and elliptical narrative that throws us right back into the flow of the film as Cosmo, shot himself, and bleeding, tries to deal with his physical pain and the knowledge he has killed five human beings for no real reason.

  There are several other great scenes, before the film ends. One is where Cosmo is rejected by his black girlfriend Rachel’s (Azizi Johari) mother, Betty (Virginia Carrington), who bandaged his wound, but bans him from her home since he will not go to a hospital. When she starts pontificating on his lifestyle and disregarding his attempt to justify his life with a sob story regarding his father, Cosmo simply leaves, and Cassavetes cuts off the scene- something a Hollywood film would have milked for ‘faux depth.’ Then there’s the scene of a sexy waitress who auditions for Cosmo, and then is attacked by Rachel in a jealous rage. The key to the scene is that it is shot showing the girl only from her waist down, as she struts on stage in front of Cosmo- a really terrific comment on what’s on his mind and why his girlfriend goes wild. There’s a scene where Cosmo gives a pep talk to his schlocky strip club performers, then tries to come clean in front of the club’s audience. In the end, he has to sublimate this night as he has all others, even though his blood still oozes from his gunshot wound- where the bullet remains lodged, and stains his suit.

  One wonders how many times Cosmo has gone through something similar to this before. Despite his façade at the film’s start, it’s clear the man is not satisfied with his life, despite deluding himself that he’s crawled up to ‘respectability’ in the world, and by film’s end this dissatisfaction is only deepened. The last scenes of the film show the bad act, led by talentless strippers and Teddy- aka ‘Mr. Sophistication’ (Meade Roberts- who wrote the screenplay with Cassavetes)- a sort of dark parody of the sort of schlocky headmaster of bad acts that Jim Broadbent’s character celebrated in Moulin Rouge, just petering to the end, like in real life. Whether or not Cosmo will finally be taken out by the remaining gangsters, bleed to death from his wound, or whether they will not fuck with him any longer, is never made clear.

  The acting is stellar, from Gazzara’s brilliance and slow boiling rages to Roberts’ giddy and depressing parody of the self-indulgent artiste types. Is it any wonder that Mr. Sophistication’s theme song is called Imagination Is Funny- the very title of which seems like it could have been stolen from the great parodic South Park film of a few years back? Another great performance is turned in by Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel, as Morty Weil- the blond gangster who pretends to befriend Cosmo, only to sell him out and set him up for a hit, before Cosmo does him in first. This performance is seen fully in the longer version, whereas in the shorter version he has little greater import than the other altacocker hoods.

  The films come on two DVDs, and the original, longer 1976 version has no extras, not even an audio commentary. Neither does the second disk, which is a great disappointment, for great films really should have someone to explain why they work to the masses. Both films are shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ration, and are well transferred. The semi-documentary, handheld camera shots, get darker and darker in terms of palette, due to the descent of Cosmo, but the soundtrack and ambient score of the film is well preserved. It is a naturalistic score, and plenty of silences pervade the film. This is especially important in the shootout sequence in a warehouse, where the gangsters’ killer tries to hide his footsteps by making loud noises. The second disk has a few bonus features, such as interviews with actor/producer Al Ruban and Gazzara. Gazzara states he believes the film is not a gangster film but an allegory of Cassavetes’ artistic struggles with the studios and distributors he had to navigate to get his films made- an interesting and very defensible take, and one which would explain why Cassavetes claimed this to be his most personal film, even though he never had personal dealings with mobsters- ala Scorsese. There is also an audio only interview with Cassavetes and film historian Michel Ciment, as well as a stills gallery.

  The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie succeeds as a great piece of cinema because its lead character is one of the most realistically drawn characters in film history- he’s a thug and a killer, yet one who is explicable. He is a businessman who cannot separate work from personal lives- his girlfriend is the bar’s top stripper, and twenty or more years his junior. Yet, it is not a film noir, as so often called, for Cassavetes transcends the simpleminded techniques of that genre, and delivers a film of intellectual heft and psychological breadth, where murder blossoms from the seemingly most inane, perfunctory, and inconsequential of moments, and leads to an examination of masculinity and territoriality that has no peers in film. Sometimes his scenes go on a tad too long, but, like Walt Whitman’s poetry, there is beauty and strength in even his excesses- something that many other so-called artists’ most focused works lack. Cassavetes consistently served up his art at ‘the grown ups table,’ as Woody Allen called drama vis-à-vis comedy, but so few film fans are used to real, or pure, drama, for Hollywood has so dissolved their minds with mid-level melodramas, that they simply are overwhelmed by his best films audacious pseudo-verité. That The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie may be his very best film is all the explanation needed for its lack of popularity in a deliterate age.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]

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