John Cassavetes spare, startling take on the film noir, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is clunky and feels almost improvisational at times but what makes it stand out is the brilliant performance by Ben Gazzara. As with most Cassavetes films, the filmmaker gives no room for the actor to hide, often getting in too close for comfort and giving the audience a sense of intimacy with its lead characters that’s difficult to pull off but Cassavetes style paired with a heartbreaking performance of a proud man laid low by Gazzara reaches new levels of audience participation with its lead character.
Gazzara plays Cosmo Vittelli, a proud night club owner with a gambling problem. When he gets in over his head with gangsters at a poker table, Vittelli becomes unglued once he is faced with a moral quandary that drives the picture to its ultimately ambiguous conclusion. Cassavetes takes this very straightforward plot where Cosmo is faced with ultimately murdering a man and makes a wholly original film that feels almost like jazz in film form.
The camerawork is often shaky and handheld, constantly searching the frame for Gazzara while the editing is choppy and jumps and bounces from Gazzara to the burlesque show he organizes back to him and his associates. Cassavetes seems to be improvising the film, never quite knowing where it ultimately ends up which almost comes up as a disappointment as it ends ambiguously and not in a great way. The film leaves Cosmo in a place that feels unsatisfying to the story that was set out before it but is certainly keeping in the style of it but things feel abrupt. That shouldn’t discount what is up until that point a completely original and stylishly engrossing picture that is classic Cassavetes, artfully creating a picture of a man in a certain situation and drawing him further and further in. Gazzara is spellbinding and truly makes this a picture worth watching.
- Blood of a Dreamer: John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (dangerousminds.net)
- RIP: Ben Gazzara (1930 – 2012) (screencrave.com)
- Ben Gazzara, actor in influential films, dies (sfgate.com)
- RIP: Ben Gazzara, At 81 (thedailywh.at)
- Ben Gazzara: An appreciation (popwatch.ew.com)
- ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ star Gazzara dies (todayentertainment.today.msnbc.msn.com)