In a bonus feature on the 1978 director’s cut of “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (an earlier cut was released in 1976), producer Al Ruban (who shot the exteriors and took an onscreen part in the movie) says that a viewer has to get used to Cassavetes’s film-making style. I think that “Killing” is unusual in the body of Cassavetes’s work in being considerably less talky (which might be good, since the lines in Cassavetes movies were mostly improvised by the actors and nonactors in front of the camera) and in lacking his wife and muse, Gena Rowlands (which is definitely not good!).
Also there’s a plot. Cassavetes appeared in movies with plots (The Killers, Rosemary’s Baby) but shall we say he was not a plot-driven movie director? (Yes, I saw and liked “Gloria” in 1980 with la Rowlands and there was some plot back at the start of his directing career with “Shadows”)
Based on what Rudan and actor Ben Gazzara said in the bonus juxtaposed interviews, Gazzara’s character, LA strip-club owner Cosmo Vitelli, trying to create and manage a world (even the tawdry one of topless dancers with little talent and the peculiar ringmaster Mr. Sophistication [Meade Roberts[) was a version of Cassavetes trying to make his art in a hostile world with many difficulties, major ones self-induced. Well, they don’t say that making problems for himself was part of the autobiographical component.
What is self-defeating about Cosmo is a vice, gambling. It is a gambling debt that gets him into deep, deep trouble. Opinions may differ in whether gambling “addiction” had already hollowed out Cosmo’s soul. But he has just managed to pay off his debt (to loan sharks) for his club, the Crazy Horse West.
For all his preening, Cosmo seems good to his performers, the black one of whom is also his girlfriend, Rachel (Azizi Johari). And he is good to that girl’s mother, Betty (Virginia Carrington). Cosmo also attempts to put on a good show. His artistic vision is quite limited (I wonder if this is autobiographical!), but he tries hard.
The movie (even the recut 1978 version) includes way too much of the shows (perhaps those starved for images of breasts might differ from this judgment). The Crazy Horse West is much closer to the Kit Kat Club in Weimar Berlin in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. “Killing” confirmed the decision by Bob Fosse to showcase the real talents of Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in “Cabaret” rather than show dismal third-rate entertainers like Mr. Sophistication and the “De Lovelies.” Minnelli and Grey were way too talented: they were worth going to see, not time-killers like the showman and showgirls at Crazy Horse West. (Perhaps, if Cosmo is Cassavetes the director, Mr. Sophistication is a vision of Cassavetes the actor?)
Then there is the plot indicated in the title. I guess that it is possible that the gangsters (Seymour Cassel and Timothy Carey) would suggest that Cosmo pay off his gambling debt ($23K) by killing someone they wanted killed. In that the target is heavily guarded (I see no indication that he is a bookie: he seems to be in smuggling) $23K, even in 1976 dollars, seems a low price.
To off a gang kingpin, why send an amateur to do a professional’s work? For that matter, since it seems a suicidal mission unlikely to succeed, why give up on getting the money?
Cosmo killed people (perhaps Chinese as well as Koreans) in the Korean War. Can it be that the gangsters think they should send someone with experience killing Asians?
The gangsters are cartoon figures and Cassavetes did not bother with providing insight to their thinking. And I am not at all convinced that Cosmo could be coerced into undertaking the hit.
The main action sequence is fairly competently filmed, though not a set piece in the John Woo/Andy Lau/Johnnie To league. Cosmo carries a bullet in the gut back to the dismay of Betty (Gazzara says that there was no dialogue written for the scene, it was all improvised) and then back to the club.
1976 audiences hated the movie. I’d guess they were expecting more neo-noir and less meditative examination of the doomed club owner. The ending of someone alone on the street is the same as the English noir I just saw (“They Made Me a Fugitive”: this one could have been titled “They Made Me a Killer”). The fairly ordinary non-criminal dragged into crime figure is a noir staple along with uncaring onlookers (there is no femme fatale but there are femmes practicales).
Gazzara says that through most of the filming he was frustrated by the role (until he decided it was a version of Cassavetes). This frustration perhaps aided his playing the frustrated character unable to maintain control of his life. How can he “be himself” when he doesn’t know what his self is? He counterfeits bravado so much that he sometimes seems to believe his own act. The show must go on, that much he completely believes.
The 1978 director’s cut in a 5-disc Criterion Cassavetes set that also includes the theatrical version (half an hour longer) has the juxtaposed recollections by Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban that convinced me that I’d watched something more interesting than a slow neo-noir with lots of bad strip club skits, plus a 1976 audio interview of Cassavetes by Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson, and a stills gallery.
I prefer the movies starring Gena Rowlands that Cassavetes made before and after “Killing: “Minnie and Moskowitz” (1971), ” “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974) and “Gloria” (1980). I wouldn’t recommend “Killing” as an introduction to Cassavetes, and for neo-noir fans, I’d recommend “Gloria” instead or first. I don’t know how many Ben Gazzara fans there are (I’m one). I can definitely recommend it to them. Cassavetes fans presumably have seen one or another version of the movie and can revel in the original version with more of the Lovelies and of the gangsters.