Long before "The Sopranos" reminded us that sleazy Italian hustlers have feelings too, there was John Cassavetes' "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie," which might be the quietest, most sensitive crime film ever made. This existential take on noir and gangsters is about a strip club owner who does a terrible thing to pay off a gambling debt, in the process disabusing us of the Hollywood lie that all crooks are charming and all murders are tragic.
Club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) fashions himself the impresario of the seedy strip joint Crazy Horse West, on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. This is the L.A. of "Boogie Nights," except without all the cocaine, partying, and fun. Sure, Cosmo swills champagne and rides around town with his "girls" in a chauffeured Cadillac, but his alcoholic streak comes off more as anxious self-medication than perpetual joie de vivre. While Cosmo postures as a showman, dishing out hundred-dollar champagne ("Dom-Per-ig-non," he points out) to people who prefer vodka on the rocks and saying things like "I'm a club owner. I deal in girls," his contrived persona flakes off as the film moves along.
All the set pieces ooze genre, but Cassavetes approaches his slimy noir characters with a unique sensitivity. This is a movie about gangsters and strippers with almost no action scenes, zero snappy dialogue, not all that much nudity and as much crying as violence. It's like real life, full of nothing moments, mostly spent waiting and watching. In the few action scenes he grants us, Cassavetes edits the actual violence out—obscuring actions by cutting abruptly and flailing the camera through dim lighting. Punches are thrown off screen and we cut immediately to a person on the ground. The few times a gun is fired, we cut to a face reacting, often that of a blank, expressionless bystander.
Cosmo fashions a tight view of the kind of man he wants to be. "Choose a personality," he tells his night club performers in the dressing room, like he's their liquored-up dad, a shtick that approaches Jay Gatsby levels of insecure generosity and phony nouveau riche charm. But Cassavetes' camera tears this façade to shreds, doggedly holding close ups on Cosmo's face that betray how burdened he is by keeping up appearances.
Cassavetes' camera is patient. It holds on faces, reactions, and gestures; the people talk about nothing and often at the same time as each other; the camera whips around crowded rooms, catching bits of idle chatter, performers getting ready, but almost always landing on Cosmo. Just as documentary filmmaking proposes that spending time patiently watching someone in their natural habitat will yield insight, Cassavetes' charge is that even Cosmo—obsessed with banal showmanship and fatally naïve—has emotional depth to be dredged.
"The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" strikes notes at the nooks and crannies of noir that the masterfully made genre classics about greasy schmucks gloss over. Compare Cosmo, who says things like "I don't feel sexual right now" and awkwardly fails to pin an orchid to the dress of one of his dancers, to Joe Pesci's Tommy in "Goodfellas," who smashes a glass in someone's face for no reason. The virile, hyper-masculine explosions of Tommy ("I'm funny how?") are replaced here with quiet moments of finger tapping, eye rubbing, and nervous grinning. These mobsters (the ones that squeeze Cosmo for his gambling debt) are so fucking boring and bureaucratic that Cosmo's feeble, preening attempts at performing whatever tacky, faux suave, Hugh Hefner harem routine he's pulling start to seem charming in contrast. He at least has some kind of integrity.
In some ways, Cosmo recalls Cassavetes. The naturalistic visual style of the film both distanced "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" from the conventions and clichés of genre and effectively distinguished his films as an alternative school of filmmaking far more radical than most contemporary 'indie' directors would dare to attempt. Impatient with its slow, observational style, critics panned the film when it was released, declaring it indulgent and pointless. Unflappable as always, Cassavetes and his "production company" (ten assistants) personally phoned theatre operators to distribute the film. Many of his films were shot in his house and edited in his garage. On set, actors worked as camera assistants and grips, and often pitched in their own money to projects. Cassavetes mortgaged his house to make 1968's "Faces" rather than pitch to Hollywood producers—he put it all on the line.
At the Crazy Horse West, Cosmo serves as the "creative director," arranging and directing the strikingly avant-garde numbers performed by the house team, "Mr. Sophistication and his Delovelies." The show is a delightfully off-beat burlesque featuring "Mr. Sophistication," an older man dressed either like a clown or a magician who attends to Cosmo's harem and sings old Broadway tunes in a mumbling, off-kilter voice ("I can't give you anything but love, ba-by") while the women occasionally flash the crowd. How anyone gets off to this shit is beyond me—I can't imagine a boner killer worse than the "Imagination" song sung here—but the bizarre camp of it all is another of Cosmo's oddly charming quirks.
It bears repeating: This is a gangster movie—but one that staunchly refuses to pander either to bawdy genre tropes or refined film festival tastes, and was consequently shunned both by mainstream audiences and critics. But there's nothing esoteric or intellectually alienating about this film. Its subjects are women who strip and men who hustle (and at the end of the day, it's the women who seem to have more integrity and honesty about what they do). These are people with a lot on the line and just watching them go about their day is pretty fucking riveting. Cosmo, the romantic egoist of the weirdest strip-joint around, is a man overdue for a tragic demise (read the title before you get mad at me for spoilers), but watching him unravel is a fascinating look into the depths of delusion and pretension that carry many of us forward each day.
"The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie," directed by John Cassavetes, screens at the Charles Theater on June 11, 12, and 15.