Got the world by the balls.
It’s a wild beginning with Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) paying off a guy (Al Ruban‘s Marty) we assume let him borrow money to create his now successful club. Fast-forward to him introducing his seedy establishment’s main act in Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) and the naked girls the audience has paid to see. Fast-forward again to one last payment to Marty. And give us one more to show Cosmo picking up Alice (Alice Friedland), Margo (Donna Gordon), and Rachel (Azizi Johari) in a limousine before taking them to a poker game wherein he thinks he has unlimited credit until finding himself twenty-three large in the hole. My neck hurt from the whiplash and I had no clue what to think. Thankfully that’s also when things started coming into focus.
This is the 1978 director’s cut of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—John Cassavetes‘ do-over upon disliking the original version that bombed out of theaters just seven days after it debuted. With almost thirty minutes excised to help streamline the unwieldy collection of performances by Mr. Sophistication that I can only imagine become tedious very quick, many complain the biggest difference comes from this introduction. Supposedly that first cut let us know that Marty was a bookie and that cash was a debt from gambling. This knowledge also arrives with an impromptu meeting of Mort Weil (Seymour Cassel), another bookie who runs the aforementioned poker game and apparently promised that unlimited credit. So the trajectory from debt-free to high roller makes a lot more sense.
That’s not to say Cassavetes was wrong to take his scissors to it. Leaving Mort unknown actually helps disguise a double-cross yet to come. The problem therefore lies in the director being unable to reshoot scenes that would lend the progression more fluidity. He may only keep what we need, but he wasn’t able to disguise the fact that other information was missing. The resulting herky-jerky path takes us out of the experience and renders Cosmo a weird curiosity ruled by stupidity instead of hidden motivations. But once this latest debt puts him in Mort, Flo (Timothy Carey), Phil (Robert Phillips), The Accountant (John Kullers), and The Boss’ (Morgan Woodward) pocket (a bookie consortium of sorts), Cosmo’s truth is laid bare. He’s now given agency above plot progression.
We desperately needed this shift because Gazzara is where the film lives or dies. It’s his internal conflict with love (an intriguing triangle with Rachel as muse and her mother, played by Virginia Carrington, as their supportive rock), fame (using the spotlight at his club to remind everyone that he wrote and choreographed these acts as works of performance art rather than merely hollow displays of breasts), and mortality (willingly rejecting the bookies’ proposition of killing their competitor to wipe the slate clean because he has enough blood on his hands courtesy of the Korean War) that drives the narrative from this point on. Cassavetes therefore quickens the pace to let Cosmo shine as a complex anti-hero caught in a dangerous game of his own making.
The title reveals that any reservations on Cosmo’s part ultimately fall on deaf ears with Mort and Flo eventually roughing him up and putting a gun in his hand to get the job done. What follows is a journey towards Hell with a palpable sense of remorse, fear, and necessity. Cosmo traverses the city streets with a plan to stay as untraceable as possible, his quick thinking getting him out of a few jams when the quiet home of an elderly nobody proves much more heavily trafficked than anticipated. The smiling gambler from the start washes away to reveal the introspectively dramatic self-made man who’s survived being cornered in the past before. It’s the former that the bookies were counting on and the latter who they inevitably face.
There are some obvious performance issues thanks to the budget and amateur actors, but this stuff lends a welcome charm since it generally comes from the strippers who are thus allowed to be natural and innocent by comparison with the otherwise stoically brutal gangsters. We understand Cosmo’s connection to them as that of a family in this thing together—his desire to stay alive and keep the club afloat as much a means to give them a paycheck as assuage his own ego. That’s the world he wishes to reside within if not for his addiction to cards. He’s a guy who would do well in the criminal sector (as evidenced by his efficiency in the task forced upon him) and chooses to travel another path.
That distinction is key once things start to crumble. As his strength and mettle rise to the surface, the brutes that strong-armed him begin showing their cracks. These are men who like to play the game and think they’re smarter than they truly are. They surround themselves with each other in order to boost confidence and ignore personal shortcomings. But there’s a reason they do what they do to Cosmo. There’s a reason we watch them threaten people with words and not guns. Suddenly the preconceptions we have about this type of crime thriller are flipped on their heads to reveal a scenario that’s probably much closer to the truth. In the end nobody is a winner because crime doesn’t actually pay. Some may survive, but never unscathed.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.