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USA 1976/1978
Directed by
John Cassavetes
144 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie

Cassavetes’ foray into the gangster genre is such a good story with strong and interesting characters that one is prone to wish that it had been made in a more conventional way (interestingly, the story was developed by Cassavetes with Martin Scorsese) than in the director’s typically naturalistic, cinema verité style (it bombed at the box office on release pretty much for those reasons). But at the back of one’s mind one also knows that it might have ended up looking any other example of the genre.Instead we have a laconic, charmingly offbeat story, a kind of existential Godardian comedy about an iconically cool male protagonist.

The latter comes to us thanks to a completely winning performance by Cassavetes’ regular, Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vitelli, owner of a strip joint who has for many years has being making payments to the Mob (presumably for an unofficial "licence") and at last has made his final payment. The joint may be crummy but Cosmo’s got style, or so he, in classic small-timer way, thinks. However when he decides to celebrate with a night out with his three star strippers, things go wrong and he finds himself back in debt to the Mob, who offer him an out if he does a hit on a Chinese bookie. Which he does, but then things go REALLY wrong.

Cassavetes take all this at a genial pace (those with less time on their hands may choose to watch the 109m version) with little of the bad ass thuggery that is typical of the genre, instead throwing in large slabs of Cosmo’s cheap cabaret show hosted by Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts), an eccentric character who purports to take his uninterested audience to romantic, imaginary places and croaks a tuneless version of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" as the topless girls wiggle and jiggle their lady bits (the combination of main story and scene-setting fills recalling Cassavetes' first film, Shadows, 1959). Cosmo presides over this two-bit farce as if to the manor born, imagining himself as a big player and thereby sowing the seeds his own downfall. The result, often described as a "neo-noir" film is a distaff masterpiece of the gangster genre. BH

FYI: Originally released in 1976 at 135 minutes, Cassavetes re-edited it into a more accessible 109m version in 1978.

DVD Extras: Stills Gallery. Available as part of Shock’s excellent 7 disc JOHN CASSAVETES COLLECTION that includes also Shadows, Faces, A Woman Under The Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (both the 108m and 135m versions) and Opening Night in new transfers. Also included is the documentary, A Constant Forge - The Life and Art of John Cassavetes by Charles Kiselyak and a booklet of recent articles about the life and work of Cassavetes. Coming in at a total runtime of 945m this set will be a must-have for anyone interested in independent cinema.

Available from: Shock Entertainment




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