I have long thought of John Cassavetes’ pictures as a director (and many he did as an actor) as taking place in a noir universe. Although most of them have nothing to do with the so-called ‘crimes’ one finds in traditional film noir/neo-noir, they all deal with dark things and dark impulses and, by extrapolation, the struggle to remain human and retain human feelings and instincts through the most tormented dark nights of the soul.
With the exception of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Gloria, the crimes depicted in movies like Shadows, Faces, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night are spiritual and emotional crimes, not physical ‘breaking-the-law’ violations involving robbery, extortion or murder. But personal betrayals, willful misinterpretations of another loved one’s intentions and egocentric, narcissistic tirades overriding personal relationship concerns and trampling on the feelings of others occur on a regular basis. Bigger-than-life personalities rub up against each other generating affection, bawdy self-effacing humor and – perhaps more often – creating a friction that ignites hidden wellsprings of anger, resentment, frustration and even madness into personal conflagrations that burn the participants to emotional cinders – or refuse to be extinguished at all. Cassavetes courageously excavates what, for many of us, especially in this day-and-age of social media distractions, has become uncharted territory: how to personally interact face-to-face with one another and how to interact with ourselves. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie does this more rigorously than many of Cassavetes’ more extrovert, combustible masterpieces.
Strip-club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) is a proud, yet fallible man who nevertheless has shamelessly and uncompromisingly followed his dream. He has done this at a personal cost and, before the film is over, will pay for it even more dearly. But the price he pays diminishes in importance for him in the rearview mirror of existence as he approaches what may very well be the end of his life.
Cassavetes intentionally used the crime genre as a jumping off point for Cosmo’s journey, but he openly bridled at critics and interviewers describing it as just a gangster film. Ben Gazzara has asserted that, for Cassavetes, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie may have been his most personal work. The character Cosmo is a stand-in for Cassavetes himself, a frustrated artist looked on by the outside world as a Quixote-like naïf jousting at windmills. Cosmo conscientiously puts together his old-fashioned burlesque-style strip shows, picking the songs-to-be-played, helping write the routines and choreographing his ragtag crew of only moderately talented entertainers. Although he can crack down on slackers, he exhibits none of the sexism or bullying one might commonly imagine being among the attributes of the average strip club owner in mid-seventies Hollywood. His performers, waitresses, bartender, soundman, lightman, music director and doorman are part of a large ersatz family. When he finally pays off the mortgage on his club, he celebrates. Congratulated by seemingly friendly mobster, Mort (Seymour Cassel), he accepts an invitation to a night out at the gang’s private gambling club in Santa Monica. Cosmo takes his two best performers, one of whom is his fiercely loyal African-American girlfriend, Rachel (Azizi Johari), and fueled by free drinks over the course of the night, loses $23,000 he doesn’t have. He is a gracious loser, even when he realizes he must fill out some “paperwork.” Before long, the bosses and strongarm men (among them Morgan Woodward and Timothy Carey) arrive at the club to take him out to a nearby restaurant, presenting an offer he cannot refuse: a contract on a Chinese bookie headquartered downtown. Cosmo drags his feet over several days until it’s impressed upon him he does not have a choice. The mob supplies him with a stolen car and sends him off. Things go wrong from the start, from a blow-out on the freeway to finding out that the ‘bookie’ has numerous young bodyguards and is the top level Chinese mafia kingpin for the west coast. Cosmo sees the writing on the wall, realizing the mob is trying to kill two birds with one stone – he is not only expendable but a target himself. The mob wants his prime Sunset Strip real estate.
Rewatching this, I found myself thinking of Cassavetes’ philosophy on acting and how dedicated he was to always exploring the inner core of his actors, extracting hidden truths from them for their roles. Sometimes it could be like pulling teeth, but he always felt it was worth it. You had to have something inside you in common with your characters, no matter how deeply it was buried. Bringing it to the surface was often painful. A litany of Cassavetes’ own hardboiled portrayals – mostly putting-dinner-on-the-table jobs as far as he was concerned – unspooled in memory: from the sociopathic kidnapper in Andrew L. Stone’s The Night Holds Terror (1955), the top delinquent in Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets (1956), the Army deserter longshoreman in Martin Ritt’s Edge of the City (1957), the ambivalent race car driver betrayed by a femme fatale (Angie Dickinson) in Don Siegel’s The Killers to his catalogue of lone wolf outlaws, gangsters and psychos in Daniel Haller’s The Devil’s Angels (1967), Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967), Alberto de Martino’s Bandits in Rome (aka The Violent Four) (1968) and Giuliano Montaldo’s Machine Gun McCain (1969), Cassavetes tapped into the out-of-control, anti-social outsider trapped inside his own heart on a regular basis. And surely his turn as slimy, avaricious actor, Guy Woodhouse – who sells the womb of his wife, Rosemary (Mia Farrow) to Satan in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby – must rank as one of his most soul-destroying performances ever. All of these showcase the restlessness and rebelliousness of Cassavetes’ own persona and more often than not create an edgy tension that is incomparable.
Looking for a similar spontaneous ambience in New Hollywood cinema from the late-1960s through the mid-1970s, the following titles (some genre pictures, some not, but many unquestionably influenced by Cassavetes’ Shadows/Faces/Husbands directorial style and penchant for intricate ensemble interaction) came to mind: Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1967) and Mean Streets (1973), Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) and The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Mike Hodges’ UK-based Get Carter (1971), John Huston’s Fat City (1972), Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Robert Mulligan’s The Nickel Ride (1974), Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) and even as late as 1990, James Foley’s adaptation of Jim Thompson’s After Dark, My Sweet.
There are two more pictures that stand out as companion pieces to Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and they both not only seem to take place in the same celluloid universe, but also feature members of the Cassavetes’ ‘rat pack’. Although direction and screenplay are credited solely to Elaine May, her tragi-comic gangster buddy saga Mikey and Nicky (1976) starring Cassavetes and Peter Falk is, without question, a tour-de-force collaboration with her two stars. Even more in tune with Ben Gazzara’s Cosmo persona is director Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent 1979 adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1973 novel Saint Jack. Gazzara is an expatriate American pimp, Jack Flowers, living in Thailand at the height of the Vietnam War and plagued with native mobsters protecting their turf. Saint Jack could almost serve as a prequel to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with events spiraling out of control for Jack much in the same way as they do for Cosmo. Although both feature Gazzara’s spot-on, easygoing acting style, Bogdanovich’s film is at a slight remove, at once more focused and less personal, while Cassavetes’ Bookie is a lonelier, more intimate meditation.
When Cosmo goes onstage near the end of Bookie to good-naturedly apologize to his filled-up club about the show starting late, he affectionately name-checks all of the people who work for him, then gives every patron a drink on the house for their patience. He talks about wanting everyone to be comfortable. He goes on about being “comfortable” at some length, despite slowly hemorrhaging from a bullet in his side. No one in the audience and not one of his employees realize the night of harrowing mayhem he has been through to show up there at all. His bleeding is scarcely visible and goes unnoticed in the dark club. When he talks of his own desire to always be “comfortable,” the audience does not guess his deeper meaning. We know he is talking about something more than a free drink and a night out with friends. He is talking about being comfortable in one’s own skin. Despite having been forced to commit murder, perhaps still being at risk to lose his club to the local mob and perhaps even mortally wounded, he knows he has remained true to himself and has not given up his dream. When he strolls out to stand alone on the Strip sidewalk, absentmindedly wiping his bloody hand off on his pants and jacket, he lovingly surveys the night landscape. Like so many other only marginally successful show business people in Hollywood, whether they be musicians, actors, writers or con men, gamblers, club-owners, he is resolute in not surrendering to defeat. At the end of the night, he is left standing. Bloodied, yes, but he will be calmly waiting for the next curve ball Tinseltown life has to throw at him.