(Welcome to Videodrome. A recurring column plumbing the depths of vintage and contemporary cinema – from cult, exploitation, trash and grindhouse to sci-fi, horror, noir, documentary and beyond.)
When principal photography began on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Ben Gazzara wasn’t enjoying himself. The forty-six-year-old actor had been cast as Cosmo Vitelli, the proprietor of a chintzy West Hollywood nightclub called The Crazy Horse West. Gazzara didn’t know how to play his character, and the rigidness of the production wasn’t what he was expecting. Six years earlier, Gazzara had starred in Husbands (1970) alongside Peter Falk and writer/director, John Cassavetes. This was the first time Gazzara and Cassavetes worked together, and they quickly recognized each other as kindred spirits. “John was tough, and I mean that in the great sense of the word, tough,” Gazzara would recall in a 2004 interview for The Criterion Collection. “I never saw him show weakness, ever. He knew the work was good and nobody was going to tell him otherwise.”
Gazzara admired Cassavetes’ fervent passion for filmmaking, his preference to work cheaply and quickly, and his adamancy on keeping crew positions sparse to ensure creative mobility. If scenes modulated as a result of improvisation, Cassavetes didn’t want technical positions slowing down the performative momentum. Often shooting handheld and operating the camera himself, nothing was more important to Cassavetes than capturing the immediacy of truth in the moment – lighting and focus and exposure be damned. From an actor’s perspective, Gazzara described Cassavetes as a director who would “make love to your good moments.” Cassavetes’ philosophy on filmmaking was in opposition to mechanically minded auteurs such as Hitchcock and Kubrick, who were championed for their technical prowess and optical innovations, but left behind a trail of well-documented skirmishes with actors. They were directorial maestros, conducting opulent cinematic symphonies, their modus operandi the result of carefully considered calculations. In contrast, Cassavetes approached filmmaking like a jazz musician. He was loose and raw, more concerned with feeling than perfectionism, not conducting actors as much as playing right along with them. This naturalistic, actor-centric approach resonated with Gazzara. By the time Husbands wrapped production, the actor/director relationship had blossomed into a genuine friendship.
Six years later, when Cassavetes asked Gazzara to star in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Gazzara signed on assuming the experience would recapture the sporadic magic and rose-tinted chemistry he shared with Cassavetes on the set of Husbands. But a few days into filming, Gazzara found himself lacking enthusiasm, unsure of what Cassavetes was trying to make and directionless on how his character fit into it. “Quite frankly, I felt very cold at the beginning of Chinese Bookie,” Gazzara would later say, “I felt that it was not fun. I wasn’t having any fun. It was too professional.”
While filming a scene in which Gazzara’s character (Cosmo Vitelli) picks up some of the girls that work at his club, Gazzara confessed his woes to Cassavetes. What kind of film were they trying to make, and what kind of character was Cosmo supposed to be? When Cassavetes put the camera down, Gazzara saw tears streaming down the director’s face. “Ben, do you know who gangsters are?” Cassavetes asked, “They’re all those people who keep you and me from our dreams. The suits who stop the artist from doing what he wants to do. The petty people who eat at you. You just want to be left alone with your art. And then there’s all the bullshit that comes in, all these nuisances. Why does it have to be like that?”
This sentiment is the heart of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which uses well-worn gangster tropes to disguise itself as a neo-noir, but covertly functions as an allegory for the pursuit of artistic integrity within the entertainment industry. Cosmo is a reflection of Cassavetes, arguably the most self-reflective and autobiographical character in his filmography. It’s no surprise that Cassavetes later said he felt the scenes in which Cosmo interacted with the gangsters were the most important moments in the film. These scenes are cinematic refractions from Cassavetes’
own life, composites of countless meetings with studio executives, producers, distributors, and financiers that – in one way or another – sought to compromise Cassavetes’ vision. Cosmo is a self-made independent businessman from New York City who wants nothing more than to be left alone to run his Sunset Strip nightclub but finds himself caught up in the bureaucracy of the mob. This isn’t so unlike the self-made independent filmmaker from New York City who wanted nothing more than to be left alone to make his films, only to find himself caught up in the bureaucracy of Hollywood.
Embodying the archetype of the rebel, the outsider, the iconoclast, the misunderstood artist, Cassavetes is most remembered as the godfather of American independent cinema. Although his entrepreneurial approach would foster a career mostly spent outside the mainstream Hollywood system – including a prolific output of films in the 1970s: Husbands (1970), Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Opening Night (1977) – Cassavetes’ career was littered with distribution and finance problems. For the sake of his films, he was forced to negotiate and bargain. The future of Cosmo and his club is at the mob’s mercy, just as Cassavetes and his projects were at the mercy of executives and bankrollers who regarded his films as transactions; debts to be paid, deals to be double-crossed.
Unlike the animated, pin-striped-suit-wearing gangsters of Howard Hawk’s Scarface (1932), the mobsters of Chinese Bookie have been modernized into leisure-suit-wearing venture capitalists. These are moneymen, trading in their tommy-guns for business contracts. Whereas Coppola’s mobsters in The Godfather (1972) operate within a familia code of honor and loyalty, the mobsters of Chinese Bookie are cold-blooded and impersonal. Composer and frequent Cassavetes collaborator, Bo Harwood, would later say, “I always thought John had his own bumps with big money and corruption, dealing with studios and getting put under and put down. I think John owned that nightclub [The Crazy Horse West].”
“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is the story of an ordinary man who has constructed his life as many American men do. He has defined himself in terms of his work,” Cassavetes would say of the film in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, “It is more than a way of making a living, it is his entire existence.” At the center of the film is the ordinary man, Cosmo Vitelli, who operates The Crazy Horse West, a sleazy Sunset Strip club that blurs the line between a Parisian burlesque and an American strip-club. It’s garish and seedy, photographed in a way that blinds instead of illuminates, blackens instead of shadows. But this is Cosmo’s palace, and he views the flimsy stage shows as high-art. Not only is he the club owner, he’s also the creator of all the acts, directing the shabby routines as if they’re Shakespearean production. No detail is too small for Cosmo to oversee, whether it be making sure performers adhere to his carefully arranged setlist or personally greeting patrons at the front door. In an early scene, we see Cosmo MC-ing theevening’s entertainment to a half-empty crowd of drunken stragglers, wearing an immaculate white blazer and shined shoes: “My name is Cosmo Vitelli. I’m the owner of this joint. I choose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. If you have any complaints, you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.”
Gazzara’s performance is low-key, void of the high-octane emotional crescendos of previous Cassavetes’ characters. He portrays Cosmo’s exalted sense of self with the smoothness and swagger of an entourage member of The Rat Pack, exhibiting the cocksure bravado born out of post-WWII masculinity. As the master of ceremonies, Cosmo prides himself as being a host of distinction and refinement, a man of style and sophistication. This is, of course, counterintuitive to the essence of The Crazy Horse West: a dimly lit, last-call dive populated by rowdy drunks soaked in bottom-shelf libations, shouting for the performers to “take it off!” But Cosmo sees the club as his masterpiece, and himself an artist.
When Cosmo watches the show from the back of the club, scrutinizing the audiences crude reaction to it, one can’t help but imagine Cassavetes standing in the back of a theater, observing reactions to his own films (which were often met with similar distaste). The musical numbers and monologues Cosmo meticulously sculpts for The Crazy Horse West are lost on an inebriated crowd that just wants to see more tits and ass, just as Cassavetes off-beat films were often panned by audiences looking for passive entertainment, good guys and bad guys, big explosions and happy endings. The club serves as a metaphor for the conflict of interest between what an artist is
trying to achieve and what an audience expects. “If I directed a picture like Return Of The Jedi or even worked on one, I would faint,” Cassavetes would tell scholar and film critic, Ray Carney. “If I did The Towering Inferno it’d be all black leader. Nothing. I’d get sick. I’d take the insurance money. I couldn’t do it. I’ve never seen an exploding helicopter. I’ve never seen anybody go and blow somebody’s head off. But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest of ways…we have problems, terrible problems, and our problems are human problems.”
While Cassavetes never lost sight of his artistic integrity, he struggled to find a balance between his singular authorship and the populist commercialization of studio distribution. He often had to take acting roles in television dramas such as ABC’s Breaking Point or second-billed crime films such as The Killing (1964) and Machine Gun McCain (1969) to pay off his own debts. His films were self-financed outside of the studio system, the cast and crew largely made up of friends and acquaintances who worked on and off for years with little or no pay. He was constantly at odds with producers, his independent outlook and artistic temperament in conflict with what he referred to as “the establishment,” a subset of Hollywood that Cassavetes didn’t want to belong to, but found to be a necessary evil. Much like Cosmo, Cassavetes’ self-sufficiency could only get him so far. In discussing Chinese Bookie in Cassavetes on Cassavetes, he said, “Cosmo is trapped in a conformist world. This is somebody who will do anything if enough pressure is put on them. I don’t have a lot of respect for people who buckle under to the conventional non-approach to things. Yet I’ve been plagued by the same temptations: to be liked, to be secure, to be a member of society. At forty-six, I woke up and found myself part of the establishment. I don’t want to be a member of the establishment…I hate the present system of directing because there’s too much pressure…you’re constantly aware of the financial responsibility, the fact that your life without directing is very empty and you have to make a successful movie…you must please your distributors and audience.”
Cosmo’s central plight in Chinese Bookie is the result of a gambling debt he racks up at a mobbed-up casino, directly after making his final payment on another outstanding gambling debt to his financial backer, Marty Reitz (played by Al Ruban, who in real-life was the financial backer of Cassavetes’ films and the producer of Chinese Bookie. An ironic, meta-level parallel between Cassavetes and Cosmo, no doubt premeditated by Cassavetes in casting Ruban). No sooner is Cosmo free from his indenture than he is back at the casino, sweating through his tuxedo as he loses twenty-three thousand dollars that he doesn’t have, forcing him to put up The Crazy Horse West as collateral.
Cosmo’s compulsion to continually raise the stakes, to go double or nothing directly after breaking even, is not a coincidence. It’s a reflexive trait, passed down from author to character. Cassavetes was a regular fixture at casinos, known as an unpredictable and impulsive gambler. Outside of the casinos, he’d take wild chances with both his life and his art, betting on himself against the world, come what may. Chinese Bookie was the highest of high-stake bets for Cassavetes as an independent filmmaker. He decided to forgo distribution, releasing and publicizing the film completely on his own, self-financing using the profits he made from A Woman Under The Influence. The release of Chinese Bookie would be an all-in, go-for-broke, one-man show. The film was made entirely out of pocket, costing Cassavetes one million to shoot, process, and edit. This was on top of the print costs, distribution, and publicity, which ran an additional half million. Despite the unfavorable odds, Cassavetes pushed forward, no doubt hearing Cosmo whispering in his ear, “Eh, it’s all paper.”
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie opened on Sunday, February 15th, 1976. Cassavetes personally attended and introduced the LA screenings, quickly realizing that his gamble wasn’t going to pay off. “I knew by the reaction of the audience that we were dead,” Gazzara would later remember. “We were dead. They didn’t like it. It broke my heart.” At each screening, more than a quarter of the audience left before the end of the film. Cassavetes saw and heard the same response each evening, and when he would peruse the lobby post-screening, none of the audience members – not even his friends – had a positive thing to say. Even those who didn’t hate it, who simply felt indifferent, found the film impossible to penetrate. In its rejection of the narrative rhythm and cadence of traditional American studio films – specifically gangster films with violent titles and sensational synopsis’ – Chinese Bookie alienated more than it entertained. Tom Bower, an old friend of Cassavetes, attended one of the early screenings. He’d later recall Cassavetes’ mood at the time: “After the film ended, I watched him walk alone across the street to a bar. It was an unforgettable image of him. Ashen face, smoking a cigarette, stomach distended, looking as though the weight of the world had fallen upon him.”
It didn’t help that the film began its commercial run within days of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The few journalists who even bothered to mention it were savage. The New York Time’s Vincent Canby compared watching the film to “listening to someone use a lot of impressive words, the meaning of which are just wrong enough to keep you in a state of total confusion.” After the early reviews appeared, the advance bookings were immediately canceled. In less than two weeks of its opening, Cassavetes was forced to pull the film from theaters. If The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is an allegorical meditation on maintaining artistic integrity (or as Cosmo would call it, “style”) in a world populated by corner-office crooks, then its initial release further cemented the gravity of the film’s thematic message. “An audience wants to be entertained constantly, and John didn’t do that,” Gazzara would say. “John made it rough for you. Maybe that’s why Chinese Bookie had such a tough time with audiences.” Reflecting on the films dismal opening, Cassavetes would say, “I like to make films that are difficult, that make an audience scream, make an audience walk out…I am not a conventional filmmaker nor do I seek success in that area, and I am not even saying that if people don’t understand it they are stupid. Maybe my ideas and methods of filmmaking are not in line with what somebody wants, but then if they want a filmmaker who makes them feel comfortable, it’s not me. I’m interested in shaking people up, not making them happy by soothing them.”
By March of 1976, Cassavetes had lost over two million dollars of his own money. Whatever goodwill from producers and financiers had been gained through the moderate success of A Woman Under The Influence had been burnt up in the dumpster fire of Chinese Bookie’s release. In the zeitgeist of pop culture and film criticism, Cassavetes had been relegated back to the egocentric, self-indulgent, actor-obsessed director that he was always suspected to be, incapable of telling a simple story and directing an entertaining film. In his personal life, he expressed resentment, anger, and disappointment to his peers: “As far as I can see it, there are two ways to play it,” he’d say. “The professional way of working in Hollywood or on TV is to take a script and do one’s job in the best way possible. You make things as credible as possible within commercial limitations. The other way is creative interpretation. You aim, without worrying about your career or your profit, at rendering your own life clearer, through the expression of your feelings and the exercise of your intelligence. When you go all the way that way, it isn’t really about making movies anymore. It’s about trying to find yourself, to understand yourself, through a character.”
Outside of the staggering financial loss Cassavetes suffered as a result of Chinese Bookie, the emotional cost left a deeper scar on his ego and psyche. How heartbreaking it must have been for Cassavetes to put so much of himself into Cosmo and Chinese Bookie, only to have the character viciously criticized, the film mocked and ridiculed. Considering the catastrophic fallout that resulted in the wake of Chinese Bookie’s short theatrical engagement, it’s astonishing that Cassavetes’ next move was to re-edit the film. In a position where most filmmakers would either call it quits or succumb to the silver handcuffs of the ”establishment,” Cassavetes once again doubled down on a bet against himself, and this time only for himself.
With nothing to lose, Cassavetes recut the entire film, releasing another version in 1978 after completing Opening Night. Counterintuitive to most director’s cuts, the 1978 version of Chinese Bookie shaves a half-hour off the original theatrical release. It cuts down and rearranges scenes, introduces new ones, and presents a different opening sequence. Comparing and contrasting the two versions side by side is a masterclass in the power of editing to convey a story. The nuts and bolts of both are the same, but the 1976 version concerns itself more with the character of Cosmo and his relationship to The Crazy Horse West. As we follow him through a hedonistic, nicotine-stained Los Angeles, the plot seems to be happening in the peripheral vision, secondary to the emotional whims of Cosmo. The 1978 version has tighter story-telling, giving more attention to the debt that Cosmo has to pay to the mob (both are currently available for streaming on The Criterion Channel).
Although it was considered a monumental flop at the time of its release, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has since developed a vehement cult following. It’s widely regarded as one of Cassavetes’ best films and Gazzara’s greatest on-screen performance. Part of the delayed attraction may be that audiences have finally caught up to what Cassavetes was attempting to do. At a time when other American directors such as Coppola and Scorsese were releasing films that would serve as the consummate blueprint for future genre films, Cassavetes was already eradicating pre-conceived narrative standards and deconstructing archetypical characters, searching for the unaffected moments where these histrionic gangsters and gamblers could be vulnerable, flawed, and resolutely human.
The genius of Chinese Bookie is its ability to exist in the quiet moments, the true-to-life moments. Left in the hands of a more traditional writer/director, the second act of Chinese Bookie would most likely play out as Cosmo being strong-handed into committing a hit for the mob and then committing the hit. Plot point, raise the stakes, action set-piece, mid-point, break into Act III. This is not only what audiences have come to expect, but a narrative formula that has proven successful time and time again. But in the hands of Cassavetes, this standardized sequence becomes discombobulated, taking a series of unexpected detours.
While driving on the freeway towards his target’s house, the tire on Cosmo’s car blows out. He runs across the freeway towards an off-ramp gas station, where he finds a payphone and calls a cab. Afterwards, he places another call, phoning the club to check in on how business is going: “Who’s on stage right now? Why are there only two girls on stage?! What number is it…the Paris number?” The cab takes Cosmo to a restaurant where, as instructed by the gangsters, he picks up hamburgers – no mustard, no pickles, no ketchup – to distract the guard dogs at the home of the Chinese bookie. He argues with the waitress about the specificity of the order, reluctantly getting involved in a conversation with the bartender about recent events in the waitresses’ life. These scenes serve no story-building function, seemingly needless interludes in-between the crucial plot points of the narrative. But they speak directly to Cassavetes left-of-center authorship, as well as paving the way for Vincent Vega to tell Jules Winnfield what McDonald’s is like in Amsterdam while in transit to kill a business partner in Pulp Fiction (1994), or for Marge Gunderson to meet up with an old high school fling while investigating a murder case in Fargo (1996). These slice-of-life sequences are inconsequential to the central plot, but their humanization asks the viewer to invest in the film’s reality instead of suspending disbelief. The subversion of genre expectations within these candid scenes – the in-between moments of life – are at the heart of Chinese Bookie.
All of Cassavetes films are preoccupied with human behavior, the nooks and crannies of how and why people interface with the world the way that they do. Despite its gaudy aesthetic and lurid title, Chinese Bookie is a character study, not a genre exercise. Just as we come to understand Cosmo through the vessel of Mr. Sophistication’s lackluster routines, we come to understand Cassavetes through Cosmo. In Raymond Carney’s book American Dreaming: The Films of John Cassavetes and the American Experience, he writes, “There is something disturbing, even horrifying, about Cosmo’s capacities of unending movement and consummate performance. For all the success of Cosmo’s self-defense, it becomes increasingly indistinguishable from self- annihilation. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the films following it raises the same questions about Emersonian self-reliance that the late novels of Henry James do: when does self-reliance become self-renunciation? When does self-sufficiency become alienation? When does radical independence become radical loneliness? When does the strategy of performing one’s self into being become the ultimate strategy of self-withdrawal? When does consummate self-presentation become a form of self-dissipation and self-erasure?”
Although they pertain to Cosmo, these are questions Cassavetes undoubtedly asked himself. Throughout his career, he toiled with the push and pull between art and commerce; the preservation of artistic integrity in a capitalistic society that seeks to monetize, the struggle to maintain personal style in a corporate industry that wants you to conform. These personal conflicts manifested themselves into motifs in all of Cassavetes’ films, but are most self- actualized – and heartbreaking – through the vessel of Cosmo Vitelli in The Killing of a Chinese
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