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Killing of a Chinese Bookie - Criterion Collection
Killing of a Chinese Bookie - Criterion Collection
Actors: Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel
Director: John Cassavetes
Genres: Drama
UR     2008     1hr 48min

John Cassavetes engages film noir in his own inimitable style with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Ben Gazzara brilliantly portrays gentlemen s club owner Cosmo Vitelli, a man dedicated to pretenses of composure and self-...  more »


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Movie Details

Actors: Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel
Director: John Cassavetes
Genres: Drama
Sub-Genres: Drama
Studio: Criterion Collection
Format: DVD - Color,Widescreen,Anamorphic
DVD Release Date: 11/04/2008
Original Release Date: 01/01/1976
Theatrical Release Date: 01/01/1976
Release Year: 2008
Run Time: 1hr 48min
Screens: Color,Widescreen,Anamorphic
Number of Discs: 2
SwapaDVD Credits: 2
Total Copies: 0
Members Wishing: 15
Edition: Special Edition,Criterion Collection
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Languages: English

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Movie Reviews

Cosmoetica | New York, USA | 09/19/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)

"John Cassavetes' The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is a film that is one of those overlooked gems that is not only a great film, but a great record of its time, even if it might have more properly been titled The Murder Of A Chinese Bookie. As much as I love the early, raw films of Martin Scorsese- who reputedly thought up this tale with Cassavetes a few years earlier, no film I've ever seen so perfectly captures the mid-1970s Underworld as I knew it as a child. There is a sense that on can even smell the cheap liquor and cigaret smoke that pervades its images. While Scorsese's Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas are also great films, they are so highly stylized, scored, and choreographed that they attain mythic qualities, and are shorn of much of the realism Cassavetes' filmic world inhabits. What set Cassavetes apart from his contemporary American peers was that his films did not mythologize- they simply depicted. In this sense, he did for modern urbanity what German filmmaker Werner Herzog does for historical films- i.e.- brings them down to `eye level realism'. He also depicted his society with the same level of universal realism as Yasujiro Ozu did Post-War Japan.
In watching the two versions of this film, made available as part of The Criterion Collection's five disk John Cassavetes Five Films collection- the original 135 minute 1976 release, and the 109 minute 1978 re-release, one also gets a good representation of how greatness can be achieved. The longer version has only a few scenes more than the shorter version, and some of the same scenes go on a bit longer, but the tale is basically the same, for the extra scenes- while interesting, are not essential; such as Cosmo's banter with a cabby about their New York pasts, a tale on a gopher tail's causing botulism, and scenes outside a club. Even though the order of several scenes change, or are altered a bit, and there are a few segments unique to the 1978 version, the editing on the later version is generally superior. Rarely has a film- either version, cored so deeply into masculinity and the idea of territoriality. The longer version features a deeper portrait of the film's main character, Los Angeles strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara)- a low man in the Underworld, and greater details his connections to the mobsters of the old guard who resent the rising criminal power of different ethnic groups.
The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie succeeds as a great piece of cinema because its lead character is one of the most realistically drawn characters in film history- he's a thug and a killer, yet one who is explicable. He is a businessman who cannot separate work from personal lives- his girlfriend is the bar's top stripper, and twenty or more years his junior. Yet, it is not a film noir, as so often called, for Cassavetes transcends the simpleminded techniques of that genre, and delivers a film of intellectual heft and psychological breadth, where murder blossoms from the seemingly most inane, perfunctory, and inconsequential of moments, and leads to an examination of masculinity and territoriality that has no peers in film. Sometimes his scenes go on a tad too long, but, like Walt Whitman's poetry, there is beauty and strength in even his excesses- something that many other so-called artists' most focused works lack. Cassavetes consistently served up his art at `the grown ups table,' as Woody Allen called drama vis-à-vis comedy, but so few film fans are used to real, or pure, drama, for Hollywood has so dissolved their minds with mid-level melodramas, that they simply are overwhelmed by his best films audacious pseudo-verité. That The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie may be his very best film is all the explanation needed for its lack of popularity in a deliterate age.
Review for 1976-Theatrical & 1978-Director's Cut
Joshua Miller | Coeur d'Alene,ID | 04/17/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"God bless the Criterion Collection and their decision to release The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as a two-disc set, featuring the original 1976-theatrical version and 1978-director's cut. Director John Cassavetes considered the film a failure and had it removed from theatrical distribution seven days after its release. The 1978-cut of the film is nearly 30 minutes shorter in length and is truly a "director's cut." This is not some money making scheme; Cassavetes constructed an entirely different film, using scenes not present in the theatrical version and removing entire sequences that were. This review is for both versions.

Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vittelli, owner of Crazy Horse West, a strip joint.

This much the two versions agree on. In the theatrical version, Cosmo meets Mort (Seymour Cassel) at his club. Mort tells Cosmo about a gambling joint and invites him to check it out. Cosmo does and ends up with a $23,000 debt. In the director's cut, Cosmo doesn't meet Mort at Crazy Horse West. Instead, he simply goes to a gambling joint and loses $23,000. Cassavetes establishes who has control over the gambling joint with a scene where some gangsters confront an urologist who has accumulated a $5,000 debt.

In both versions, the men from the gambling joint arrive at Crazy Horse West and tell Cosmo about a Chinese bookie, along with an offer that will help him significantly reduce his debt. Cosmo doesn't like the idea and, at first, refuses. The gangsters insist he reconsider and give him a gun, a car, and no wiggle room.

This synopsis could indicate a thriller, a character study, a thrilling character study...Something of this nature. While it is a character study, by the time you reach the 50-minute mark of the theatrical version you won't have a clue what you're watching and it wouldn't be out of line for me to say that many people will have turned it off by this point.

Many of the scenes in the theatrical version do feel too long or unnecessary. This cut has many long, unbroken shots, and sometimes tedious dialogue. The upside was that the dialogue didn't feel written (and indeed, some of it was improvised) and, as such, many scenes achieved a sort of reality. Be that as it may, reality is not always as entertaining as fiction.

Cassavetes does bring some genuine excitement and tension to a few scenes though, notably the scene where Cosmo goes to the title character's house. The excitement and tension are heightened much more by the director's cut, as we reach this point in the film much sooner.

The performances in both versions are terrific. Gazzara turns in an Oscar worthy performance as Cosmo, which is rather remarkable as he reportedly struggled with the role. Cosmo is a complicated character; simultaneously self-assured, charismatic, and conflicted. He's not a bad guy, but by the end you're not entirely sure if he's a good guy either. In the director's cut, the greatness of his performance is even more fully realized as it focuses more on his character. Cassavetes changed the opening scene in his cut to Cosmo walking out of Crazy Horse West to reassure the bouncer that "it'll pick up." This is a far superior way of establishing the character.

Seymour Cassel is also impressive as the snake-like, conniving Mort...Much of his screen-time is cut in the director's version, leaving little time for one to take much notice of him. However, he's particularly effective in the scene where he explains things to Cosmo from inside his car.

Martin Scorsese collaborated with John Cassavetes on the idea for this film. It's hard to deny a Scorsese influence, even many characters seem like descendants of characters from earlier Scorsese films. However, if Scorsese had directed The Killing of a Chinese Bookie we'd have a much different film. Probably a masterpiece, but a very different film; the theatrical version has a loosely constructed plot with all the pieces for a masterpiece present, just not connected properly. The puzzle is finished with the director's cut, which has even more of a Scorsese-feel to it.

Other changes made for the director's cut include revealing Cosmo is a Korean War vet who killed in the war, the details the gangsters give about the hit are much more elaborate...And Cosmo's girls and Mr. Sophistication (I won't bother explaining who these people are) only have one scene. The multiple scenes of them were what really weighed down the theatrical version, so this was a brilliant creative decision.

What's remarkable is that many filmmakers wouldn't complain if they had made the theatrical version. It's not the most entertaining film in the world, but it's more accessible than a film like Woman Under the Influence - Criterion Collection. Beyond that, you can see how this film may have influenced later films. It's proof that a character study, even one involving murder, can be slow and methodical...It doesn't have to cut right to the chase. Both the style and structure of this film evoked memories of Vincent Gallo's Buffalo '66, which also starred Gazzara.

However, many filmgoers have complained about how the film doesn't have much of a plot, but simply an outline that's filled with unnecessary, pointless dialogue. The ending sums up what this film felt like for me. It's like walking into someone's life for a period of time and than just leaving unannounced. In the 1976-cut, we walk into Cosmo's life for 2 hours and 12 minutes. In the 1978-cut, we walk into Cosmo's life for 1 hour and 46 minutes.

The 1976 cut of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is not a masterpiece, due in large part to its loose structure. It clearly had the potential to be a masterpiece and many of the scenes are very inspired. Even though Cassavetes hated this version, the theatrical version is something. What it is, I couldn't say. With the 1978 cut, Cassavetes did something incredible. With the tightened structure, more even-handed narrative, and increased focus on the Cosmo character Cassavetes turned this film into a masterpiece. In this form, it is a great film. It's still likely to disappoint those intrigued by the title/synopsis as it's still slow, methodical, and with a meditative structure. However, it is a cinematic treasure that is both entertaining and powerful. This is the definitive version of the film, as it was meant to be seen...And it would be a shame if you missed it.

"Opium was the Religion of the People."
Bryan Byrd | Earth | 02/28/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)

"According to interviews with Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban, and a contemporary audio interview with Cassavetes himself, audiences hated this film on its initial release. They hated it so badly that as they left the theater, they shouted to the people standing in line that it was the worst movie they'd ever seen - that those waiting to see it should save their money. It's probably best to keep that in mind when one reads recommendations for this film, including mine.

Another thing to remember, and which was also mentioned in the interviews, is that although 'Killing of a Chinese Bookie' bears all the trappings of a traditional gangster film, Cassavetes intended to tell a more personal story, and the genre setting was simply a means to an end. People from those audiences of thirty years ago who were expecting another movie in line with 'The Godfather' may have had some marginal interest in the first two-thirds of the film, but could very well have found the final half hour excruciating. Lastly, after the terrible shellacking this movie took at its opening, Cassavetes cut the film from its original 135 minutes to 108 and re-released it two years later.

So, depending on what type of film you expect to see, and which version, 'The Killing of a Chinese Bookie' has hurdles to overcome even before you get to Cassavetes idiosyncratic thematic structure. It isn't that the story is difficult - a nightclub owner gambles his way into trouble with organized criminal elements, who then ask him to kill a rival to clear the debt - and it isn't Cassavetes directorial style - technically proficient and occasionally inventive - but that the story of Cosmo Vitelli seems to sweep past the climactic finish and roll on and on as if someone forgot to turn the camera off and tell the actors to go home.

Cassavetes states in his interview that the gangster storyline was a metaphor for people or forces that try to hijack the dreams of others - something with which he'd had plenty of experience during his filmmaking career. So when the film keeps going past the point where a pure genre film would have stopped, I think we get to what Cassavetes wanted to portray all along - an idealized representation of the often-humiliating effort necessary to hold together the pieces of a singular creative effort. Whether or not he succeeds is another question.

I think it's a toss-up. Days after watching the film for the first time, images and scenery from the film still resonate, though I don't know if I can exactly articulate why. I thought Ben Gazzara's performance was extremely good, which I hadn't expected, and the nightclub/ strip club setting of the 1970's was interesting in a seedy, dirty-fingernails kind of way, but those things weren't enough by themselves to elevate the film. Instead, it was as if its disparate parts suggested or hinted at layers of meaning that can only be transmitted in a symbolic way; that Cassavetes, although not 100% successful, still managed to pluck at the notions concerning the human condition and set them to vibrating.

Still, I think the audience for this film is small. Cassavetes liked to use non-professional actors mixed in with the veterans, and it creates an image that is unusual, especially in comparison to big studio films. Additionally, personal films like this rarely appeal to the crowd. And even though I feel like I 'get' what he was trying to accomplish, I'm not sure he does it well enough to recommend the film. In the end, I'll round up from 3 ½ stars, but for those who are new (as I was) to Cassavetes work, you may wish to rent before you buy.
Armed and Desperate
B. Weismann | Boulder, CO | 05/02/2009
(5 out of 5 stars)

"Of Cassavetes' 9 "personal" films, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is the most frustrating and revealing.

Its center, strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, is in a way Cassavetes himself. He's marvelously played by Ben Gazzara. He's a little guy with big dreams. As the film opens, he pays off a loan shark the money he owes on his club, the Crazy Horse West, finally owning it outright.

It's a rotten dump, frankly, a tawdry showplace that's nominally enlivened by a stage show that's a cruel parody of its namesake, the erotic Paris nightclub that features elaborate stage shows. Here, the handful of dancers trot out and intersperse flashes of breasts with jokes, punctuated by the damp, unenthused singing and musing of the show's emcee, the portly, balding, top-hatted "Mr. Sophistication."

But Cosmo loves it. It's his dream, his love child, his creative offspring. He stands in the back of the room, everything fresh and alive in his eyes. Later that night, he takes out three of his dancers to celebrate - charmingly, bringing each a corsage like some smitten prom-goer.

But Cosmo blows it. He and the ladies go gambling. The same impulses that push him on undo him, and he finds himself in debt to the tune of $23,000 to some shady types. They have him by the balls, and the squeezing begins. Before you know it, they have pressured him into the title act.

Although the movie has the structure of a tight noir tragedy, this is Cassavetes, and the plot takes a back seat to the people involved. Digressive swoops give us insight into Cosmo, his workers, the "bad guys," and any incidental characters that pop up along the way. Every character, no matter how brief his or her time on the screen, gets their moment, gets to define themselves.

Along the way, we keep seeing Cosmo in shifting perspective. Is he a competent businessman? A killer? A clown? Right away, the conventions of the genre break down. The stolen car given to Cosmo to take him to the hit blows a tire on the freeway. Cosmo flees, and calls a cab. While waiting, he calls his club and checks on the show, quizzing the staff and berating them when they don't even know where in his scenario the action is.

"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," says Cosmo's victim, off camera before he pulls the trigger. "I've been a bad person." It's as if Cosmo's killing himself, or at least the part he thought was safe, the part that would last. Later, when the killing's contractors come after him to silence him, he seems unsurprised, resigned. Unimpressed by the danger. Indifferent.

Cosmo takes a bullet, but there's no heroic end for him. Things slowly unravel, and he marches on, schmoozing with the help backstage, starting the show, lingering outside on the sidewalk waiting to greet the customers and hustle them inside, even as he quizzically dips his hand into his jacket to feel the blood dampening and spreading there.

There the filmmaker stands, too, seemingly unashamed of his rickety product, dying or not dying of his wounds, obdurate to anything that stands between himself and the fulfillment of his dreams, however crass and untidy."