The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Written and directed by John Cassavetes
Produced by Al Ruban, Phil Burton
Starring Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John Kullers, Al Ruban, Azizi Johari, Virginia Carrington, Meade Roberts, Alice Friedland, Donna Gordon, Haji, Carol Warren, Kathalina Veniero, Yvette Morris, Jack Ackerman, David Rowlands, Trisha Pelham, Sonny Aprile, Gene Darcy, Vincent Barbi, Val Avery, Elizabeth Deering, Soto Joe Hugh

“The great function of conflict is that it arouses consciousness.”

–James MacGregor Burns


Almost as soon as he’s liquidated a pricey debt incurred while gambling, the cordial, debonair presenter and proprietor of a burlesque club (Gazzara) stakes a cumulative $23K on losing hands. The mobsters (Woodward, Cassel, Phillips, Kullers) to whom it’s owed expect his arrears paid in full only by the prompt assassination of a bookmaker (Hugh), but they never expected their cool, compassionate debtor to be so tough, canny, or unlucky.


Crime dramas don’t come much more reflective or humane than Cassavetes’s condemnation of ruinous rats, here opposed to a protagonist who’s as magnanimous as formidable. Conundra consequent of vice and ungenerosity are anatomized in toto, untainted by the delusion that nobility absolves. American cinema’s first fully independent auteur here plies Kuosawa’s burden: the moral man straining in an immoral world.


In intimate close-ups or at immobile, tracking and panning distances, we spy every expressive and gestural shading of Cassavetes’s dramatis personae, captured as graphically as his sparing, impelling violence. Like Altman’s contemporary output, this segues from dispassionate to personal observation without tonal incongruity or bathos.


Grainy gloom, glares of electric and solar sources, and both contrasting are lensed by Mitchell Breit and co-producer/co-star Al Ruban, who beautify bright, often gaudy hues.


Every lusty gust, desperate glance, loving stare, amiable assurance, indignant scowl or snarl, and smile radiant or hateful was felt as much as acted: Gazzara poured his essence into Cosmo Vitelli to vivify his director’s charismatic self-conception. As a stripper in his employ who jealously adores him, Johari exudes as much discontent as nubility. Seething, hissing Carey is no less intense as an intimidating heavy who foists by force the unlikely hitman’s unwanted felony. In a subtler approach, ordinarily avuncular Cassel insinuates more menace with a simple grin than most uttered threats. The club’s flamboyant host (Roberts) and ecdysiasts (Johari, Carrington, Friedland, Gordon, Haji, Warren, Veniero) credibly incorporate seedy, working-class entertainers.


Some melodic themes by Bo Harwood are heard within, and briefly outside Vitelli’s club.


Preparation for and execution of the titular hit are realistically riveting. Johari’s jaundiced stripper attacks a waitress (Pelham) during her rehearsal. In the aftermath of his settlement, Vitelli eludes killers, confronts the mother (Carrington) of his favorite employee, then encourages his sulking staff with a deliberative dispensation of wisdom. What a week!


No single chef-d’oeuvre from Cassavetes’s string during the ’70s is readily selected as the best, but this would be a tenable pick.

Recommended for a double feature paired with California Split or Saint Jack.

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