The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: Giving it a Shot

by Erix Antoine

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The title of this film immediately suggests a genre piece – specifically – a gangster film or crime thriller. In many ways, the film is those things. But in many other ways it most definitely is not, and it is that interesting off-balance quality that makes it one of the most unique and overlooked films of the 1970s.

Reportedly, this film was born out of a conversation John Cassavetes had with his friend Martin Scorsese. “How about a film in which a nightclub owner is suckered into killing someone who doesn’t turn out to be the person he thought he was going to kill?”

That “logline” could describe the basic premise of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The plot is actually quite straight forward. A man named Cosmo Vittelli owns an L.A. strip joint. He falls into serious debt with some gangsters who pressure him into killing the “bookie” of the title in order to clear that debt. Needless to say, there is a double-cross involved and there’s more to this bookie than is first apparent.

Had this film been made by the aforementioned Scorsese, Paul Schrader, William Friedkin or Sidney Lumet; chances are that when you tell people: “It’s about a strip club owner who gets suckered into killing a Chinese mob boss,” then that is exactly what the movie would be about.

In Cassavetes’ hands, however, it becomes something just a bit different.

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It’s important to consider, however, that Cassavetes did intend to make a traditional genre film with this piece. This is very much his attempt at making a “crime picture” in the classic tradition, heavily influenced by the French policiers of the period and with elements of American film noir of the 50s. It’s all here, just filtered through a very particular prism. If the movie fails to really hit its mark as a “crime film” with quotation marks, it succeeds in other more interesting ways and it’s very interesting to see how Cassavetes is able to personalize even this film, under the pretense of engaging in a genre experiment.

It’s also important to consider that Cassavetes himself was aware of the film’s failure to connect with audiences. And he tried his best to fix it. The film was originally completed and released in 1976. After a rushed editing period, it was launched – in its full 135-minute form – in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles. At the time, this seemed like a safe bet. A Woman Under the Influence had been a tremendous success, both critically and commercially. Audiences were eager to see what John Cassavetes had prepared for them. And this was a “gangster film” – a commercially viable genre film.

Except it wasn’t. Not quite. And when audiences were subjected to this very particular motion picture, they were not prepared for it. They didn’t understand it. They stormed out of the theater hissing and booing.

The film was pulled from circulation after seven days.

Cassavetes would not give up and, in 1978, after the release of his following film Opening Night, re-edited the film considerably and released it in its more widely distributed 109-minute form. This version was ultimately closer to his original intention with the piece.

It didn’t matter, because even in its more streamlined form, the movie had trouble finding its audience.

NOTE: There are indeed two versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and both are now available on video. (For years, only the shorter version was available) Cassavetes did more than just excise scenes to trim the running time. He restructured the film and used some alternate takes in some cases, resulting in two versions that really do feel like separate films. And they deserve to be judged as such. In this essay, however, I’m really focusing on the work as a whole. 

Now, before discussing how it succeeds, I want to focus for a moment on where it falters and why.

I think it’s safe to say that, when approaching a genre film, we come to it with certain expectations. It’s very difficult to accept a film on its own terms when there are already so many established tropes and conventions. Somebody who has been weaned on films like The Godfather might find The Killing of a Chinese Bookie positively infuriating, maybe justifiably so. Because, although it is a genre piece, it doesn’t really feature any of the expected tropes. That is to say, people coming to this film looking for action, violence, suspense and so on, will come away disappointed when they find it has none of those things. Or, rather, I’d argue it does have those things – just not presented or executed in the traditional way.

There is also something to be said about the protagonist. Cosmo Vittelli is not the traditional gangster hero. He is not a Jimmy Cagney tough guy. He is not a man of action. He is passive. A man of contemplation, who – when presented with the possibility of taking action – puts that action off for as long as possible.

Next, we have to take a look at the world in which the film takes place. The world of Cosmo Vittelli is his strip club. But this is not a glamorous Las Vegas casino, full of luxurious sound and fury.  It’s a gaudy, cheesy place; with ambitious but terrible nightclub acts and patrons that come and go with little fanfare.

The world of Cosmo Vittelli

The world of Cosmo Vittelli

In a traditional gangster film, that world would be the backdrop for the exciting plot to take place. Here, Cassavetes inverts that relationship. Vittelli’s world is the film. The thriller plot becomes almost an afterthought. A clothesline on which to hang the narrative, which is ultimately concerned with presenting Cosmo Vittelli to audiences and asking for empathy and understanding; free of the usual cathartic thrills of a gangster film.

Naturally, if looked at in this specific analytical fashion, it’s easy to see how The Killing of a Chinese Bookie “cashes out” as a gangster picture. But that does not mean it fails as a film. Because any work of art should be judged according to its goals and intentions. If the work meets those goals and is true to its intentions, then it cannot honestly be considered a failure. That’s where The Killing of a Chinese Bookie does in fact succeed – and spectacularly so.

Earlier, I stated that John Cassavetes fully intended this to be seen as a genre film. An “audience picture.” On a surface level, that is true. But it does not mean that he wasn’t going to be presenting such a work entirely on his own terms. He might have been naive to expect audiences to follow him down the rabbit hole and commit to his specific version of this journey. But he should not be faulted for overestimating his audience.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie needs to be interpreted almost entirely as an allegory in order for it to begin working its magic. In fact, that’s how star Ben Gazzara had to see it before he could begin to enjoy playing the frustratingly laid-back role of Cosmo Vittelli. While discussing the film, between takes, Cassavetes launched into a lengthy diatribe on gangsters and criminals:

“Ben, do you know who those gangsters are? They’re all those people who keep you and me from our dreams. The Suits who stop the artist from doing what he wants to do. The petty people who eat at you. You just want to be left alone with your art. And then there’s all the bullshit that comes in, all these nuisances. Why does it have to be like that?” —Cassavetes on Cassavetes 

With that, Gazzara was able to see quite clearly that this movie wasn’t a “gangster picture” at all. It wasn’t about a strip club owner being suckered into murdering a Chinese mobster. It was a film about Cassavetes himself.

Watching the film with that particular perspective, the allegory becomes extremely clear and makes absolute sense. Of course the gangsters represent the studio executives, with their attention to money and power. Vittelli loses 23,000 dollars at their casino. But he is not taken to the back alley and shot. He is taken into a comfortable looking room with couches, where some very officious gentlemen take him through a rigmarole of making promises and signing contracts. It’s an extremely strange scene to see in a gangster film. Cosmo is essentially signing over his business – his entire life – to them, after which he shakes their hand and says, “thank you.”

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“The Suits who stop the artist…”

If the gangsters represent the studio then, clearly, their order of assassinating a Chinese bookie to eliminate the debt represents any studio-demanded hack job Cassavetes was ever asked to do and turned down. That Cosmo eventually goes through with it is not the point. He has to. It’s either that or saying good-bye to his business and – with it – his dreams. Consider, however, how long Cosmo puts off the act. It seems simple enough, but he refuses to do it until finally strong-armed by one of the thugs. And, even then, the journey to accomplish the “simple hit” becomes interminable and features many detours. In a moment, I’ll touch upon this element of the film with more detail but I’d like to plant the kernel of just how much this entire process seems to mirror Cassavetes’ own struggles in attempting to produce his art outside of the Hollywood system.

The most important component of the film, then, becomes the strip club itself. Because this is Cosmo’s world. But it is also very much Cassavetes’ world. We see a lot of the club and the people who work there. We are told repeatedly that Cosmo creates and choreographs each number himself, and we are given a brief glimpse into the audition process, which consists in Cosmo sitting alone in front of the stage while a hopeful girl struts her stuff for him.

Almost every number is emceed by an unusual man named Mr. Sophistication. An enigmatic film character if there ever was one (played by a friend of Cassavetes, a writer named Meade Roberts), who serves as Cosmo’s alter ego on the stage. And they are all fanciful acts, such as A Night in Paris or a reenactment of The Gunfight at the OK Corral. It should be clear to the viewer that this is not a normal club and these are not normal strippers or strip acts. This has more characteristics of a repertory theater company, not unlike the companies that Cassavates himself often tried to get going throughout the 60s and 70s. And, in many ways, his own filmmaking circle was like a repertory company of friends and family.

The strip club as repertory theater.

The strip club as repertory theater.

This is reflected in every scene that takes place at Cosmo’s club. We are taken backstage, behind the scenes… We see how Cosmo is everything to everyone. He is a father figure, mentor, friend, even lover. An early scene shows Cosmo going door to door, picking up several of his girls for a night out on the town; giving them each a corsage. Backstage, with Mr. Sophistication, he is forced to sit and listen to him as he vents his frustrations about being a middle-aged, mediocre entertainer constantly upstaged by the girls in the acts.

The vividness of the world extends to the portrayal of the audience. At no point do we see that anyone is thrilled to be there. And why should they be? These are very clearly terrible pieces of stage entertainment. It says something about Cassavetes and his ego that he chose to dramatize his art in such an unflattering way. This is not to say that he believed he was making bad films. But he was very aware of how his art was perceived by the critical mainstream. If you couple that to the fact that Cosmo Vittelli is willing to sell himself out and betray his every principle just to preserve this mediocre dream, the whole story achieves an even greater level of empathy. And it becomes heartbreaking.

Now let’s double back to the killing of the film’s title, the way it’s staged and what that says about John Cassavetes the man and the filmmaker…

I discussed earlier how Cosmo delays the killing to the absolute breaking point, when he literally has no choice in the matter anymore. John Cassavetes was known for abhorring graphic violence (and graphic sex, you’ll notice that – for a film about strippers – there is actually very little nudity ever seen on screen). Well, how to make a movie about murder without resorting to depicting violence? Simple. You treat it as completely secondary.

We are given a plethora of details regarding where, when and how the killing is to be performed. We then watch Cosmo go through the motions of following these step-by-step instructions. He is given a gun and a car by the gangsters. We then watch the adventure of the car breaking down on the freeway and his having to get a taxi to complete his journey. We watch him go to a restaurant and order a dozen hamburgers. This to appease the guard dogs that are an obstacle at the Chinese mobster’s house.

It is a good twenty minutes of screen time before the actual killing happens. Then, when it finally happens, it is not the kind of murder sequence you’ve been trained to expect after years of watching gangster films. The victim is not some well-groomed fat cat sitting at his den smoking a cigar without a care in the world, surrounded by guards ready to mount a spectacular shootout in his defense. He is a small, frail old man caught at his most vulnerable. Taking a dip in his indoor pool, his bony arms and sagging skin exposed to the world, squinting into the darkness to catch a glimpse of the approaching Cosmo. He has barely a moment to maybe utter a line of confusion before Cosmo shoots him dead. But when Cosmo fires, he does so off-camera. We are not treated to the impact. This is not meant to be a thrilling and suspenseful action sequence. We have just witnessed a tragic event – the murder of a defenseless human being.

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Subsequently, when Cosmo is betrayed by the gangsters who hired him and taken to a garage for a supposed ambush, we are once again deprived of any sort of violent catharsis. There is no elaborate chase or shootout with Cosmo vanquishing his attackers. There is only Cosmo escaping into the darkness with a confused thug shooting randomly into thin air before giving up in frustration.

Even when experimenting with the gangster film, a genre firmly rooted in Americana with so many established tropes, Cassavetes refuses to sell himself out. Despite the fact that he has his alter ego betray his own principles on screen, he refuses to do so with the film he’s making; and it is that quality that finally makes this such a unique and particular film.

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I’d like to end now with a personal critical appreciation.

I discussed earlier about there being two versions. Both have their virtues and flaws but, ultimately, I feel the 1978 re-edit to be the most successful. It is the one where John Cassavetes is able to have his cake and eat it too. Because he is able to present his allegory, while still conforming to the requirements of a suspenseful plot and the film can operate fully as both an existential mood piece and a relatively satisfying and suspenseful noir thriller.

The crucial flaw in the 135-minute 1976 version lies in Cassavetes’ inability to balance the material. He gives a lot of attention to the night club acts in this version. Those scenes, taken individually, can be fascinating – even hypnotic. Especially with a character as enigmatic as Mr. Sophistication at the center of it. But what ends up happening is you have an interesting, almost surreal look at the world of a night club constantly interrupted by a half-baked gangster thriller that ultimately lacks momentum.

Or, the other way around. A potentially engaging crime thriller is constantly interrupted by digressions into the strange world of Cosmo Vittelli’s nightclub.

Either way, the film is too convoluted and at odds with itself to really be successful one way or the other.

However, with the 1978 version, it becomes a much more powerful and effective film. Cassavetes strips it down to the bare essentials. In doing so, he is able to refocus the narrative on what really matters, which is Cosmo Vittelli himself. In this version, Vittelli emerges as a very compelling (if unusual) screen hero brought to life by Ben Gazzara’s iconic, sympathetic portrayal.

The streamlining of the narrative allows for a more direct line to the heart of the matter. The gangster plot becomes more engaging because it seems to have a greater sense of urgency, while the world of Cosmo’s nightclub seems to come in at just the right moments – providing a surreal, almost dreamlike backdrop for the story to take place.

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Whichever version you end up preferring, however, the fact remains that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is an extremely unique film. It is not necessarily Cassavetes’ best or most successful. But I would easily consider it to be his most fascinating work.

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