The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

“Now, teddy. Teddy. Everything takes work. We’ll straighten it out. You know. You gotta work hard to be comfortable. Yeah, a lot of people kid themselves, you know. They-they know when they were born, they know where they’re goin’… they know whether they’re gonna go to heaven, whether they’re gonna go to hell. They think they know that. They kid themselves. Right? But the only people… who are, you know, happy… are the people who are comfortable. That’s right. Now, you take, uh, uh, carol, right? A dingbat, right? A ding-a-ling.A dingo. That’s what people think she is,’cause that’s the truth they want to believe. But, uh, you put her in another situation, right? Put her in a situation that’s tough. Stress. Where she’s up against something, you’ll see she’s no fool. Right. ’cause what’s your truth… is my falsehood What’s my falsehood is your truth and vice versa. Well, look. Look at me, right? I’m only happy when I’m angry… when I’m sad, when i can play the fool… when I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.”

‘The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’, directed by John Cassavetes in 1976, is an American crime movie set in the seedy world of Californian strip bars.  Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vittelli, the owner of a club who has just cleared his gambling debt with the mob. Celebrating, he is tricked into getting into even more debt, and the gangsters offer him a deal. Vittelli is ordered to kill a Chinese bookie and, in return, his debts will be cleared. The bookie, however, turns out to be the leader of the Chinese underworld, and the hit is designed to get rid of Vittelli. The Korean veteran is successful, however, albeit left with a serious gunshot injury, and the mob is forced to try to take him out directly. The conclusion of the film sees Vittelli in a strange limbo state, maybe dying but continuing to run his club.  It’s a strange movie. I watched the original, longer version, and there is something mesmerising about the way Cassavetes builds and adorns the world of Vittelli’s club and his relationship with his dancers. As with Chantal Akerman’s ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’, made the previous year, the film is mostly concerned with the seedy but mundane life of the central protagonist, with bursts of shocking violence. The camerawork is documentary like, the dialogue naturalistic but with hints of an almost Tarantino irony. It’s slow and weirdly paced, but it never loses your attention. Even the extended scenes of cabaret seem designed to offset the violence that Vittelli is forced into. All this means that the central killing of the title, when it happens, is genuinely shocking.

Would I recommend it? As a first Cassavetes movie (which it is for me) I would say it was good – it’s certainly tempted me to seek out his more famous earlier films. Watch with ‘Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles’ if you can bear it.

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