Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) owns a burlesque strip club in California which he is very proud of, believing there is nothing quite like it in quality anywhere in the area. He helps to stage the shows himself, which often consist of the audience being regaled by Mr Sophistication (Meade Roberts) in song as the girls disrobe around him in comic sketches, and although they have a loyal gathering for this, the money they are making could be a lot better. Not that Cosmo is bothered, he floats along on a cloud of his own satisfaction - that is until the gangsters he owes money to for the upkeep of the club start asking him for more.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is probably the most divisive of John Cassavetes' works as writer and director, it seems you either regard it as a masterpiece of keen observation or find it screamingly boring and one of the hardest films to sit through of all time. He seemed to take the criticism on board back in the seventies, as once a two-and-a-quarter hour version had briefly been in circulation in 1976 he took heed of the complaints and his own dissatisfaction with it and recut it to make it shorter and snappier, though he was never going to win over the naysayers for they had already made up their minds about him.
However, the fact remains he could have re-edited this down to a ten minute short and it was going to be difficult to get along with, as these may have been movie gangsters he was dealing with, and there were nods to the genre throughout be it in the extortion rackets or the shootouts, but he was more interested in what they would do as antagonists to a true dreamer like Cosmo. Gazzara was ideal for this role, although he reportedly had trouble getting his head around it, but his louche, slightly menacing charm meant that you could not envisage anybody else negotiating the heavily improvised atmosphere of a Cassavetes movie in a leading role such as this. So for Gazzara fans, it was a must-see, just as much for fans of the director.
Everyone else? Hmm, not easy to say since the feeling of a story, such as it was, getting away from the talent was plain for all to see, sometimes in the acting where it seemed those onscreen were missing or waiting for their cues, sometimes in the editing where the less enamoured might well be wondering why we were being exposed to scene after scene of apparent rambling and if this was a thriller, why wasn't it more thrilling? Cassavetes was more captivated by the position in life of a man who dares to dream, but is confronted at all sides by those who would wish to turn that into a nightmare: you can understand that Cosmo represented himself, and the gangsters represented all those who got in the way of his idealised creative expression.
And the hit on the Chinese bookie of the title which Cosmo is made to carry out would be those acting roles Cassavetes took strictly for the money to fund efforts such as this, often reluctantly but what was he to do when those movies of his own were so unpopular, certainly compared to stuff like The Dirty Dozen, Rosemary's Baby or The Fury in which he appeared, but spoke so readily to his own talent and freedom in putting across his view of the world? If that did not win you over, then there were plenty of unusual touches you could not imagine anyone else including here, most obviously that strip club which is almost comically sinister and gloomy, and not intentionally either, with Mr Sophistication tunelessly intoning his showtunes as the strippers played peek-a-boo in negligees and underwear: who the hell would be a regular patron there? Adding to the weirdness was Timothy Carey as the gang boss, always a curious presence and effortlessly threatening in a cheery fashion. Russ Meyer fans would be pleased to see Haji, too. Other than that, well, it was a bit dull. Music by Bo Harwood.