By Daniel Barnes
Like most of John Cassavetes’ movies, his meditative 1976 crime film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie opens on what appears to be a random moment. When I watched Faces for the first time last year, the abrupt opening shots caused me to rewind the DVD to ensure I hadn’t accidentally skipped a chapter. Cassavetes is reluctant to invite the audience into his pictures, eschewing the welcoming embrace of a fade-in, establishing shot, or opening credits sequence, and the stories that follow tend to function in kind.
His films rightfully have a reputation for being difficult watches, what with their circular dialogue and cheesecloth narratives, but his best works (Faces and especially A Woman Under the Influence) are ultimately coherent and rewarding pieces. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, by comparison, is downright unreadable, even as it holds a skeevy sort of magnetism.
Ben Gazzara is brilliant – wasted, even – as Cosmo Vitelli, a perpetually besotted gambling addict and small-time strip club owner with a very peculiar and old-fashioned concept of sexual titillation. With its exposed wooden beams, cheap stage lights, and seemingly pungent stench, the club itself is tawdrier than any of the performances, which are mostly musty cabaret-style sleaze overseen by a lifeless, homunculus creep of an M.C. stage-named Mr. Sophistication.
To pay off his debts, Vitelli is ordered by a Character Actor Dream Team of weirdo thugs (including Seymour Cassel and Timothy Carey) to take out an aging Asian gang lord. Cosmo carries out the hit, and then the gangsters turn on him, but the specifics of the plot are almost beside the point. Cassavetes slices out huge chunks from scenes, and a lot of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie gets formed from the in-between moments most movies leave out, giving the generic plot machinations a feeling of inevitability.
Hulu Plus only offers the 108-minute theatrical release version, which got drastically re-edited from the original 135-minute cut after a poorly received screening. Cassavetes not only trimmed the film, but he also re-ordered many scenes and added some new material to the theatrical release. The result is even more incomprehensible than you might expect, not particularly in terms of the story (that I could summarize in a sentence), but definitely in the mixed bag effect of the film’s tattered and unintelligible style.
Cassavetes shot it with a mix of highly stylized cinematic bravado and his usual improvisational wandering, even within individual scenes. There are moments when the clash of images works brilliantly – the shock cut from a blind drunk Gazzara in a sleazy bar at night to a shot of him in the daytime, wearing a tuxedo in the back of limousine – and there are times when it feels random and formless.
So much of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is devoted to Cassavetes’ loudly struggling to reinvent visual and narrative forms that I fear a masterful Ben Gazzara performance was shred to ribbons. But to quote Spencer Tracy from Pat and Mike, what’s there is “cherce.” Desperation and rye whiskey seep out of Gazzara’s every pore, and he makes Cosmo’s obsessive dedication to the dingy theatrics of his Sunset Strip titty bar both sad and strangely charming. Cosmo is a signature role for Gazzara, although it’s a sign of his own somewhat unlucky in-between-ness that it came in this compromised film.