#316 The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie
(1976, John Cassavetes)
“I’ve got a golden life. Got the world by the balls”
I’ve encountered John Cassavetes exactly twice before on this blog in two films from 1968, one starring him and another directed by him. In Rosemary’s Baby, he had the dubious honour of casually announcing that he’d raped his wife in her sleep, and his movie Faces was a drab, meandering mess of a movie that said nothing and spent too long doing that. So my hopes aren’t exactly high for The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt.
Ben Gazzara plays strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, who goes out to celebrate being free of a mob debt and ironically ends up back in debt to the mob due to gambling too much of his money away. In order to pay his debt, the mob demands that Vitelli take on a hitman job, to kill a Chinese bookie who’s been causing problems for the mafia.
The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is a tried-and-tested formula. Mafia threats, innocent bystanders, strip club owners and the depiction of a moody underworld that’s easy to end up on the wrong side of and end up in real trouble. It has the potential to be a tense, moody thriller and doesn’t need to really set itself up too much because it’s a familiar setting.
So why, then, is The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie such a dull movie? The ingredients are right throughout, after all. The atmosphere is moody and oppressive and presents a seedy underworld where even the good guys (such as our “hero” Vitelli) are slimy sleazeballs with a questionable attitude towards other human beings. The elements of the story are familiar and simple, and the title is intriguing.
But while the atmosphere is right, the performances are not. It honestly feels like everyone involved in this movie couldn’t be bothered to make it. There isn’t a single instance of an actor putting any kind of conviction into their performance and, quite frankly, everyone just looks bored. And if the cast are this bored, how do you think I felt as the viewer?
What’s more, the mafia themselves didn’t feel all that threatening. They barely appeared in the film, and when they did they kind of shuffled around in the background not really doing anything or appearing particularly menacing. They spent an awful lot of time hanging around outside Vitelli’s club, not really bothering anyone who came in or out of the establishment and generally being flat.
And let’s talk about the club scenes, shall we? It certainly didn’t help that there was a large focus on the club’s performances, which were little more than end-of-pier entertainment with boobs. They failed to be rip-roaring camp because everyone was so disinterested in what they were doing, and they failed to be erotic strip shows because the women taking part in the shows were usually doing incredibly non-erotic things like singing badly or hanging around a slimy magician type who talked a lot about Paris. The movie seemingly seemed to add these scenes for flavour, but then failed to spend any time on choreography or effort. It certainly does a good job at showing Vitelli’s club as a sad, pointless place to be, but it also gives way too much screen time to all of this, and makes the movie a sad, pointless place to be as well.
Plot-wise, the movie doesn’t fare much better. This movie is called The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie but we don’t find out why until far too late in the movie’s running time. We don’t even see any Chinese characters until the actual assassination attempt, and even then there’s so little indication of why the Chinese and the Italian mafia are so threatening to each other that it’s impossible to care about why the “bookie” needs to be killed.
There are also elements of betrayal and conspiracy, but these things are communicated so poorly that there is simply no tension, no driving momentum. It’s a sad man doing things because some drab men told him to do them. He gets chased after the assassination attempt but it moves at such a slow pace it makes me wonder why everyone has leg problems.
The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is pretty much a non-entity of a movie. It covers no new ground and has nothing to say. It’s boring and fails to engage the audience. I don’t know about the Chinese bookie, but my patience was certainly killed.
Starring Ben Gazzara, Timothy Agoglia Carey & Seymour Cassel
Written by John Cassavetes
Produced by Al Ruban
Music by Bo Harwood
Cinematography by Mitchell Breit & Al Ruban
Edited by Tom Cornwell
Favourite Scene: There wasn’t one.
Scene That Bugged Me: Basically every instance of a club performance.
Watch it if: You like drab men lazily trying to be dark and moody
Avoid it if: You want a tense thriller about mob hits