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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 film like John Cassavetes' "The Killing of A Chinese Bookie" is one of those films that Roger Ebert often says "either grabs you or leaves you". This one grabbed me. It is perhaps the least liked film of the precious few Cassavetes wrote and directed, but it's an honest film that doesn't pull any punches. It's kind of a predecessor to "Goodfellas" and "Casino".
While Cassavetes' film lacks the polish of the two Scorsese films, I think that benefits "Killing". This is not a glossy, "high-concept" film that Hollywood prefers (although Scorsese is certainly not "high-concept"); it is a rough, confusing muddle and that is probably one of the reasons the film remains highly unseen by a great many people. However, I like rough, confusing films and one of the great pleasures is trying to figure everything out. The beauty of a John Cassavetes film is that there are no easy answers and he likes you to make your own reading on the film.
As always with a Cassavetes film, he gives juicy parts to his regulars. Ben Gazzara is excellent as Cosmo Vitelli, the nightclub owner who needs to perform the title deed to save his club. Seymour Cassel gives a strong performance as a friend of Cosmo. Cassel and Gazarra are two of those actors whose names you won't recognize, but when you see their faces, you'll recognize them. They love to take risks with their performances and you can see the payoffs for yourselves.
After a half-assed release by Buena Vista in 1989, "Killing of A Chinese Bookie" is finally available on tape and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The transfer is clean and looks great and the letterbox presentation shows that Cassavetes knew how to use his camera, even if the aspect ratio is small.
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