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In John Cassavetes’s personal cinema, the director was always trying to break away from the formulas of Hollywood narrative, in order to uncover some fugitive truth about the way people behave. At the same time, he took seriously his responsibilities as a form-giving artist, starting with a careful script (however improvised in appearance). Nowhere was the tension between Cassavetes’s linear and digressive, driven and entropic tendencies more sharply fought out than in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), one of his most fascinating achievements.
Following up his success with A Woman Under the Influence, the director thought it might be interesting to try a gangster picture to stretch himself, in effect by exchanging the domestic suburbia of quarreling married couples for a more raffish milieu, and meeting the audience halfway with some traditional Hollywood entertainment values associated with the genre: suspense, murder, double crosses, topless dancers. An amiable, courtly nightclub owner, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), already in debt to loan sharks, indulges his unfortunate weakness for drinking and gambling, and ends up owing twenty-three thousand dollars to gangsters, who demand that he pay off the debt by executing a competitor of theirs, a mob boss whom they inaccurately describe as a Chinese bookie. The story obeys the step-by-step fatalism of an unfolding nightmare, whereby small mistakes and temptations lead to deeper consequences, such as can be found in classic film noirs with Edward G. Robinson, Glenn Ford, and Jean Gabin. Looked at purely as narrative, there is surprisingly little waste in the script: each scene advances and intensifies the central dramatic situation. Cassavetes even fulfills the genre contract with action sequences (rare for him) that involve shootings, chases, and sinister, underlit garages, perhaps drawing on his own experience as an actor in crime movies. On the other hand, the film’s enduring power comes across most in subtle details of setting and character that play against, or in inertial counterpoint to, these obligatory propulsive scenes.
Cosmo’s strip club, the Crazy Horse West, functions as a viscous flypaper to which the film keeps attaching itself, where time dawdles and dilates in a constant night. (Cassavetes insisted these nightclub scenes be shot through gels, which created stylized pools of isolating red or blue light for the owner-impresario to walk through.) Cosmo has gilded his tawdry peep show with a series of fantasy backdrops, all introduced by the dumpy, epicene master of ceremonies, Teddy, professionally known as Mr. Sophistication, who “takes” the audience to exotic locales. Unforgettably portrayed by the Hollywood screenwriter Meade Roberts, Mr. Sophistication belongs to that tribe Dostoyevsky called “the insulted and the injured.” He oozes affronted, buffoonish humiliation. But he also epitomizes the needy, oversensitive artist—a self-parody by Cassavetes—who is hungry for the spotlight but believes himself fundamentally homely and unloved. Teddy’s theme song, “Imagination,” becomes the film’s bleak anthem.
At bottom, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a character study of its grinning, self-estranged protagonist, Cosmo, a small-time, rough-around-the-edges businessman trying to maintain an invented persona of Mr. Lucky suavity and charm. The corsages he brings each of his “lovely ladies”—rounding them up as escorts to the gambling joint Ship Ahoy, where they will be forced to witness his defeat—are the perfect expression of his self-conscious, formal punctilio and hunger for class. Gazzara turns in a brilliant performance as the unhappy Cosmo. (That Gazzara was unhappy himself through much of the shooting, finding it hard to sympathize with or admire his character, only reinforces our sense of Cosmo as discomfited with his chump role in life.) Cosmo seems always to be sniffing himself for something rancid or fraudulent. Trying to live up to an elegant standard of sophistication, he mutes his Sicilian street temper with a false veneer of politeness and seductive blather. In a long, revealing speech near the end, he admits that he is always betraying his real nature: “Look at me—I’m only happy when I’m angry, when I’m sad, when I can play the fool, when I can be what people want me to be, rather than be myself.” Ironically, he utters this false confession as a way to motivate the troupe to get back onstage and give the customers what they want—saying, “Choose a personality,” or in other words, Fake it for me. Even at his most sincere, he’s calculating, and even at his most calculating, he is lost, unable to decide what he is undergoing or who he is. One moment he says, “I’ve never felt better in my life”; the next moment it’s “I don’t feel too hot” (no surprise, since he has a bullet lodged in his gut).
Cassavetes clearly believed the self to be a constant bluff, a desperate improvisation launched in heavy fog. He told an interviewer: “People don’t know what they are doing, myself included. They don’t know what they want or feel. It’s only in the movies that they know what their problems are and have game plans for dealing with them.” The closest thing Cosmo has to a game plan is: the show must go on. In one hilarious scene, en route to his prospective hit job, he stops in a phone booth to check up on the evening’s performance: what number are the girls and Teddy doing? He berates his help for not knowing the acts better after all these years. At bottom he is a man of the theater, at its most Felliniesque and flea-bitten. He understands two things: “I own this joint” and “Everything takes work; we’ll straighten it out.” You do your job the best you can, even if it’s just shaking your tits onstage in the no-win situation life hands you. It is this sort of philosophical stoicism that informs much of the nobility in Cassavetes’s grubby universe.
The plot’s biggest gamble is to make Cosmo, this likable if screwed-up schnook, actually go through with the killing. Is it plausible that someone so seemingly decent would do such a thing? We don’t know, any more than we know enough about his past to say with certainty whether it’s even the first time he’s killed someone. But if we accept Cassavetes’s model of the self as constantly in flux—provisional, unknowable, yet susceptible to the immediate claims of duty—then we may be better able to make the leap and accept the possibility.
Cosmo’s counterpart in the gangster world is Mort, shrewdly played by that superb Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassel. Morty is another character with a false self, a smiling company man hiding behind an oddly decorous manner; “Will you excuse me please? I have to freshen up,” he says to his dinner companions before ordering another rubout. Not everyone surrounding Cosmo is as empty and amoral, however. Rachel (Azizi Johari), the beautiful showgirl who is Cosmo’s lover, and her mother, Betty (Virginia Carrington), offer him an alternative of tender care. So it is all the more startling when, in a powerful scene toward the end, Betty interrupts his monologue of childhood reminiscence and sweet talk to tell him she doesn’t give a shit. “Cosmo, I think what happened was wrong,” she says, rising to full moral stature, and adds that if he won’t see a doctor to have the bullet removed, then he can’t stay in their house. Without wanting to know how he came by that bullet, she indicates to him that he represents a danger to her and her daughter, and she has an obligation to protect her family. Thus his fantasy that this black mother and daughter are his true “family” crumbles, and he retreats to the club, his only haven. So might Tony Soprano later lick his wounds in the Bada Bing! club.
In 1976, when The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was first released, it bombed at the box office, much to Cassavetes’s disappointment. Critics found it disorganized, self-indulgent, and unfathomable; audiences took their word for it and stayed away. Today, the film seems a model of narrative clarity and lucidity; either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style. Now we are more accustomed to hanging out and listening in on the comic banality of low-life small talk; to a semidocumentary, handheld-camera, ambient-sound approach; to morally divided or not entirely sympathetic characters, dollops of “dead time,” and subversions of traditional genre expectations.
The film, seen today, generates considerable suspense, part of which comes from classic man-against-the-mob conventions: seeing how the noose of fate is tightened. Part of it, however, comes from Cassavetes’s perverse reluctance to play the game of simple entertainment, offering more complex rewards instead. An example is the scene where Cosmo stops off at a hamburger restaurant to pick up some meat with which to placate the guard dogs before murdering their owner. The waitress, a well-intentioned, matronly blonde, tries to convince her customer to take the burgers individually wrapped, so they won’t make a greasy mess. Cosmo obviously cannot share with her the real reason why he refuses this amenity and is reduced to repeating his request, with mounting frustration, while the bartender acts as a sympathetic bridge between the two. Classic gangster movies or film noirs often feature sharply etched cameos of garage attendants, hotel clerks, or hash slingers, but generally they perform a strict narrative function and then disappear. In this scene, however, the waitress goes beyond that point, threatening to pull you out of the hit-man narrative by insisting on her reality. Cosmo, looking tired and aggrieved, is being forced to acknowledge that every human has a distinct point of view—something he will again have to take into consideration soon enough, when he faces the old Chinese bookie, naked in the bathtub, before deciding whether to blow him away.
In Cassavetes’s cinema, these delays, these eruptions of the messy, frustrating, time-consuming, and inconvenient ways that everyone, bit player to star, asserts his or her right to be taken seriously, are not impediments to the plot but are the plot. This point is made clearer in the original, more leisurely (and, to my mind, better) version of the film, which lasted 135 minutes, as opposed to the second, tightened version of 108 minutes. In the longer version, we learn more odd details about the De Lovelies (the one who doesn’t like champagne, for instance) and get an introduction to the Seymour Cassel character at his most unctuously ingratiating. We are allowed to sink into the moment voluptuously, to see more stage routines in the nightclub, which reinforces Teddy’s/Mr. Sophistication’s role as Cosmo’s grotesque doppelgänger and makes for a better balance between crime and showbiz film. The shorter version is in some ways tougher, colder, more abstract, like a French policier; in the longer, exploratory version, Cosmo takes a while to seem completely lost, alienated. Both versions, however, end in the same ironic way, with Teddy mistaking his padrone’s philosophical spiel as proof that Cosmo “practices the best thing there is in this world—to be comfortable.” Cosmo goes off we know not where, bleeding, possibly to death, and we never see him again. The focus shifts back for the final time to the nightclub, where Teddy sings a despicably hostile rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to the audience (and, by extension, to us), and the last line heard in the film is a chorus girl reassuring Mr. Sophistication that they really do love him, even if he thinks they don’t. We could say the same to the now departed Mr. Cassavetes.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books include To Show and to Tell, Notes on Sontag (both nonfiction), and At the End of the Day (poems). He directs the MFA Nonfiction Program at Columbia University. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2004 DVD release of John Cassavetes: Five Films.