While walking in midtown last week my partner and I started talking about my addiction to art and independent film. “Like Cassavetes?” he remarked. Well, sort of, I mean I know I’m supposed to honor John Cassavetes as the godfather of independent film in America, but I have tended to put him in the box he built for himself with his acting roles in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby. Last night I rented his 1976 film, Killing of a Chinese Bookie and settled down to watch his one and only gangster movie, one destined to live on in the Criterion Collection.
When I was finished I ran the star’s name through Wikipedia — Ben Gazzara — one of those iconic character actors of the 60s and 70s that I thought I knew so well but ultimately didn’t until I watched Bookie.
I was also surprised and sad to learn Gazzara died last month, February 2012.
I’m not one to judge if Gazzara’s crowning achievement was Killing of a Chinese Bookie, nor am I familiar enough with Cassavetes to declare it his masterpiece. But the film came relatively late in their careers (Cassavetes died in the 80s at 59 from cirrhosis of the liver) and was a commercial flop thanks to the beating it took at the hands of the critics.
Forty years later and I was riveted. It is the simple story of a preening strip club owner, Cosmo Vitelli, who finally gets out of debt, pays off the shylocks, then celebrates with his trio of loyal strippers by blowing $23,000 at a mob owned gambling club only to slide back into the hell of indebtedness. The gangsters (beautifully and quirkily played long before Scorcese borrowed them for Good Fellas and Casino and Jim Jarmusch in Ghost Dog) give Gazzara an option to erase his debt. Kill a Chinese bookie in Chinatown.
Cassavetes was not one for action scenes and bang-bang sequences, but he nails it during the assassination of the bookie and the resulting mess as the original gangsters try to rub out Vitelli. The art of the film is inside of the Crazy Horse West club, a Fellinesque (the most cliche adjective in film writing) setting of grotesque nudity and humor delivered by the awesome Mister Sophistication, a louche, sad, emcee that some critics say is Cassavetes himself, in all his artistic despair. Remember, Cassavetes acted in B-movies to make the money to make his art films: shooting them over several years when he could afford to, casting his friends and wife (Gena Rowlands) with no promise of payment, and paying for them out of his own pocket rather than take on an investor who might demand changes.
Phillip Lopate wrote a great appreciation of the movie in the Criterion Collection’s online film blog, Current.