John Cassavetes | 108 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
Ever since I read the blurb for Masters of Cinema’s DVD of Maurice Pialat’s Police, I’ve been casually enticed by The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Said blurb asserts that “Police is a genre-defying excursion rivaled only by John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie in the pantheon of cinema’s most idiosyncratic thrillers”, which is both a nice turn of phrase and an intriguing one. The thriller is very much a Genre — that is to say, it’s a label loaded with rules and expectations, and to be idiosyncratic within such a form is an interesting notion. Both “thriller” and “idiosyncratic” are pretty accurate labels for Chinese Bookie, though, even in its re-cut (by the director) ‘short version’.
The plot sees strip club owner Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) lured in to killing the titular bookie as payment for his gambling debts to some gangsters. The title kind of gives away whether he does it or not (though an ever-doubtful Cassavetes reportedly considered having him not go through with it), but nonetheless the film doesn’t lack the genre’s requisite tension and suspense. However, it’s more of a character study. How aware is Cosmo of the mess he’s getting himself in to, and how far is he prepared to go? What drives the man? There are no easy answers, unsurprisingly, but that doesn’t make the questions unworthy of consideration.
According to the notes accompanying the BFI’s Blu-ray release, the ‘short version’ — which Cassavetes created after his original cut was “almost universally panned [and] yanked from the theatres within days” — not only makes the film shorter, but also more focused, clarifying various plot points. The style of much independent ’70s cinema — naturalistic to the point of being almost documentarian, with half-caught snatches of dialogue and sequences that seem trimmed to (almost) the relevant moments from much longer filming — still begs that you pay attention, but it seems this cut gives you more of a hand: it gets to the killing quicker (“63 vs 82 minutes”), a meeting with gangsters is “longer, more coherent and explicit”, and so on.
Perhaps the biggest change is early on: the short version implies Cosmo takes his girls out to celebrate (then gets into debt); the original cut implies he’s been invited to the gambling den so he can be set up. That’s quite a shift in emphasis, turning the lead character from a picked-on ‘mark’ in the long version to a sort-of-coincidental brought-about-his-own-downfall type in the re-edit. In his 1980 review (included in the BFI booklet), John Pym asserts that Cosmo is “clearly” a patsy, a fact obscured in the short cut by the removal of that scene where he’s invited to gamble. Is he an easily-lulled patsy, then, as the gangsters think? Or is it more as I interpreted: here’s a man who acts the fool, who pretends to be easily tricked, in order to keep people happy; but who is actually much more competent and aware of what’s going on? Look at his speech near the end about being what others want. This is a man determined to keep others happy and thinking well of him; not in a superficial way, but as some fundamental character trait. Is that how he gets lured into the killing, then — purely because they asked nicely? But then later, when he escapes and gets some kind of revenge or freedom… well, that’s not so friendly. Is he finally doing something for himself? Or was he selfish all along — not much of a leap, especially considering the world he operates in.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is not a neat little thriller in any respect. As Tom Charity puts it (in the BFI booklet again), “if the scenario sounds generic, the film is something else”. It reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, a film I didn’t particularly like (but which did inspire Cassavetes), but I had more time for this. Perhaps that’s just me ageing (it’s the best part of seven years since I saw Mean Streets) and becoming more attuned to this kind of movie; the kind that uses “hesitations, repetitions, and longueurs as tools of disruption and misdirection”, by a director so “mistrustful of anything that smacked of tidy resolution, he regularly turned his movies around in the editing to more ambiguous and purposefully aggravating effect.”
That’s the kind of movie Chinese Bookie is: ambiguous, purposefully aggravating, without a tidy resolution. It requires the audience to work a bit. Is it worth the effort? You know, I’m never quite sure (see Bicycle Thieves for another example), and whether I appreciate it or not probably depends as much on the mood a particular film catches me in as much as its inherent quality (see also Rage). This one, while as awkward as any, engaged me just enough.