Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavettes, 1976)

by Douglas Buck November 28, 2021 5 minutes (1161 words) HD streaming

Nightclub owner Cosmo Vitalli (Ben Gazzara) has a problem – he keeps gambling his way out of, and right back into, huge debt. Only this time the mob ain’t having it; he either kills the aforementioned rival bookie (take a guess from which part of town he resides) as immediate payment in full, or they take his beloved club away.

A seedy Sunset Strip. A strip club setting. Low rent gangsters. Threatening loan sharks. A foreboding Chinatown (where the White Man doesn’t dare tread). Our reluctant hero forced to carry out a looming hit.

After having cemented his reputation as a maker of uniquely-captivating intimate dramas (mixed in with some oddball comedy-drama), determinedly indie filmmaker Cassavetes decided to enter the much more tradition-laden landscape of the neo-noir… and while the iconography might be familiar to the genre, the film remains as iconoclastic and eccentric as any he’s done, with the unmistakable fingerprints of the filmmaker’s quirky indulgences smeared all over it.

Whether with the constant returning to the low-rent vaudeville shows of the ‘dancing girl’ regulars and their pathetic clown-faced MC, who the girls openly mock for just how awful he is (though I must say point out one thing that not only isn’t bad about their acts, but is stunningly good – that would be the absolute perfection of the full breasts of the Scandinavian Amazon in the troupe – hell, I would have been willing to endure these long scenes even much longer if Cassavetes would have continued to linger on them), or Cosmo’s pride in creating his drab shows (with the core of the film being his struggle between going through with the hit on the bookie or giving up the nightclub world that is his life – with the film Cassavetes-like not judging at all just how talentless Cosmo clearly is, only concerned with how much it means to him), or late in the film with two-bit henchman Flo (the memorable, always oddball Timothy Carey) suddenly unable to bring himself to kill Cosmo (in a moment that I’m not sure quite works as Flo’s sudden announcing of Cosmo as a friend seems to come out of left field, though coming out of left field seems to be Cassavetes preferred approach to most things), or even with the captivating scene of the wounded Cosmo alone with his girlfriend’s disapproving mother (who sees him as nothing but trouble for her stripper daughter that works for him), with the mom played by a non-actor (mixing up actors with non-professionals being a favored technique of the director), leading to them startingly screaming in each other’s faces as they seem to recognize with deep frustration the bridge to actual communication can never really be reached…. I mean, this is Cassavetes all the way.

The filmmaker’s concerns remain the same – attempting to find empathy, or some kind of understanding, with characters not through acts of heroism, or God forbid making them likable (far from that), but through messy efforts of us watching them attempting to communicate, or to understand themselves (or something), or to create some kind of vision of a world. I can certainly understand why his ensemble of actors (Gazzarra being one of those) loved to work with him, because he clearly allows them to indulge in improvisation, allowing them to search and discover. Cosmo giving a pre-show pep-talk to his girls (and the delusional maudlin comic) is a perfect example of his narratively off-kilter, actor-centric approach working; it ends up seeming more about Cosmo talking about his own desires and self than anything else, yet, crazily, it somehow works in getting the girls out of their doldrums… and even somehow ends up feeling organic to the scene itself.

You can clearly see the personal connection to the central figure of “Killing” for one-man-island filmmaker Cassavetes (at a time when there really was no independent film scene – the Weinsteins came along and changed all that a decade later – before that though, like Fuller and Ray before him, Cassavetes was a true maverick); Cosmo is a destructive man (and there’s plenty of stories about Cassavetes on that front) struggling to keep his artistic world alive against forces trying to take it away from him (in Cosmo’s case the mob, in Cassavetes, the entire studio system around him).

As much as I find Cassavetes the filmmaker daring and uncompromising (all things to love and admire in an artist), and his films intriguing, I can’t say I’ve ever loved his work (though “Killing” is a favorite, for sure, as well as the same year’s Mikey and Nicky which while directed by Elaine May, has the feel of a Cassavetes film through and through, perhaps because of how Cassavetes’ particular voice fits so comfortably within the dark male-centric neo-noir genre which both films are examples of).

I would argue if you look over at George Romero’s early non-horror entries, like There’s Always Vanilla and Jack’s Wife (hell, I’d include his early horror entry The Crazies in this as well), you’ll see an equally fiercely indie-spirit (from Pittsburgh, of all places) not only channeling (deliberately or otherwise) a similar messy, jazzy and improvisational Cassavetes style, but in many respects, doing it even better. Perhaps it comes as a result of the eras which inspired them, with Cassavetes influenced (and limited) by the 50’s beatnik era, with his focus usually centered around breaking down (and ultimately celebrating of, albeit flaws and all) the male ego (especially the alpha male ego, the engine which Cassavetes certainly was driven by), while Romero, being a decade younger than Cassavetes, was more a child of the 60’s, with his impressionable years informed by the social turmoil created by the likes of the woman’s movement and civil rights, leading to his films being more infused (and perhaps dated a bit in their aesthetics) by a rebellious consciousness (and a greater focus on women, which was definitely not a common trait of cinema back in the 70’s – as much as I celebrate that decade as a Golden Age in Hollywood, other than outliers like Barbara Loden’s brilliant Wanda, I certainly understand the criticism that much of it was a lot of guy filmmakers making movies centered around other guys doing guy things).

Watching so many long intimate moments in Cassavetes’ films, in which we sit and watch the characters twist around, reaching for something within, I don’t necessarily find the director’s approach psychological in nature, as I do improvisational-in-tone and somehow searching. As a filmmaker, it certainly makes his work uniquely captivating… and frustrating as well, as it never quite reaches the cinematically sublime for me. I guess I prefer my cinematic truths coming through a more formalistic and controlled lens; give me an Ingmar Bergman film any day (who, interestingly, Romero also channels at times in his early films).

Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavettes, 1976)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   george romero   independent cinema   john cassavetes