Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (1976) Cassavetes' Jazz Noir

Until I saw Mikey And Nicky a few weeks ago, I honestly have never been that big a fan of John Cassavetes as an actor. He was always a bit too intense, wound a bit too tight, reminding me a demented Jerry Lewis hopped up on steroids.

He got older.  And with age he slowed down a bit making him more world weary and more believable to me as an actor. I haven't seen much of his directed material either. A few Johnny Staccato's which weren't bad, the horribly boring (to my tastes anyway) Too Late Blues, and Gloria which I liked, and now The Killing Of a Chinese Bookie which I loved.

So let's get into the story.  La La Land. The City Of Angels. West Hollywood. Cosmo Vittelli (Gazzara) owns a small nightclub, cabaret, dump, take your pick, on Santa Monica Blvd. The Crazy Horse West. It's Cosmo's dream, his pride and joy. He's obsessed with it. Everything he makes he invests back into the joint. He's also a two bit impresario arranging the acts, designing the stage decorations, choosing the music, choreographing the skits, doing the lighting, acting as the emcee. The place is doing decent business. Cosmo is working hard at what he likes, he's comfortable and happy, loving life. Living the American Dream.

Cosmo Vitelli: I've got a golden life. Got the world by the balls. That's right, I'm great... I am amazing.

Cosmo (Gazzara)

Cosmo's got style. He's a snappy dresser, he gets along great with the help, his dancers are his ersatz family, and he has as his girlfriend, the beautiful ebony goddess, Rachel (Azizi Johari). Cosmo only has one problem, he thinks he's a player. He likes action. He's got a small gambling problem. He doesn't know when to fold and he builds up gambling debts that he's got to scramble to pay. When we first meet Cosmo he's making his last payoff to a loan shark named Marty Reitz (Al Ruban). 

Cosmo and Marty (Al Ruban)
Marty: Cosmo you're a prince. Now you can go out and work for yourself.
Cosmo: Marty you're a low life. No offence but you have no style. I do business with you but you have no style.
Marty: Cosmo anytime you need some help come to me.
Cosmo: I don't ever want to see you again.
Marty: Don't push it.

"Marty you're a low life."

Cosmo goes back to the club. A few days later a mobster in cahoots with Marty named Mort Weil (Seymour Cassel), shows up at the Crazy Horse with an entourage. He introduces himself to Csomo. He compliments Cosmo on the Crazy Horse, he gets buddy buddy, tells Cosmo that he runs a club also, a private one for gambling, a class carpet joint, it's fronted in The Top Sider a hoity-toity boat club down in Santa Monica. Mort tells Cosmo that he can give him unlimited credit. That is the bait. You can almost see the lights go on in Cosmo's eyes. They want to set Cosmo up as the fish.

The Big Man

Cosmo and Sherry (Alice Friedland)

Rachel (Azizi Johari)

Sherry and Margo (Donna Gordon)

Rachel and Cosmo
The next day Cosmo, acting like Mr. Big, hires a limo and dressed to the nines in a tux, picks up his three favorite dancers, Margo (Donna Gordon), Rachel and Sherry (Alice Friedland). He gives them all orchids and takes them to The Top Sider. There during the course of the afternoon, with his eye candy surrounding him, he manages to lose $23,000 at poker and runs out of credit. He's out of the game. He now has to sign makers for the whole amount. He's basically now fucked.

big looser

facing the music

The Boss (Morgan Woodward)

Flo (Timothy Agoglia Carey)

Mort (Seymour Cassel)

Phil (Robert Phillips)
Back at the Crazy Horse, Cosmo's visited by the mobsters that run The Top Sider, Mort, Flo the mob enforcer (Timothy Carey), Phil (Robert Phillips), The Boss (Morgan Woodward), and Red the accountant (John Kullers).

There are some excellently choreographed intimidating physical performances by the actors here, on the sidewalk outside the club. The mobsters tell Cosmo that he can eliminate his debt if he kills this small timer down in Chinatown, the titular, "Chinese Bookie." Cosmo doesn't want to do it at first, but it's basically an offer he can't refuse. Flo roughs him up, they make him get into their limo, they give him an automatic, a map with an address and describe the layout. For Cosmo, they got a stolen hot wired car. It's parked and running right behind the limo. He's to use it for the job. Flo tells him "don't stall it, there's no key."

Cosmo hops in the car and drives down the boulevard and onto the entrance ramp of the Freeway to Noirsville.


Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts)


Mama (Virginia Carrington)


Cosmo, after a series of mishaps, a flat tire, the subsequent stalling of the hit car in the middle of the busy freeway, having to run out to a service road to call a taxi from a gas station phone booth, and having to get a dozen cooked hamburgers at a bar to distract the guard dogs. He finally gets to the bookie's house. He feeds the dogs, slips through the gate, gets in kills the bookie and a handful of guards, but gets a bullet in the back on his way out. Going on sheer adrenalin, Cosmo runs out of the neighborhood, flags a taxi and heads to Rachel's house where he finally starts feeling the effects of his wound. Rachel's Mama tends to him. He recovers enough to head back to the club.

Meanwhile at a restaurant/mob hangout, Marty confronts Mort and tells him that the shit has hit the fan, the boss of the Chinese mafia the "heaviest cat on the West Coast was assassinated."  Marty blanches. Their plan was really a double cross and they expected Cosmo to get killed, instead he probably ignited a gang war. Now Marty tells Mort to kill Cosmo before the Chinese Triads can connect him to them. Mort slides over to Flo's table tells him the bad news, that Cosmo did what they couldn't do and gives him the job to whack Cosmo. Flo is instantly sweating bullets.

"you have to kill Cosmo"

Flo heads to the Crazy Horse and waits. When Cosmo finally shows up, Flo has come to the nervous realization that Cosmo, with his Korean combat training, is the real professional hit man and that he and his mobbed up goombahs are the fucking cheezy amateurs. Flo asks Cosmo to take a ride with him, tells him that the gang wants to hear how it went. Cosmo tells Flo that he's not feeling well and that "I'll tell you and you can tell the gang." Flo insists, and Cosmo suddenly and surprisingly agrees. The coolness of Cosmo on the trip to the deserted warehouse gives Flo cold feet. Cosmo tells Flo he's a amature and tells him to leave. Flo hops in his car and splits. Outside Flo passes Mort waiting in his parked car, he runs his window down and tells Mort that Cosmo is his friend (for letting him live), and if he want's him dead you kill him.

Mort drives into the warehouse looking for Cosmo. Mort puts his car in park and is immediately surprised to find Cosmo right outside his window. Mort starts some distracting bullshit small talk while trying to gab his gun and Cosmos shoots him dead. While this is going on Phil has driven into the warehouse. Cosmo slips away while an anxious Phil is blasting away at shadows. 

Cosmo taxi's back to the Crazy Horse, back to his whole world, the show goes on but with a bullet in the back, and a few of the mob still out there. Cosmo stands on the sidewalk at the entrance his blue jacket acquiring ominus red pinstripes below a bullet hole. We are left up in the air as to Cosmo's final ambiguous fate.

Bloody pinstripes

Ben Gazzara's performance, and he essentially carries the bulk of the film, is excellent.  He is very compelling as the dreamer whose whole life, his whole reason for being, is connected up with the running of his club. It's his baby. He actually radiates happiness a sort of visible serenity, positively glows when all is right with his girls in his world. His cheshire grin will long haunt your memory of the film.

Whenever Cosmo is separated from this dream he is still so involved and concerned with his show that even during the hit and all the complications, he'll stop, drop some quarters into a payphone to call the club to check on how things are going and what number is being performed. His conflicts and strained relations with the mob juxtaposed against his entrepreneurs vitality give the film its dramatic tension.

Cassavetes's direction in this feels superficially a bit similar, to me, in style to Robert Altman's way of filming dialog as overheard conversations. Besides the main script, written also by Cassavete, you're getting a lot of short situational improvisations, and this with the combination of professional and amateur actors interacting comes off as real slices of life.

All the supporting cast are great, especially Noir veteran/lunatic Timothy Carey (Ace in the Hole (1951), Crime Wave (1953), Finger Man (1955), The Killing (1956)).  Meade Roberts is Teddy aka Mr Sophistication. Picture in your mind a fat, moody, talentless Tiny Tim. He thinks obviously that he is an artiste, he is also another one of the dreamers, dreaming he's some kind of prima donna of taste. He is portrayed as intentionally bad, singing acapella off key tunes to an audience that's probably too drunk or stoned to care as long as they see some gyrating poontang on stage in accompaniment. The De Lovelies "artistic" routines are also amateurish, as you'd so expect in some shit hole Tinseltown strip dive that has apprehensions of greatness.

The cinematography uncredited was by Cassavetes, Mitch Breit, and Al Ruban. The Music, sort of a "Cosmo's Theme" tying it all together was by Bo Harwood.

There are two versions of Chinese Bookie out there. The initial 135 minute release which tanked at the box office. The re-edit by Cassavetes clocked in at 108 minutes. The re-edit trims a lot of Gazzara's expositional explorations of Cosmo's character. It also adds an extra sequence at The Top Sider gambling club, where a uppity doctor and his gambleholic wife are getting threatened by the gangsters. A lot of "Mr. Sophistication and his De Lovelies" routines are trimmed or cut also. The longer version immerses you more into Cosmo's world, it's Cassavetes riff on Noir. The screencaps are from the Criterion DVD 8/10

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