Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)

Ben Gazzara stars as Cosmo Vittelli in this rather odd mob movie. John Cassavetes (Rosemary's Baby, Gloria) wrote and directed this story of a strip club owner who gets in trouble with the mob after losing $23,000 playing poker. To eliminate his debt, the mobsters ask him to kill a rival Chinese mobster who is encroaching on their territory.

This movie takes some time to get rolling, but it is a good buildup. You get to know a lot about Cosmo Vittelli without a ton of exposition. You learn about him from the context of the story. The story has a lot of flaws, perhaps, in the logic department. The idea that an LA strip club owner would not have pre-existing mob connections primarily, but it is not your average mob story. For example, in order to collect, rather than threatening to break Cosmo's legs, they make him sign loan contracts; give us our money or we'll take everything you have, legally.

Possibly the best part of the film is the acting. Everyone is very natural. Even the strippers act like real strippers, and while this may seem easy, just think of the last time you were in front of a group of people and had to be yourself. If it is easy, it is because you are good at it. If you are not it is very uncomfortable. One of my favorite performances is Haji, who is only in the film briefly, but gives a really awesome performance. She is not the over-the-top Rosie (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!) or Ruby (Motor Psycho), nor is she mere eye candy as in many of her films. She gets some lines, and decent screen time for a secondary character.

Also notable is Timothy Carey, one of the mobsters. Carey is a favorite of mine who typically plays mobsters, but has such a talent for comedy and drama that he is always interesting. His character, Flo, in this film is like a serious version of his character Vincent in Chesty Anderson U.S. Navy (1976). Carey is able to take the stereotypical movie mobster and still make him seem real. Of course, Gazzara is very good, carrying the role of a proud, beaten man who does not want to admit defeat very nicely. Unfortunately, through much of the film he is the least interesting character, though that does in a lot of ways help build to the climax.

If you are a fan of Mean Streets or other '70s mobster films that are obviously full of method actors and attempt realism instead of guys in shiny suits waving guns around then this is likely worth your time. Warning, I do feel the ending is a bit clumsy, but I think you can see where Cassavetes was trying to go with it. You can catch it streaming on Netflix.

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