John Cassavetes is one of those directors with whom a film junkie is required to grapple if they think they have a taste for the indier edges of 1970s American cinema. I went through a short-lived Cassavetes binge during college, but I can’t say I’ve ever quite found my footing in his work. I usually admire the visual quality of his movies and their artistic intent, but find his content somewhere in the range between inscrutable and aggravating. As a fan, in spirit, of improvisational cinema verite, I have a very low opinion of the improvisation that Cassavettes elicits from his (often very good) performers. It tends to strike me as, at best, narratively irrelevant, and, at worst, indulgent wankery.
I hoped that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) might be atypical among Cassavetes' movies if its genre-adjacent plot was able to restrain his usual loosey-goosey approach and channel most of the actorly exhibitionism into a more terse and tense milieu. And it was, kind of, for a while. And then it really wasn’t.
Ben Gazzara stars as Cosmo, owner of a Los Angeles nudie cabaret modeled after the famous Parisian Crazy Horse. With his last payment made to the loan shark who provided the club’s seed money, Cosmo does what any unsound businessman might do: celebrates at a mob-run casino, where he shortly finds himself $23,000 in debt. Mob boss Mort (Seymour Cassel) gives Cosmo the “option” of reducing his marker with the in-kind service of whacking an inconvenient rival bookie operating out of Chinatown. Naturally, both this simple task and the intent behind its proffer are more complicated than advertised.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie may sound plot-oriented, but it’s still a Cassavetes movie, and as such conceals as best it can its narrative behind a unique stream of slice-of-life beats, often relegating context to the background or eliminating it completely. In this regard, it’s notable that Bookie had a troubled post-production, with the studio forcing Cassavetes to release a 135-minute cut that he did not like and which Gazzara called "boring." Two years later, Cassavettes cut it down to 108 minutes for re-release, but this shorter cut, which I watched, leaves a lot of what is happening to inference and imagination and leaves the audience to either dig its vibe or give up on it.
As a crime drama, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie more or less works. The seedy milieu of Cosmo’s aspirational but terminally small-time strip club is well-wrought, the weight of the moral stakes of his mob assignment is felt through Gazzara’s fine internal performance, and Cosmo is an interesting character, a man who wants to project cool success and artistic cred despite his dependence on dirty money within the sad confines of a small squalid world. When, early on, he brags to a disinterested young woman, “I got a golden life. I got the world by the balls,” the cognitive dissonance is practically suicidal.
During the first 90 minutes, there are moments where Cassavetes’ favored tics interfere. Sometimes Cassavetes’ characters behave so oddly, one wonders if moments like Cosmo pouring liquor onto the closed mouth of his perturbed girlfriend (and for what reason exactly?) feel “real” to brash Hollywood auteurs or are merely the product of manic creative types desperate to be noticed. The pacing is baggy, with several lengthy scenes barely registering semi-interest, especially those featuring the strip club’s odd programming. But there’s a live-wire running through Cosmo’s predicament (and Gazzara’s passive endurance of it) that keeps it engaging, and there’s also a quirky resistance to cliche that makes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie refreshing even when it’s not satisfying.
It’s in the final 15-or-so minutes, once The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has wrung out the last sensible elements of its plot, that Cassavetes feels free to let loose with a series of puzzling-to-awful scenes that call into question his sense of what his movie is about, his skill at filmmaking, and his sanity as a human being. There is one long scene between Cosmo and his girlfriend’s mother that is both a showcase of the perils of flailing improv and completely irrelevant. Why this scene was considered vital to the shorter cut is a question for the ages. This scene is followed by some mundane behind-the-scenes strip club management material that might have worked well in the first act but is borderline incoherent within the context of the final act.
Regardless of whatever is going on during those final minutes, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a visual treat, with a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall view of 1970s L.A. that looks ordinary in the light of day but seethes with atmosphere in the dark of the club, with its smoke and red lights. and in the dark of the L.A. night, where faces are barely perceptible in front of an onslaught of street and traffic lights. With Caleb Deschanel as one of three credited cinematographers, this is a sweet spot for the “look of the 1970s.”
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, in its struggle between the worlds of crime genre and Cassavetes, maybe suffers a little from too little of either, but as thin as its thriller elements are, and as confounding as it conclusion might be, has at least been fun to mull over, and I can see myself wanting to watch the longer version someday. I can’t usually say that I’d welcome another half-hour of Cassavetes, so that’s something.