The director's cut of John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie omits the first scenes of its longer original cut, beginning with a shot of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) exiting his nightclub. This version immediately establishes its protagonist through mise-en-scène (with the club entrance subtly hinted to be a birth canal and the outside world a terrifying and unfamiliar reality) to the spare dialogue of Cosmo looking at the empty sidewalks around the club and reassuring the bouncer, after a pause, "All right, Vince. It'll pick up." Cosmo retreats back into the safety of the womb, away from a cold and sparsely populated world, but the damage is done: we know him instantly as both an optimist and a craven weakling, putting on a brave face to deal with the world before running back to the one section of it he can control.
This restructuring defines the greatest difference between the original cut, disliked by its director and star, and the taut director's version: the 108-minute edition instantly aligns the camera to the point of view of its slimy yet oddly lovable protagonist, moving the picture away from the more objective group studies Cassavetes made previously. Even the theatrical version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie fits more readily into the director's classic style, its looser structure lending itself to even more asides than are present in the shorter version. But the director's cut ties Cassavetes' unique gift for finding the truth of humanity into a more subjective and personal style of filmmaking, centering on one character and his perception of the world around him rather than the real world's effect on multiple subjects.
That this transition should coincide with the false pretense of the director's move into more commercial filmmaking is all the more fitting. After A Woman Under the Influence scored well with critics and, more notably, audiences, Cassavetes's decision to make a gangster picture like the ones he used to act in to raise money for his own movies must have struck at least some of his fans as a crass exploitation of his Best Director nomination.
To be sure, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie contains all the elements of a crime picture: mafiosos, seedy clubs, gambling dens, etc. However, for all of the director's cut sleekness, the film is not, in either form, about anything so simple as a plot. In that single scene outside the club, the start of one cut and a few minutes in the other, Cassavetes makes this film about Cosmo and how Cosmo acts and reacts to events and how those events affect the way he sees the world and himself.
Through this subjective lensing, Cassavetes paints the underworld of the club backrooms through which Cosmo moves in a sickly, garish hue, using color filters and focal lenses to distort the image. Like a womb, the nightclub that Cosmo owns is dimly lit, oddly colored, stifling and sticky. But it's also safe, a place where Cosmo is the boss instead of the unremarkable schmuck, and he relaxes there the way he never does outside its doors, even before the plot catches up to him.
At the start of the film, Cosmo is in good cheer, paying off a long-standing debt to a loan shark (played, amusingly, by the film's producer), thus liberating himself to enjoy whatever profit the club turns for himself. To celebrate, he takes his three favorite dancers out for the night, only to wind up in a smoky room playing cards. Looking at Cosmo hunched over his hand, you can tell before someone comes to cut off his credit, before creditors come a few hours later to speak to him and long before they mention the $23,000 Cosmo now owes them that the club owner immediately got himself back into trouble. Clearly a cyclical occurrence, this new pile of debt does not openly faze Cosmo, who calmly assures the mobsters that he will repay them. (Interestingly, the gangsters draw up numbered forms and contracts as if legitimate money-lenders.)
Then again, nothing ever fazes Cosmo, which is something he's clearly worked at his entire life. He buries his Sicilian temper under the veneer of half-smiles and politeness, which the camera constantly frames in close-up in a futile attempt to pierce this stone wall. When his lover, Rachael, catches him leering over a nubile young girl auditioning as a dancer, she slaps him, nearly forcing that dormant anger to the surface. But Cassavetes and Gazzara deny us this easy (and premature) explosion, sending the scene into much darker territory where Cosmo keeps his cool by gently but horrifyingly forcing Rachael to drink liquor to calm her down. He must maintain order without outwardly losing his temper, even if his actions seem more sinister for his projected calm. Even his oily flesh appears to be a defense mechanism; everything in this film is oily, even for a '70s film -- if everyone in America had just run sponges over their body, the oil embargo would have never have been an issue -- but Cosmo is especially slick. As such, you can never tell if he's really sweating or just covered in product.
Cassavetes significantly influenced the early work of his friend Martin Scorsese, but Cosmo, and the rest of the picture, finds a bizarre but tantalizing balance between Scorsese's own Mean Streets, with its low-ranking and doomed street rat, and Taxi Driver, with its extremely subjective point of view as a man falls apart and loses himself to rage. The initial camerawork, filled with the director's trademark use of hand-held shots, aligns to the goofier, more lethargically tragic side of the club owner: the camera shakes even more than a typical hand-held shot as Cosmo stumbles from the bar back to his table, as if the camera is bobbing along to the trills of the joint's lounge trumpeter (or swaying to his drunken swagger). When Cosmo meets that lady who wants to try out for the Crazy Horse, Cassavetes cheekily shows her via an eyeline match, which lines up the frame to chiefly capture her breasts; when she auditions, we see only her legs. After the mobsters rope him into killing the titular bookie to repay his debt, however, the shaky movements reflect not just the tossing mental state of its protagonist but the pressure that begins to weigh down on him. The deeper into the situation Cosmo moves, the more he understands his fate, giving the shots both a paranoid, crippling fear and, at times, an odd serenity, a resignation and an acceptance of the world finally closing the tiny pocket it opened for Cosmo.
But no aspect of the mise-en-scène captures the truth beneath Cosmo's impenetrable facade than the show his club puts on every night. The cabaret act is a borderline disaster, shepherded by Cosmo's Felliniesque doppelganger, Teddy, a.k.a. Mr. Sophisticated. A lugubrious, pudgy wannabe, Teddy is Cosmo without the ability to deflect, accepting the audience's abuse as he fitfully attempts to add some talent to the proceedings, introducing song and dance numbers that fall apart instantly as the girls cannot remember their lines and the men in the crowd scream for the breasts to come out already. It's a show so wretched and slapdash that frankly nudity is the only thing that could salvage it, and Teddy somehow looks more confused and out of place when the women finally disrobe than he does trying to marshal them into a "classy" act.
The show is just one aspect of the film that works both as a nod to genre convention as well as a character-driven subversion of it. Even in the tightened version, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie contains numerous asides that appear to take away from the plot even as they serve both the story and Cosmo's own perception of it. On the way to kill the bookie, Cosmo's car breaks down in the middle of the road, an initially humorous "when it rains, it pours" situation made terrifying through Cassevetes' shots of incoming headlights growing brighter and larger than I've ever seen car headlights grow in a rear windshield. But that undercurrent of black comedy bubbles to the surface in the aftermath, as Cosmo goes to call a cab and, while still in the phone booth, calls the club to check in on the show. In the one-sided phone call, Gazzara never shifts the tone of panic and defeat but funnels it into high comedy by asking his workers what number the dancers are on before chewing them out for getting things wrong and for not knowing the show after years of practice ("Is it the Paris number?" he exasperatedly asks, before being forced to explain, "Are their cards on the wall reading 'P-A-R...?' "). The desperate humor, underscored by Cosmo's attempts to keep his calm as panic finally starts to take hold, continues when he goes to a diner to buy hamburgers to feed the bookie's guard dogs, at which point he gets into an argument with a waitress who wants to individually wrap the burgers to prevent a mess while Cosmo testily searches for excuses to just get it all in one greasy sack. None of these scenes is necessary in a strict sense, but they work both in maintaining the tension outside of sheer plot mechanics while continuing to burrow into the protagonist.
Cosmo does eventually carry out the task described in the title, but he understands instantly when he hears the footsteps of bodyguards approaching the scene of the crime that his target was more important than a mere bookie, and he knows that the Italian mob sold him out and double-crossed him before one of their representatives comes to chastise the poor man for killing a major player in the Chinese mafia as if he acted alone.
After barely escaping this setup with a bullet in the gut, Cosmo might be expected to open up for a final soliloquy, a "I coulda been a contender" moment. But it never comes. Instead, Cosmo manages to further lock down. Subtly, his actions communicate fear and a need for comfort, as he returns to Rachael and her mother, Betty, who have given him the only semblance of love and care (he even calls Betty "Mom"). He puts on a brave face, but Betty sees through him instantly: she actually cuts off what might have been the start of a generic monologue, damming the build-up of verbal diarrhea of Cosmo starting a winding story about his childhood by saying simply that she doesn't give a shit. With Cosmo unwilling to seek treatment for his wound, she won't indulge his disarming affability, not this time. She does not know the full story of what happened to Cosmo, nor does she care, and despite her affection for the man, she will not allow him to bring danger upon her and her daughter. The cold finality of this scene, its instant and brutal undercutting of hackneyed resolution and "Big Actor" moments, communicates more about this character and how even his loved ones view him than a speech ever could.
At last, Cosmo winds up back in his club for perhaps the last time, covering up his wound to buck up the people who depend on him, and suddenly his stoic endurance of the world's indifference to him seems less a self-serving measure as he applies it to inspiring those even worse off than him. With Teddy at an emotional nadir of self-revulsion, Cosmo pours whatever exists of himself into his doppelganger so that at least some form of him will live on. In his speech to Teddy and the dancers, Cosmo reveals truths about himself, saying "you gotta work hard to be comfortable" as he sits in the club he frantically held together for years just to feel relaxed in it. "I'm only happy when I'm angry," he says, "when I'm sad, when I can play the fool." But these are truths that their speaker does not fully comprehend, as he bares his true self to prove a point about needing to put on another face to deal with the world. (Cosmo frequently talks in such doublespeak and understatement, telling Betty, "I'm not feeling well, to tell you the truth" as he nurses his agonizing gut wound.) His employees take this message to heart, and Teddy even lauds Cosmo's ethos from the stage, calling the effort to achieve comfort, ironically though incessant, stressful work, the "best thing there is in the world."
Cassavetes does not show us Cosmo's ultimate fate, but we can guess from the scene of the club owner not simply announcing the show from backstage but heading out into the spotlight to introduce the act. Without directly, or even indirectly, letting on that this will his last night at the club, Cosmo emphasizes how this peeling, sticky den was his home, and his stumbling, awkward emceeing comes to serve as the joint's, and his own, benediction. After finishing, he stumbles away, probably to die alone, as Teddy comes to the stage and morosely performs his number, sure that the world hates him even as the audience begins to cheer. Teddy receives the open acceptance Cosmo never did, but like Cosmo he cannot recognize that affection. Even the existential despair common to so many noirs can scarcely touch the level of heartbreak in this moment.