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What’s at Stake in the Work of Art: John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Bookie 1

By Brandon Konecny.

Apart from Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), none of Cassavetes’ films were successful, both commercially and critically. They were seen as chaotic, technically inept, haphazardly improvised—they were, in short, a chore to watch. But none of them, not even Husbands (1970), incurred the critical wrath that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie did, attracting such spittle-spattering denunciations as “[it] proves that an awful film can look even worse,” and that the Chinese bookie, says the Variety staff, “accepts the bullet as if he’s glad to get out of the picture.” Harsh words, to say the least. The peculiar thing about all this, though, is that it’s arguably Cassavetes’ most approachable work. It has, for instance, a discernible plot, generic signifiers, and a climactic shoot out (unfamiliar terrain, indeed, for Cassavetes). The director doesn’t betray his reputation for making enigmatic films—but this one, with both its adherence and defiance of convention, may be his most puzzling.

Bookie 2Masterpiece or no, viewers can make up their own minds with the British Film Institute’s recent release of the film on Blu-ray. And what a magnificent package it is! This three-disc set contains both incarnations of the film—the 134-minute version, and the 109-minute re-edit (1978), which Cassavetes put together to both extinguish popular criticism and mollify lead actor Ben Gazzara’s indignation over its length. In addition, it includes the documentary Anything for John (1993), the short film Haircut (1982), commentaries, interviews, and more besides. BFI has also done a resplendent job with the transfer; its images are sharp but the enhancement by no means effaces the grainy, documentary-like visual texture that Cassavetes is known for. All this, I’m sure, is enough to have an urgent claim on the attention of Cassavetes fans.

But there’s more to this release than its handsome packaging and features. These things, after all, are but embroidery to what’s perhaps already a cinematic jewel. The really salient aspect of this film—and not just the fact that it’s an obligatory purchase for any veritable Cassavetes maven—is that it lays bare what we look for in movies, how our desire tutors our experience of a film. It shows us this in only a way that Cassavetes could.

Consider The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’s basic story. The film concerns Cosmo Vitelli, played by Gazzara, who’s a supposed Korean War veteran and owner of Crazy Horse West, a rather shady strip joint on the Sunset Strip. After paying off his long-standing debt to a loan shark (Al Ruban, also the film’s cinematographer), he decides to celebrate with a night of gambling and spares no expense: he rents a limo, sports expensive clothing (the height and style of underground nightlife), and has his three best girls on his arm, adorning each of them with pricy corsages. Soon enough, he lands himself right back into the same predicament, this time gambling himself into a $23,000 debt to some local gangsters.

Bookie 3Unable to pay, the gangsters involve Cosmo in a murder plot of a seemingly small-time Chinese bookie (Soto Joe Hugh). In carrying out the hit, though, he realizes that he actually took out a high profile rival gang boss, whom the gangsters never expected him to murder—they were, in fact, setting Cosmo up to get killed to take over his club. To ensure the fulfillment of this plan, the gangsters resolve to murder him. Now Cosmo finds himself the hunted rather than the hunter, and is chased into an abandoned warehouse where a shootout occurs, leaving one dead and Cosmo severely wounded, a bullet lodged in his side. Cosmo refuses, however, to seek medical attention and instead makes his way back to his nightclub to oversee its operation.

However, to give such a synoptic account of the film is to engage in a subtle form of deception. Yes, the above description might inspire associations with the typical Hollywood crime film or the neo-noir then in vogue, and that’s by no means unintentional (Cassavetes tried to cash in on the gangster film trend of the decade, but he didn’t want to make a film that glorified gangsters as such, finding them not all that interesting). But there’s a curious disparity between this initial impression of the story and the actual experience of this film. This is because Cassavetes frustrates popular expectations at every turn. He gives us, for example, a series of narrative dead ends, these kinds of instances that don’t push the story forward in any legible fashion; he doesn’t sensationalize violence (the final shoot out might be the least climactic one in all of cinema); and like many of his films, he presents a highly erratic protagonist who, according to standard narrative codes of formula-frozen Hollywood, divulges personal information at inappropriate moments, often tossing these details off as non sequiturs. In this sense, Cassavetes’ film is one that employs narrative excess, meaning that it includes moments that (ingeniously) don’t fit within the supposed pragmatism of storytelling in movies—not everything “matters,” as it were. Having seen the film multiple times, it still feels as though it discovers moments as it goes or, perhaps, is more interested in the details around the story rather than the story itself. It’s still hard to tell.

Bookie 4In this light, perhaps we can see why The Killing of a Chinese Bookie evoked such critical aggravation and derision. Cassavetes knew what critics wanted from him, and he knew what we wanted from him; and even in his most accessible picture, he wasn’t going to give it to us. That’s because there’s too much at stake in a work of art. He knew that well. In fact, when Gazzara told Cassavetes that he was having trouble embodying the character of Cosmo, he said to him, “Ben, do you know who those gangsters are? They’re all those people who keep you and me from our dreams. The Suits who stop the artist from doing what he wants to do.” This gestures towards the film’s (and this release’s) real significance. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie stands as a work that evades easy classification even though it seems to eagerly call for it, and demonstrates that pop critics reflect the commonest prejudices of the middle class for whom they write. It serves as, in the end, a fascinating document of Cassavetes “doing what he wanted to do.”

Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was released on Blu-ray and DVD by BFI.

1 Comment for “What’s at Stake in the Work of Art: John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    Thank you for these remarks, and for taking notice of Cassavetes’ most important film.

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