The phrase, “gangster film”, immediately brings to mind images of iconic, uber-male actors (James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Brando, Pacino, DeNiro, every actor in The Sopranos, etc) immersed in a near-operatic morality tale. Everything is big. The crimes are big, the characters are big and yes, even the violence is big. But what about the crime film that breaks it down to the utmost human level? Not only that, but focuses on the other end? Life is not always a cops and robbers show and nowhere is that more purely evident than in John Cassavetes’ often unappreciated masterpiece, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
Gone is the romance of crime, only to be replaced by the story of our hero, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), a burlesque club owner/dreamer who becomes beaten but not broken. The plot by itself is basic. Cosmo, after paying off one gambling debt to the mob, ends up accruing a more massive one in one fateful evening. It is this particular debt that has the underworld figures, including such thespian heavyweights as Timothy “The Man” Carey and Seymour Cassel, all but forcing Cosmo to carry out a hit on our titular bookie. Everything that I just wrote is part of the danger of solely relying on plot descriptors, because this film is more than just a-b-c-d and crime, it’s about a regular guy, not perfect but good hearted, trying to live his dream out in a world full of sharks, vultures and parasites.
Cosmo is not just a man, however, but a breathing metaphor for any artist who was ever backed into the corner of moral compromise. In a lot of ways, you are seeing a thinly veiled story of what Cassavettes himself had been put through as a filmmaker. He’s lauded now but life was never easy for the man and the fact that Bookie was released to mixed reviews and bad box office back in 1976 is partial proof of that. The real testament of Cassavetes’ genius was not just in making great cinema but the fact that the 1978 version, which he re-edited for a second stab at success was actually superior to the original cut. A tactic like that never works creatively but with a guy like Cassavetes, all bets are off.
The centerpiece, the heart and soul of this film is shared with the rich performance by Ben Gazzara. We recently lost Gazzara on February 3rd, 2012, which is a heartbreak. (In a spooky bit of fate, Cassavetes died on the same day, 23 years earlier, which is fitting for the anima/animus factor.) His Cosmo is a charismatic who has elevated what is essentially a strip club into a spectacle that integrates the spirit of vaudeville with T&A. He loves, lives and treats all of the ladies in his life with respect. This is a good man whose one mistake ends up leading him down one hellish road with an uncertain outcome. Gazzara is so naturalistic and nuanced with his performance that this character stays with you long after you have finished watching the movie. Sure, he is tough and masculine but the vulnerability and weariness shows through in the smallest of gestures. Seeing him alongside another screen titan, Timothy Carey, is one of the best cinematic gifts one could ever ask for. Anything you have seen cannot touch the mastery these two actors provide.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is ripe for rediscovery. It is one of the smartest crime films ever made and features some insanely stellar acting work from both Gazzara and Carey. If you have an open mind and an understanding heart, then you too will see the perfection that is this film.
Both the 1976 and 1978 version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie are currently available on the Criterion Collection’s lush box set, John Cassavetes: Five Films.