THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (John Cassavetes, 1976)

Ben Gazzara, an excellent actor, claims the role of a lifetime as Cosmo Vitelli, hands-on owner of the strip club the Crazy Horse West, in one of the ten best U.S. films of the 1970s, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Writer-director John Cassavetes has created a moody, atmospheric, tense, ultimately heart-piercing melodrama about Cosmo’s laconic navigation of a tawdry milieu largely populated by lowlifes. Cosmo himself maintains a facsimile of emotional balance by skipping from gambling debt to gambling debt, doing his best to pay one before moving on to the next. By no means is Crazy Horse West making him financially flush. Cosmo is in a grip of trouble.
     Color cinematographers Mitchell Breit and Al Ruban help Cassavetes evoke a subterranean seediness which surpasses that of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). Indeed, Cassavetes conjures an infernal realm of barely penetrable darkness, as thick as smoke. This is correlative to moral cloudiness. For a gambling debt he is tardy in paying off, Cosmo, a veteran who killed men in the Korean War, is forced to take out an elderly importer-exporter, the Chinese bookie of the title, in order to lose the debt. In reality, he was set up for this outcome and another one to follow: his own execution.
     Strangeness and corruption are pervasive. Commandeering the stage at Crazy Horse West is Mr. Sophistication, a weird, rotund crybaby who sings to the audience “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby” and nurtures jealousy against the girls. This mess of a performer encapsulates the reduction of Cosmo’s aspirations, the dead-end that his life has become.
     Cassavetes’ uncompromisingly pessimistic film more convincingly invokes the Watergate scandal, however elusively, than either Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) or Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976).

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One thought on “THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (John Cassavetes, 1976)

  1. I like this. I’d love to see you go more in-depth in a future piece on Cassavetes. Have you ever seen Love Streams? That film has depths I haven’t even begun to dig through-I’d be extremely curious to hear your thoughts on that one.

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