Film Review: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Release Date: February 15th, 1976
Directed by: John Cassavetes
Written by: John Cassavetes
Music by: Bo Harwood
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Agoglia Carey, Seymour Cassel, Azizi Johari, James Lew

Faces Distribution, 135 Minutes

Review:

“I’m a club owner. I deal in girls.” – Cosmo Vitelli

This has been in my Criterion Channel queue for far too long. In fact, it was in my FilmStruck queue before that service went kaput and Criterion struck out on their own with their current service in an effort to fill the voice leftover by AT&T killing FilmStruck and crushing the hearts of legit cinephiles that can’t get their fix with crappy Netflix originals.

Anyway, this isn’t a rant about the loss of FilmStruck, I already talked about that here. This is a review of a pretty solid neo-noir picture directed by the multitalented John Cassavetes.

Cassavetes doesn’t star in his own picture, though. Instead, the film is led by Ben Gazzara, who became one of Cassavetes’ favorite actors to work with. This was the second of their three pictures.

Gazzara was fucking dynamite in this as his character, Cosmo Vitelli, a cabaret club owner with a serious gambling problem. He finds himself in great debt and with that, to square up his bill with the mafia run casino, he is pushed into murdering a Chinese bookie that is cutting into the mob’s business.

Obviously, he doesn’t want to commit murder but when he drags his feet, the mob does their damnedest to make him see things their way. So he does eventually go to the Chinese booker’s home to begrudgingly kill the mob’s rival. Things don’t go as smoothly as he’d like and I’ll leave it at that because I don’t want to spoil the details.

There are a lot more layers to this than just the main plot thread, though. We get to really know this character and see the world and his profession through his eyes. He’s a nice, likable guy that loves women, loves the nightlife but finds himself in way over his head because he couldn’t stop himself from digging his own hole.

This is a great character study piece while also being a solid 1970s neo-noir picture. And with the neo-noir style, you obviously get a film that’s visually vivid and beautiful to look at in spite of the gritty, dirty city that these characters operate in.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a really unique and genuine movie. Cassavetes wrote a compelling story with a really likable character and his direction behind the camera was executed tremendously well.

While I don’t know if this is something I’d revisit in the future, unless I was showing it to another neo-noir fan, it still provided me with a worthwhile and entertaining experience. It also showed me that Ben Gazzara is a better actor than I’d previously given him credit for only seeing him in smaller roles and as the baddie in Road House.

Rating: 7.75/10