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
John Cassavetes is widely regarded as being the father of American independent film. Using his fees as an actor in films such as "The Killers" (1964) and "Rosemary's Baby" (1968, he funded his own films away from the interference of Hollywood. In this film, Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, a nightclub owner who lives way beyond his means and manages to get into a massive gambling debt with the mob. This leads to the gangsters putting heavy pressure on Cosmo to perform a hit for them in order that he pays back the debt. The film deals with Cosmo's attempts to extricate himself from these proceedings whilst still keeping his integrity, not to mention his life intact.
The film can be seen as having parables with Cassavetes own dealings with Hollywood studios and his attempts, not unlike those of the films protagonist to keep his integrity and his artistic vision intact. The film is a classic example of 70's American cinema when the old studio system had collapsed and filmmakers had the freedom to make whatever films they liked no matter how personal or non commercial they might seem. This is a truly great film.
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