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Cosmo Vitelli owns the Crazy Horse West, a strip joint in California. He's laconic, a Korean War vet, and a gambler. When we meet him, he's making his last payment on a gambling debt. Then, he promptly loses $23,000 playing poker at an illegal local casino. The guys he owes this time aren't so friendly, pressuring him for immediate payment. Then they suggest that he kill a Chinese bookie to wipe off the debt. Vitelli and the film move back and forth between the double-crossing, murderous insincerity of the gamblers and the friendships, sweetness, and even love among Vitelli, the dancers, a dancer's mother, and the club's singer, Mr. Sophistication. Written by
A movie which a friend from a film class in university hated so much she broke up with her boyfriend because he liked it, "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" became my first Cassavetes film when I watched it this morning. Widely seen as a misfire on release, extremely divisive now, with many regarding it as a self-indulgent experiment of the very worst variety and others as one of the greatest examples of independent American cinema in the 1970's, my take on "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" is somewhere between the two extremes.
It's an admirable film in concept, a sort of gangster movie focused entirely on characters, with very natural dialogue (surprisingly most of it was scripted, I would've guessed it was improvised for the most part) and some interesting visuals, as interesting as Cassavetes could manage with his miniscule budget anyhow. Yet much of the time it doesn't just seem like wanking, it IS wanking. Moreover, for all the hoopla over how formally interesting the movie is it's barely even all that cinematic, seeming more like experimental theater at times. Ben Gazzara is terrific, the saving grace of the film and the only thing which I really cared about while watching it. With a mildly interesting but still amateurish director helming the movie this couldn't be the sort of thing it wants to be. If it is not visually sophisticated, if the visual storytelling is not strong enough, it needs narrative pull from the script. It doesn't have any. Moreover, it's a character piece in which none of the characters are even remotely interesting, unless you're the sort who pats films on the back for daring to portray a character who has a certain occupation as something other than an archetype.
Now of course I will get people telling me I'm an absolute moron and can't handle anything slow or lacking in explosions and cleavage, but many times during "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" I couldn't help but think back to "The Conversation". That's a 'slow' movie not dissimilar to this in some respects. That's also a great movie. This isn't. I think it's pretty easy to explain that as the difference between sophisticated craft and amateurish, occasionally interesting craft. The 1976 cut is a chore to sit through, and I don't think I'll ever bother with the 1978 cut.
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