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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

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Reviled on its release, then comprehensively recut and rereleased in 1978, Bookie is now rated amongst John Cassavetes’ best films. It’s a gangster thriller, but with genre tropes left out, and the stuff of real life put back in.

Ben Gazzara gets an iconic role as Cosmo Vitelli, proud owner of the burlesque club Crazy Horse West and in every sense a showman. His fondness for gambling lands him in trouble with the mob, but they offer him an out: all he has to do is murder the eponymous Chinaman…

For the most part Cassavetes doesn’t look to this material to generate suspense or action (he would prove to be adept at both when he made another mob movie, Gloria, just a couple of years later). Rather, he gives a sympathetic portrait of a group of people clinging on to the lowest rung of the showbiz ladder: the strippers, the club’s somewhat grotesquely grandiloquent emcee “Mr Sophistication” (Meade Roberts, made up to look like Emil Jannings in The Blue Angel) and Cosmo himself, who is only ever doing his best to see that the show goes on (he’s clearly a stand-in for Cassavetes). The routines themselves are equally off-Hollywood: no slick bump-n-grind here, more tawdry kitsch. As ever, with Cassavetes, there are scenes that seem to stretch past breaking point and elisions which challenge us to keep up; memorable, vivid bit parts (Meade Roberts; Timothy Carey as a mobster) and there’s Gazzara, a bullshit artist full of bluster, wound too tight, always his own worst enemy, yet still we have to care. It’s much closer to Camus than to Hitchcock.

The most spiritually and stylistically tortured of the 10 films he both wrote and directed, John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a work unintentionally at war with its self-identity while intentionally portraying a character at war with his own… And yet, it is a masterpiece—not in spite of its messiness but rather because of it. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is neither a simple noir piece nor another idiosyncratic personal drama but rather a megatonic fusion of both into a living, breathing document, an abstract expressionist work of hired gun genre craftsmanship that novas into a startling self-portrait and a nearly indefinable work of art.

Travis Woods, Bright Wall/Dark Room

Aug 25 Only: Introduction from Ragged Glory programmer Tom Charity

Director

John Cassavetes

Cast

Ben Gazzara, Meade Roberts, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Agoglia Carey, Azizi Johari

Credits
Country of Origin

USA

Year

1978

Language

English

19+
108 min

Book Tickets

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Credits

Producer

Al Ruban

Screenwriter

John Cassavetes

Cinematography

Mitchell Breit, Al Ruban

Editor

Tom Cornwell

Original Music

Bo Harwood

Production Design

Sam Shaw

Art Director

Phedon Papamichael

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