1001 Films: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1)

It’s always better to have someone owe you then to owe someone. While not a direct quote it’s definitely one of the best laid principles from the classic film The Godfather. Here we watch Cosmo (Ben Gazzara), owner of a strip club, suffer due to his breaking of Vito’s rule. He’s made to perform a ‘hit’ on a Chinese man that we, and Cosmo, know nothing about all for the sake of a debt.

This film has been the film I’ve been looking forward to. I don’t know why, as when I began this marathon I had no clue as to what kind of films (or even heard from compatriots any testimony as to Cassavetes films) I was in for. However, somehow this movie seemed like the darkened noir version of a Cassavetes film that I was interested in. However, it didn’t quite hit that note, and not for any fault of the film that it actually is.

Like all of Cassavetes films it surrounds character more than anything else. We’re tied to the fate of Cosmo in a metaphysical bond that the film gives us. As we see him go to a bar to drink himself full of joy after paying off some debt in full we’re happy for him. We’re glad he’s able to rid himself of this burden. Then we see a few frames later him picking up his girls (in lovely distracting dresses) heading down to the card tables and back in the position he was once in. His debt is astronomical. This is when the trouble of the favour comes in.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (2)

While Cassavetes has always made characters and their own pathos attempt to ground the film I think this might be the first of his movies where it keeps a relatively clear plot going that stops us from paying attention to that pathos. In most of Cassavetes’ films the plot is missing not to the film’s detriment but rather to make sure that we spend more time focusing on the character and their own self defined issues. Instead with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie we spend too much time saying that this is the scene where we see Cosmo get his instructions from Mort (Seymour Cassel), or the scene where his girlfriend gets upset because he’s going down this spiral, or even the scene where we get to see the ‘hit’. These scenes serve only to move a plot forward and makes it harder for us to focus on that pathos that is essential to empathizing with the character at hand.

The film manages to take us to the world of art action by not really being an action film. As we see Cosmo sneak into the Chinese man’s apartment and position himself for his activities of the evening we’re left to ponder if he’ll do it or not. He’s already broken one promise to these sharks that he’s lost this sum of money to, what’s another? What’s to say this isn’t the moment he throws his hands up and turns around to go after them as opposed to killing this random man that’s done no harm to him? In that moment we gain some feeling, and it’s then built on as the film progresses to it’s climax.

When we finally reach the end of the film and we’re trying to watch Cosmo pick up the pieces to move on we’re forced back into the scene of character so harshly that it just shakes you awake. We see Cosmo take the stage to introduce his show and unlike previously where he was behind the curtain hiding from the crowd delaying things we see him step out on stage and give a speech about how we should appreciate these smaller people more, making direct reference to Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) as opposed to the applause we just give the girls with the pretty tits. Is it Cassavetes asking us to look at Cosmo? Asking us to recognize him and not just the scene where he kills the bookie? If so, yes this movie works. If no, then why are we even writing about film?

  • Steven Flores

    BTW, which cut of the film did you see?

  • http://www.gmanreviews.com Andrew Robinson

    Sorry for the late reply…

    I watched the 1978 recut 108 minute version… (available on Hulu)