The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Review

This title is currently available only as part of Optimum's The John Cassavetes Collection boxed set.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie remains a key work in John Cassavetes’ oeuvre as it marked the first time in which he adapted his style to the rigours of genre filmmaking. There had been the underrated Too Late Blues in the early sixties, but as a studio movie starring Bobby Darin it was understandably governed by other concerns. Being more personal, the results in Chinese Bookie are understandably more interesting, yet the film shouldn’t be considered, in this incarnation at least, as a thriller or a gangster film. Rather, what we have here is still undoubtedly a Cassavetes film, one which offers a stark portrait of a dejected man riddled with debt and struggling to maintain a near lifeless strip club. Unmarried and without children, his greying temples suggest nothing more than middle aged impotence.

Indeed, the significance of the character study should not be understated as it is this which kickstarts the ‘plot’. Though it’s made clear that Ben Gazzara’s character has a gambling problem, it is only when trying to assert his masculinity by impressing some of his girls at a poker club that he incurs a huge debt and gets mixed up with the mob. As the title would suggest, he is then set up to perform the titular task as a means of clearing the sum.

Unsurprisingly, the attachment of Cassavetes’ style to the gangster film results in some notable genre subversion. In some cases this is more conscious than others – note how the scoring becomes less prominent as the film progress so that by the time it most greatly resembles a thriller, this element no longer exists – and as such the subtler details prove more effective. Particularly strong is the manner in which the director’s favouring of lengthy scenes only serves to enhance the tension and suspense; we know, for example, that when Gazzara is pulled into a car full of hoods, Cassavetes is going to keep us there for a long time. Moreover, the approach also serves to make the various gangsters that little bit more knowable. Whereas such results are only yielded through the epic (The Godfather) or the television series (The Sopranos), here we escape their usual activities and instead focus in on the ordinary. Indeed, if they could be summed up in one word then it would be, simply, ordinary.

That said, Cassavetes’ attentions are far more wide-ranging than this and he also gains plenty of mileage out of the club itself. Whatever veneer of class or style Gazzara may think it has is slowly stripped away with an eye which recalls the approach of Nick Broomfield’s earliest works. By holding onto the scenes, any sense of fun or entertainment – which should be integral to such a place – is instead replaced by the sad and the pathetic, merely straining at respectability.

In this respect The Killing of a Chinese Bookie could also be seen as having certain affinities with the film noir inasmuch as its environs clearly match those who reside in it. And in combining the atmosphere and the characters it is here where Cassavetes and genre filmmaking meet head on. The dejection which Gazzara exudes infuses the whole film, yet we also get the impression that the atmosphere is also exuding its own influence on him, perhaps even controlling him. Just as John Garfield, say, was seemingly as vulnerable to the nightmarish elements of noir as he was to Lana Turner, so too Gazzara really has no choice. And it’s this sour realisation – especially in conjunction with his final scene – that makes Chinese Bookie all the more forceful.

Note that this is a review of John Cassavetes’ initial 1976 cut of the film. For a discussion of how it differs from the 1978 re-edit, please see the review devoted to that piece.

The Disc

As should be expected by now The Killing of a Chinese Bookie as part of Optimum’s The John Cassavetes Collection looks absolutely fine on disc. The rough edges remain, as should be expected, whilst we’re treated to an anamorphic transfer, superb clarity and rich colours. As with both Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, the only complaint is some intermittent unsightly flickering. As for the soundtrack, we get the film in its original mono (spread over the front two channels) and without any noticeable flaws. It remains continually crisp and only slips into the inaudible when Cassavetes intends it too. Likewise, the score is similarly well represented.

As for extras, this extended version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie - here gaining its first home video appearance in the UK – comes with a commentary on selected scenes by Al Ruban and Peter Bogdanovich. Touching on what they feel are the key moments, their chat emulates that which accompanied their discussion over Faces’ alternative opening. As such Bogdanovich largely asks the questions whilst Ruban provides the anecdotes. It makes for an informative listen, though surprisingly the fact that this is an alternate edit of the film – and the lesser seen one at that – is given scant attention.

As with the main feature, the commentary comes without optional subtitles, English or otherwise.

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