Following his great artistic and financial triumph, A Woman Under the Influence, the iconic American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes finally had enough capital, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of the word, to do something different, experiment and get out of his comfort zone. A filmmaker devoted to exploring the psychological and emotional intimacy of complex characters often difficult to label or comprehend decided to delve into genre filmmaking and opted to shoot – a gangster film. “I think gangster films are important,” he confessed in an interview before the idea for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was conceived. “I would like to make one, but I would have to make it sheer entertainment… That’s what’s expected from that specific genre, which is a specific American art form… My films to my way of thinking are also an art form. I don’t know whether I’m capable of making sheer entertainment.” Cassavetes, who often worked as an actor with great success in American mainstream pictures to finance his passion for a different kind of filmmaking, perhaps really started out working on his gangster film with the intention of creating sheer entertainment. Some kind of an easily digestible, straightforward movie limited by the boundaries of this unique genre and the usually simple expectations of the American mainstream audience. The final product, however, not only resists being put in the same drawer with a singular label on it, it exists on a whole other plain of filmmaking. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is Cassavetes making a Cassavetes film only slightly playing to the expectations of the viewers. Or, to be more precise, what Cassavetes perceived as the viewers’ expectations.
Cosmo Vitelli is a middle-aged manager of a seedy Los Angeles night club Crazy Horse West that puts on bizarre, cabaret-like shows led by a grotesque master of ceremonies called Mr. Sophistication surrounded by three to five half-naked girls dancing, singing and acting for the pleasure of a scarce audience. Cosmo’s whole life revolves around the club: it’s his baby, he chooses the girls, writes their acts, picks the songs. His life doesn’t simply revolve around the club – his life is the club. There’s a genius moment in the second half of the film, as Cosmo goes on the dangerous titular errand, but stops at a payphone to check up on the club. He’s disappointed and frustrated that his staff have no idea what number is being performed on stage. “You’ve been at the club for seven years!” he exclaims, shocked at his people’s lack of interest.
We meet him at the point when he finally pays off a seven-year-long debt to a shady loan shark. “I’ve got the golden life,” he states, with a satisfied grin on his face. “I’ve got the world by the balls. I am amazing.” But as soon as he pays off one debt, he lunges face-forward into another. One terrible night at the poker table, ironically intended as a celebration of his newly acquired financial freedom, and he ends up owing a substantial amount of money to the mob. This is where the film’s title starts to make sense. Since he’s unable to pay the debt, the mob make him an offer he can’t refuse: his slate will be wiped clean if he whacks a certain old bookie in the heart of Chinatown. As his actions had put him between a rock and a hard place, Cosmo agrees to the deal, although even the most naïve observer immediately deduces it’s a trick designed by the mobsters to make not one but two problems go away at once.
In Cassavetes’ unique vision of a film noir, the plot and action surrender the stage to characters. The handheld camera follows the protagonist around the club, at the bar, in his girlfriend’s house, in the limo. The story of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is the story of Cosmo’s inner struggle. This by no means suggests the struggle we’re aiming at is his dilemma on whether or not he should pull the trigger. “Be happy, be joyous,” Cosmo tells his girls in a passionate and emotional pep talk before the show. “We’ll make their lives a little happier. So they won’t have to face themselves. They can pretend to be somebody else.” Cosmo is the one pretending, walking around oily-haired in his neat suit, posing as a stylish artiste with class, ignoring the fact his shows get the audience’s applause only when one of the dancers pulls down her dress. “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.” Cosmo Vitelli is in no way an exceptional individual; he’s trying to live up to the self-imposed image of himself. “You have no class,” he tells the loan shark, and then goes back to the club to announce an eerily trashy performance that is supposed to take the viewers all the way to the City of Lights. But there’s no Paris on stage: just a crooked PARIS sign, a few really bad attempts at French accent and an overweight Mr. Sophistication with tasteless makeup trying to convey his art through the microphone, when all the guests of the club just came to see some tits and ass.
Even after a shallow analysis, it’s not at all farfetched to note the similarities between the character of Cosmo and the filmmaker himself, both trying to sell their respective tickets without sacrificing their artistic criteria. Just like mobsters kept Cosmo from being independent and freely creating his art, Cassavetes thought of film producers as mobsters who stand in the way of artistic freedom. He even cast his producer Al Ruban as one of the loan sharks. In the final performance, when Mr. Sophistication passionately recites I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, one of the girls tells him he’s hot and creates a small flame next to his face. The audience erupts in laughter, and Mr. Sophistication, embarrassed and misunderstood, leaves the stage and vanishes behind a black curtain, disillusioned and hurt by the fact that the viewers prefer such cheap gimmicks to his art. At this point it’s difficult not to think of Cassavetes and his struggle to find a place under the Hollywood sun.
The director’s frequent collaborator Ben Gazzara delivers a masterful performance that carries the film until the credits start rolling, a captivating effort that grounds the film in realism and enables us to emotionally connect to the unfolding story. Cassavetes, who acted as the director, screenwriter and even cameraman, gave him the space to develop and shape his character, and this electrifying director-actor dynamics slowly changed the whole tone and perspective of the film as it was shot, becoming increasingly subjective, private and metaphysical. Much more than elegantly going from one plot point to the next, Cassavetes is interested in the inner world of the regular man, and Gazzara was the perfect vessel for such an approach.
Under pressure by having set overly optimistic release dates, Cassavetes gave the public a 135-minute-long version that was greeted with mixed reviews and a depressingly harsh reception from the audience. Ben Gazzara was at the premiere and remembered what it felt like. “I sat there and I knew by the reactions of the audience that… we were dead. They didn’t like it. Broke my heart.” Just like in the scene where Cosmo consoles his right-hand man on a particularly slow night at the club (“It’s all right, Vince, it will pick up, we’ll have a big night.”), it was Cassavetes who reassured Gazzara that everything was fine. “It was his money, his time, his everything. And he was calming me down. Wonderful.” Producer Al Ruban recalled how awful the initial response was. “We played it and the audience was so angry at this film,” he remembers. “To this day I don’t understand it. They were coming out of the theater shouting at the people who were lined up to get in. Don’t see this film, this is terrible, save your money. I was completely shocked and we pulled the picture after six days, I think it was.”
Two years later, the filmmaker put out a tightened, reedited version of the film, cutting it down to 105 minutes and rearranging the sequences a bit so as to make it more appealing to mainstream viewers. It’s this version that kept circulating in the following decades and, as it’s often the case, the perception slowly shifted, Cassavetes’ talents enjoyed a reevaluation and in the minds of not only his dedicated followers, but the filmgoing public in general, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie started to get recognized as one the master’s greatest accomplishments. It’s a complicated, structurally unsettled, tonally perplexing film, but also deeply personal and moving. Cassavetes’ foray into mainstream genre filmmaking might have been conceived as an effort at sheer entertainment, but when you hire Manet to paint your kitchen, it’s reasonable to end up with more than you expected.