Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)


A small-time club owner must repay his gambling debts to local mobsters, by murdering a bookmaker who’s been causing them trouble.


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie might sound like a standard
low-level gangster film but it’s really nothing of the sort.
The plot being little else than an excuse to explore the human
relationships and motivations underlying the life of a seedy
club owner.

Cassavetes’ doc-style approach to filmmaking elicits a distinctly grubby atmosphere to Bookie which isn’t for everyone but makes for an inimitable viewing experience. Gazzara’s performance as ‘Cosmo Vitelli’ is one of the best I have ever seen; it’s tricky to recall a part being played so convincingly. Gazzara fits Cosmo like a glove – a well-intentioned dreamer with illusions of grandeur  – and his anguished facial expressions are custom-made for Cassavetes’ idiosyncratic close-ups, here often set against garishly hued on-location lighting and an endless drift of cigarette smoke. The flare of the lights on the screen and the blur of the cinematography add an authenticity rare to find in mainstream film. Cassavetes’ success here is putting you right inside the club, a mere observer of the ‘warts-and-all’ goings on.


Ben Gazzara as ‘Cosmo’ – illuminated by the red lights of his strip club

The band of players in this film are as awkwardly realistic as the genuine characters that populate our cities off-screen. Whilst aspects of the supporting cast can sometimes come across as wooden – a criticism heavily levied on the director’s independent work – it only adds to the documentary feel.  Other performances are knock-out; Timothy Carey’s turn as ‘Flo’, an enigmatic ‘heavy’ with a penchant for self-reflective philosophical musings, being a personal favourite. Meade Roberts, as ‘Mr Sophistication’ – the MC of the club’s strip show, is a revelation and sufficiently off-beat so as to be more than a trifle ‘trippy’ .


Timothy Carey’s ‘Flo’

The actual sequence referenced in the title is staged magnificently by Cassavetes, with things going ‘wrong’ en-route to the hit and an air of reluctant but ominous foreboding bearing down on all concerned. The panicked reaction of the mobsters to Cosmo’s success in pulling it off is quite priceless. The film’s uncertain coda is perfect – again, the exact narrative is not what is important in the film, it’s the human reactions to events around them.

bookie murder

Cosmo approaches the Bookie’s house, armed with burgers to placate the guard-dogs

Cassavetes certainly wasn’t one for auteur-like thematic allegory, but if you want to look for one in this film, then it would have to be based around the colour red. The red rose on Cosmo’s suit, the red filters on the club lights, the red napkin around Flo’s neck etc.

For me, the nub of chinese bookie is Cosmo’s speech in the dressing room, he reasons he’s only happy when he is adopting a persona of who he thinks people want him to be. You can clearly see this in numerous scenes throughout the film and the physical way Gazzara holds himself when he’s front of either his club audience, his peers or the mob. It’s this adopted persona – and the source of his gambling debt – that gets him in trouble with the mob and underlies the reason why he ends up whacking the bookie. Cosmo’s mistake is exactly that he plays his life as who he is *expected* to be and at the end he is actually happy to die in that role. Whereas the mob’s mistake was in their own expectation that Cosmo couldnt pull the hit off – he’s exactly not what *they* expected him to be. A strange, if uncomfortably realistic, dirty noir movie hides a great character study of the motivations behind a small-scale wannabe club kingpin and his own weird slice of the american dream.

You can’t help wondering that Cosmo is also a snide metaphor for Cassavetes – Cosmo’s a director in his own right of the routines in his club and when that club comes under risk he does anything to save it and save his independence. The love and care he gives his performers is similar to the attention paid by Cassavetes to his cherished stock company.

Bookie may be an esoteric film but it’s one I find vexingly alluring; and handsomely robust to repeated viewings. It’s a Cassavetes movie but Gazzara is perhaps the jewel here.