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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
'The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie' is one of the most interesting and original movies I've ever seen. I would include it with movies such as 'Blow Up', 'Performance' and 'Eraserhead', which may not have much to do with each other on the surface, but are what I would call puzzlers. On first viewing you go "well, it was different... I'm not sure if I LIKED it, but it sure was original..." Then later you find yourself haunted by it. You go back and watch it again and again, and each time you discover some nuance or emotion or idea, or a certain scene or line that resonates. These movies are ones that STAY with you.
The plot of 'Bookie' is pretty straightforward. A strip club owner gets into debt with the Mob and is pressured into murdering a bookie. Other directors such as Scorsese or Frankenheimer or Friedkin or Mann could have made an tight, exciting thriller out of such a plot. But John Cassavetes goes for a completely different approach, and doesn't play by "the rules". He ignores the obvious way of proceeding, slows things down, focuses on characters and relationships and moments, and ends up with a cinematic poem.
That may sound pretentious to some, so be it, but that's what it is. The beauty of the photography combined with the improvised dialogue by some of the best character actors of American post-War movies (Gazzara, Cassel, Carey), makes this movie unique. There's nothing quite like this movie, and it's one that if you sit back and just let it do its thing, will remain absolutely unforgettable.
One of the 1970s greatest achievements.
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