Art As Masculinity In “The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie” (1976)

[This review of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie first appeared in the AUTOMACHINATION literary magazine.]

Though I’d been watching John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie quite regularly the past decade – had reared my second childhood upon it, as a fact – I only recently understood the import of a key anti-noir scene. As Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) breaks into a triad compound, he is not confronted by a benumbed gangster taunting him to shoot, but by an old man splashing water in a pool. It is as if he has regressed to adolescence, down to his childlike interest in the much younger woman bathing him. This much I’d already known, but this time, I realized Benny Wu’s (Soto Joe Hugh) mumbling wasn’t mere sound. “I’m real bad. Real bad,” Wu suddenly confesses to his killer. “I’m so sorry.” The triad is then shot dead, yet it is not so much the death that is tragic as is Cosmo’s inability to digest it: he was sent with a task, and is thus precluded from engaging with its largest moment. And how could it be otherwise? Time is money, the film suggests, whether it’s the time it takes Cosmo to get out of debt, the unconscious zeal with which he is once again indebted, or the fact that, as a private enterprise, criminality is as wasteful as any other – down to its paring away of “useless” self-indulgence, like pondering death and death’s dimensions. The triad knows he has wasted his life, but has been so pampered by hierarchy and habit that waste is the only logical outcome. Having lived transactionally, even his young lover shows no emotion and quietly slips out after he is killed, for she seems to understand this was but a business decision among a thousand other business decisions which may or may not erupt in mayhem.

Now, it would be wrong to blanch The Killing of a Chinese Bookie of its totalizing “point”, yet there is so much else moving in and out of the film’s outskirts that reducing it to aphorism is even worse. John Cassavetes plays with subterfuge, tension, winding trails that lead to dead ends and dead ends that fraction into avenues, down to the film’s enigmatic title. I mean, who is the ‘Chinese bookie’, if not – as Mort (Seymour Cassel) suggests then denies – triad boss Benny Wu? Yet the triad is too powerful to be a mere bookmaker and has almost certainly engaged in murder, himself. If anything, the film’s ‘bookie’ is both concept and adumbration, and it is telling that critics, who panned the film upon its release, never bothered to analyze its inner mythos. “They’re very resentful,” an Italian gangster says of the triads, “because they don’t know whether they’re Chinese-American, or American-Chinese…” Of course, the gangsters are shown to be correct – Wu has failed to cultivate a meaningful life-purpose – but the irony is that their words are just as applicable to themselves. They are Italians forced to cede ground to an Other, and, not having much except some ground to cede, their identities thus turn. Yes, the triads are one such fulcrum, but Cosmo Vittelli quickly becomes another. A killer far more capable and efficient than the gangsters (another of the film’s enigmas, though still in-character and believable), he is also the owner of a burlesque club, LA’s Crazy Horse West, that Mort genuinely likes and respects for ‘deeper’ reasons he cannot verbalize. But, business is as ever, and Mort is all too willing to prey upon Cosmo’s weakness for gambling. After Cosmo racks up yet another debt, Mort has no issue with sending him to what he expects to be his death, thus taking over his club, despite the fact that Cosmo is as close to being ‘a great artist’ as a guy like Mort can ever hope to come across. “He was the heaviest cat on the West Coast, Cosmo,” Mort says of the triad. “You did what we couldn’t do.” In this way, Mort conflates one kind of respect – the grudging respect between talented, artful killers – with a respect for Art itself, thus putting the two at parity merely because they are both masculine drives, yet failing to understand where and why the two diverge.

It might sound strange to place questions of art and existential purpose at the film’s center, but The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is wholly dependent on such, propelling an otherwise good genre film into one of the richest documents from and beyond its era. Although Cosmo Vittelli is of the underworld, he is at least in part motivated by larger reasons – no different than if he were some corporate hack pushing fentanyl while yearning for meaning and self-expression. In one comic scene, Cosmo uses a pay phone to call the Crazy Horse West shortly before killing Benny Wu: “Sonny. How could that be the song with only two girls on stage?” he argues, getting more and more absorbed in the show’s convolutions. “What number is it? Is it the Paris number? The Paris number! For Christ’s sake, you’ve been at the place seven years, you don’t know what the Paris number is?” It is almost as if he has forgotten that he’s carrying out an assassination, for the entire point of the hit is to continue financing what he considers his “art”. Indeed, Ben Gazzara once reflected on what the film says of John Cassavetes, himself, insisting that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a metaphor for the director’s financial and creative struggles. This might very well be, but it is interesting to note that, while Cassavetes was a great artist who truly believed in his work and sacrificed accordingly, Cosmo Vittelli is at best a man who painstakingly designs strip-shows, thus becoming a stand-in for a great artist by also becoming the sum and system of a work ethic that elides the ‘what’ in favor of waxing philosophical on a tangential ‘why’.

Cosmo Vitelli's set design in John Cassavetes's "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie", with the spotlight on his girlfriend.

Cosmo Vitelli’s set design, with the spotlight on his girlfriend.

This is, at minimum, a unique tactic on the part of John Cassavetes, and one that allows a deeper exploration of Cosmo Vittelli as both character and person. Above all, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a character-driven work, which explains some of the hostility from genre geeks demanding a ‘faster’ and less meditative film. Yet for an adult who gets lost in personality arcs rather than plot machinations, there is nothing quite like watching Cosmo be blotted in and out of existence by the film’s visual and narrative cues. It begins, for example, with Cosmo on his way to resolve a debt, but the camera stays on Ben Gazzara’s body and face, totally ignoring the man he is paying. To celebrate, Cosmo takes a cab to a bar where he demands drinks, claps loudly, and dances with himself while Bo Harwood’s “I’m Almost In Love With You” plays: “I’m almost in love with you/ I nearly miss you/ I’ve hardly seen you/ When I do, I get a feeling that something should be there…” It’s an oddly bittersweet carousal, as if Cosmo does not really believe it, as if he knows he will be responsible for yet another fuckup. The lyrics refract his self-image, the dancing his loneliness, and the cabbie, now trying to get a drunk Cosmo out of the bar, is surprised to find the man has already forgotten his name. Indeed, for Cosmo is stranded in his own thoughts, forever apart from others, where even his childhood has been gullied away from introspection: “There is no river there,” he says of his current home as the two bullshit about their days swimming around New York City. Things have certainly changed, he seems to think, but have they really? When he visits the “girls” at his club, they sit around as he struggles to get a joke out, his face obscured by a stripper’s elbow or hand. “The market is down,” Cosmo observes, and “women’s fashion is changing – skirts are getting long again…” Note how little John Cassavetes wishes to date this interaction. After all, markets are always up or down, and if skirts are getting long again, the implication is that they will shorten once more in the future. There is thus a stasis in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, both large and small, a stasis of character and of habitat, where even Cosmo’s more minor observations are made to work towards this idea. By film’s end, hours have passed since killing three triads (one of whom shoots him in his side) and two of the white gangsters (including Mort) who forced his hand, and Cosmo, after placating the club patrons for his absence – most of the film’s action happens in one night – goes outside in his bloodied suit to think. Yet the viewer has no clue whether he will die by a bullet wound he does not treat, by gangsters seeking revenge, or whether he will simply be allowed to live unmolested. It is a poetic moment, made more so by the two speeches he delivers right before: a well-scripted pep talk to his strippers and fat male heel, Teddy (‘Mr. Sophistication’, played by Meade Roberts), and the one to his club, taking stock of his work and life, publicly sending off his (now) ex-girlfriend Rachel (Aziz Johari) without resentment, for the implication is that he has let something go. But has he? The final shot shows Teddy, covered in cream, singing: “Scheme a while, and you’re sure to find/ Happiness/ Great success/ All the things you’ve always whined for…” – with no self-consciousness, on Teddy’s part, until a stripper interrupts him with a joke as the audience jeers.

To an attentive viewer, the “scheming” and the “whining”, and especially the pie-cream and the self-seriousness are an extension of Cosmo Vittelli, himself, for while he escapes the most public of these humiliations, there are enough slights against his person that Cosmo must know where he stands. Many of these are at the hands of others – “Oh, yeah, there’s a gold gas card,” a gangster says, mocking his self-professed “triple-A credit rating” – but many more are self-inflicted. “Dom Perignon,” he informs a stripper drinking reluctantly in his car. “It’s the best.” As he pays his first set of debts, he dismisses the creditor thus: “Marty, you’re a lowlife; no offense, but you’ve got no style…” – a clue to Cosmo’s vainglory, for this is the worst insult the man can think of precisely because it is what Cosmo fears within himself. Then, in a unique twist which displays the director’s writing chops, we are introduced to Rachel, whom he seems to treat no differently than any other stripper, and thus do not even realize she’s his girlfriend until she attacks a woman Cosmo tries to bed. This reveals a subtlety which can only be appreciated on a second or third viewing, enriching the film’s characters as its hinge-point. Later, he whines and mopes to Rachel’s mother in an attempt to win her over, thus re-establishing the Cosmo/Teddy connection, and asserting yet again some of the film’s racial commentary. After all, here is a seemingly ‘established’ Italian man, and yet this is not enough to placate a black woman who fears for her daughter’s safety: a point that is never belabored, for Cosmo himself appears unfazed by race in spite of his milieu. It is true that Cosmo Vittelli attempts to launder his own flummery through Art, but I am not so convinced that he is convinced. Yes, he takes his club rather seriously – kills for it, even – but his near-total fixation on himself, on his aesthetics and his self-indulgences, whether they be money, sex, or adulation, suggests that he does not believe in his own permanence. Some viewers might therefore ask: is Cosmo Vittelli happy? But ‘happy’ is a loaded and misleading term – is Cosmo satisfied, with himself, as a person, and the activities he’s engaged in? More to the point: is there a difference between what one does, day in and day out, and what one is? Or is Cosmo – as Dan Schneider suggests – simply repeating a night not unlike other nights he might have had, thus explaining not only his stasis but also the film’s more obscure details, such as Cosmo’s martial expertise? Day in and day out: no better image exists for Art’s near-total consumption of the self, and no better riposte is available against those, like Cosmo Vittelli, who are merely slumming it in a neighborhood to which they do not wish to belong.

A shot from John Cassavetes's "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie", showing Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) and Seymour Cassel staring each other down.

Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel.

Little has been said of how perfectly Ben Gazzara was cast for this role, but who else should have played it? In real life, Ben Gazzara could be almost stereotypically masculine, along with the excesses inherent to such, for menschen (as wives often learn) need space to brood, space to scheme, even if nothing comes of these procedures. And so, while The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is full of scenes where Cosmo Vittelli is lost in thought, there are just as many where he has come to a decision, and others wherein things are up for grabs, as the camera subjects him to indignities, cutting off his body and his face and severing his connection even to himself. There’s a hyperrealism to Gazzara’s quirks, and the fact that he was a forty-six-year-old man at the time of the film’s release ensured that he has sexual appeal as well as a gentle disrepair. Too much of the former, and Ben Gazzara would have risked hagiography. Yet too much of the latter might have obscured the stakes of Cosmo’s inner quarrels. It is thus believable that Cosmo, although surrounded by women, treats them less as a harem than as business partners who lean on him for leadership and comfort. “Well, does this mean we all look for a new job?” a stripper asks after his gambling losses. “You know, the only reason I ask, Cosmo, is because I’m only 5’2”, and that’s a couple of inches under the limit. I just don’t know too many places that would hire me.” The women, to Cosmo, aren’t mere dimensions, just as Cosmo isn’t a mere cash-grab to the women. When he tells his patrons that Rachel has “gone on to bigger and better things”, there is little indication that he is being sarcastic, and Ben Gazzara, as actor, makes this clear in his pauses, his sense for gravity. A lesser actor would have rendered Cosmo’s emotions more obvious, and therefore less complex. Gazzara is wise enough to leave the viewer thinking of a future and subsequence which may never come, for only a man can birth these for himself. Yet Cosmo is too flawed, too limited to secure his own world, much less the worlds to come.

Ben Gazzara died a year after I decided to suck up some discomforts, my (still) insatiable hoarding of time, aloneness, and other resources, and branch out into film – died, in fact, on the day I finished writing my first novel. Not realizing the implications, I modeled a character on Cosmo Vittelli, giving him just enough magnetism for the book’s fatherless child to admire, yet for an adult writer to distrust. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is full of mothers, whether it’s Rachel’s mother, or Cosmo’s, or a young woman suckling a triad too old and befuddled to be anything but a son. By contrast, fathers, if they’re there at all, have a complicated relationship with their families. “My father was a nice guy,” one gangster tells Cosmo. “You should have met my father…He promised me one thing. He said, ‘Hey – don’t let them bury me.’” And why the hell not? Such is the cry of a man who has failed to achieve, who has earned no life in the afterlife, and thus clings to a material heir for his posterity. He was a good father, the gangster suggests, but for whatever reason, that wasn’t enough. Is it ever? Cosmo thinks not, and so clings to his club and to his own dissatisfaction. He is too distracted by life, if not to think – men brood, men scheme – then to pursue. And this is where men wander all afield, squandering so much masculinity until none of it is left for Man.

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