I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

“$23,000 is a lot of money!”: John Cassavetes and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

by Anthony Galli
Jan. 20, 2013
Who is this guy? Or, as Barnardo famously asked at the beginning of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Who’s there?”

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie opens with Cosmo Vitelli stepping onto the sidewalk just outside of the strip club he owns, the Crazy Horse West, to console his doorman for the lack of business. “It’s alright Vince, it’ll pick up,” Cosmo tells his doorman, “We’ll have a big night.” The doorman nods in deference to his boss, removing the cigar from his mouth and folding his hands in front of himself out of respect. As we are introduced to Cosmo Vitelli through his little pep talk to the strip club doorman, we seem to encounter a compassionate man, a boss who genuinely cares for his employees and will take the time to share a kind word or two. But there is something in Cosmo’s resigned demeanor, in his hesitation as he walks past the club’s tawdry signage and glittery Eiffel Tower replica, in the lost look he gives the camera, that says the pep talk was more for himself than for his employee. No, something is wrong in Cosmo’s factory, and despite his weak reassurances to his doorman, Cosmo seems like the person most in need of assurance.

We are introduced to Cosmo properly a scene or two later as he dons his emcee hat at the nightclub, killing time between acts with a little stand-up routine to keep his crowd seated and drinking. He also emphasizes his importance in the productions that his crowd is enjoying, informing them, “My name is Cosmo Vitelli…I am the owner of this joint…I, uh, chose the numbers…I direct them, I arrange them…You have any complaints, you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.” In essence, Cosmo is marking his territory as the man behind the curtain, and making his presence felt as the creator who pulls the strings in this underground wonderland. A man in charge, a man in control. Unfortunately, as it happens so many times throughout the film, Cosmo’s audience isn’t having it. He is heckled and disrespected behind his curtain, and yet, it doesn’t even seem to faze him.

It would be easy to get the impression of Cosmo as just a down on his luck guy worthy of our compassion and sympathy, a hard-working entrepreneur who built his business by hand from scratch, and who is in the middle of an unfortunate drop in business. But once one learns more about his life, more about how he conducts his relationships, more about his overall personality, it’s hard for one not to come away thinking; what a dick! Who is this guy? We learn that Cosmo is originally from New York, so in the punishing sunlight glare of mid-1970’s Los Angeles, he is definitely a fish out of water. As a business owner on the Sunset Strip, next door to the famous Gazzari’s no less, Cosmo should be comfortable in his skin, like he belongs where he is and is part of a community. Instead, what we see is a man constantly looking over his shoulder, his paranoid, furtive glances attempting to detect the danger lurking in every shadow.

With The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, maverick independent filmmaker John Cassavetes transposed his trademark conflicted character studies into the genre experiment of an old-fashioned gangster film. Instead of the classic film noir conventions of short, sharp cuts and rapid fire dialogue, Cassavetes employs his documentary-like techniques of hand held cameras and exaggeratedly long takes to expose the inherent seediness and desperation of Cosmo Vitelli’s life. The film also includes familiar faces from other Cassavetes projects, such as the masterful Ben Gazarra as the downtrodden Cosmo, the reliably versatile Seymour Cassel as a particularly smarmy mobster, and Cassavetes’ longtime producer and occasional cinematographer Al Ruban as another gangster. Chinese Bookie also includes a hilariously over the top performance by veteran character actor, and the genius behind 1962’s The World’s Greatest Sinner, Timothy Carey, and, yes, that is Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’s one and only Haji giving it her all at the Crazy Horse West.

In Cassavetes’ hands, the traditional gangster film becomes a psychological character study that examines familiar Cassavetes themes like masculinity, brotherhood, family, loyalty, and betrayal. Ultimately, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a film about survival, asking, for example, how far would one go to save his own neck? Is it possible to sink so low in your moral compass that there is another bottom awaiting you after you have already hit rock bottom? Is it possible to become so corrupt in one’s daily dealings that he cannot recognize when he is being pulled further into an eternally ravenous vortex of depravity? Cosmo Vitelli is alcoholic, cannot control his gambling, and exhibits no emotional attachment to anyone, despite his outwardly gregarious front. He has rendered himself an impotent wizard in a low-rent, cardboard Oz, fooling himself into believing that things are going to get better, when his own insecure, shaking hands only make matters worse and worse.

Ben Gazzara noted that during the filming of Chinese Bookie, he was having difficulty coming to terms with the motivations of the Cosmo Vitelli character until John Cassavetes broke down crying, explaining that the mobsters represented those people who live to ruin one’s dreams. Naturally, this idea parallels Cassavetes’ career, as he struggled and scavenged by every means necessary to create his abbreviated body of art independent of the Hollywood studio system. Cassavetes financed his films himself to retain artistic control and to avoid the compromises to his work he would have had to endure by accepting big Hollywood cash. There is a scene toward the end of the film when the most unpredictable mobster, Flo, played by Timothy Carey, is supposed to double-cross Cosmo and kill him in a warehouse. Strangely, Flo turns out to be a social conscience for the film, railing against the despicable state that mankind has created for itself. Somewhat misquoting the original statement, Flo decrees, “That jerk Karl Marx said that opium is the religion of the people, but I got news for him…it’s money, money. That’s Jesus Christ.” In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, John Cassavetes seems to be asking, what price should the individual pay to sustain his small patch of land, and at what cost?

Works Cited:

Ben Gazzara: 1930-2012 and Remembering Cassavetes

Did You Know?

Caring For Art: Caring About Art

Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.