Movies You Missed: BIUL spotlights great films you probably overlooked. Tonight: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
In the mid-1970s, things were as different from now as night and day. The air and the sky seemed clearer, even though they were largely exhaust. The texture of everything was tougher, like cigar ashes and concrete. Getting into an automobile was like stepping into a luxury carriage; sunset and neon glinting on chrome bumpers, silk shirts against hand-tooled leather interiors. Music always evoked the experience of a show-stopping live performance. The worries and tensions of the 21st century were too far off to even surmise. The night sky glimmered with promise and energy.
They used to say, “anything could happen.”
And out of all this strides the late Ben Gazzara, sporting a white leisure suit, king. “I’m great,” he states with absolute certainty. “I got a golden life.”
If you’re one of those dudes who worships Scorcese classics like Goodfellas, Casino and Raging Bull, you absolutely must see- maybe even should purchase unseen- the 1978 re-cut of John Cassavetes’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. You will bear witness to not only one of the greatest movies ever lensed, but a living document of a magical, bygone time. Before Star Wars, cosplay, rap music, American Idol, smartphones, internet porn, slutwalks and Starbucks. Whatever criticisms you can levy against the 1970s, you cannot argue that people were THEMSELVES. After all, no one was guilt-tripping them into being something they’re not, or suggesting prejudice in their motives.
When you look around at the people in this film, how many company logos do you see on their clothing? How many stick-figure decals do you see on the rear windows of cars? Do you even see a novelty license plate? Can you imagine a time in America when people were not walking advertisements for the things they buy? You could look at every human in this film and get no clear idea of their favorite movies and TV programs. If you wanted to get to know them, first you’d have to be allowed into their “sphere”, then you might get the opportunity to chat with them. A film like this introduces you into a strange world, then familiarizes you with the characters within it. It doesn’t exist to prop up dildoes that wish to identify with fictional people, so they can feel unique by doing nothing.
Before the internet helped the average high schooler become aware of things like “goatse” and “2 girls 1 cup”, there used to be a classification: “X-rated”. When you saw this, you knew you were free from the responsibilities of children and mothers. Unless I’m mistaken, this entire film rolls by without a child or a baby in it. It’s like a wonderful Adults-Only world, and it’s been systematically eradicated from modern life. Whereas once a man could steal away to a peep show or a strip club to get his jollies off, now he loses his family after being discovered viewing web porn on the family computer. You wouldn’t even be able to see this movie in a theater nowadays, without someone moron dragging an infant in.
For example, here’s people in 1973 reacting to The Exorcist.
See any babies being brought in? Any toddlers? No? That’s because The Exorcist is NOT FOR CHILDREN. IT’S FUCKING TERRIFYING. IT IS FOR GROWN FOLKS. And in 1973, any parent or guardian who took a baby to an R-rated horror movie would be sent to a mental hospital from the lobby. Parents nowadays want to breed BFFs SO BADLY, all adult experiences must be watered down for all ages. Everything has to be a special, shared experience, even things specifically meant for adults. How dare you eat that steak, my baby cannot chew it!
Well, fuck all that. Look where it got you. You’re a pussy, and you watch movies made for pussies by pussies. If you adore Tarantino, you’re about to step into the world he’s made a career appropriating. You won’t go back from Cassevetes. Nobody does. This is the real shit.
So let’s begin.
First of all, go with the 1978 cut, and not the 1976. If you love the 1978 version, then go back and watch the original, disordered 135-minute cut. Cassevetes was out of his mind working on Opening Night, and Ben Gazzara had to convince him to trim and re-edit Killing after a disastrous release. Ben was right on; the redux went on to critical acclaim, and inspired much of Scorcese’s direction in Goodfellas. Killing even sprang from an idea John and Marty once had; if you’ve seen Mean Streets, you’re primed for this kind of grimey flick. This is a Real Film from Real Men, two-fisted, hard-drinking, and mean. If you’re watching it for the first time while reading this, in about an hour and a half, you’ll be astounded at what a bunch of queefs people are these days. And I haven’t even told you about Timothy Carey yet.
Ben Gazzara plays Cosmo Vitelli, owner of the Crazy Horse West strip club, and a man who loves the high life. He steps out of his place like a lion from his den, sidles up to the jamoche that guards the street entrance, and assures him that things will pick up. It’ll be a big night.
Just then, a pickup truck loaded with long-haired ne’er-do-wells tears up the street, taunting Cosmo as they happily speed into the hot darkness.
Their possibly homophobic epithets are meaningless to Cosmo. He is the Alpha Male.
If you’re playing along at home, you’re now hearing the greatest opening theme of all time, courtesy of Bo Harwood. Not only that, these were his scratch tapes- Cassavetes thought they were good enough as is to score the film. And they are. That’s the level of raw talent we’re dealing with here.
The texture and beat of the music conjure many images; an old twinkling jukebox starting up, a seasoned burlesque dancer going through the motions for a besotten, faceless crowd. Stale smoke and hot lights on oily flesh. Pixillation. Delerium tremens. Feather boas and tinsel. It is, simply stated, glorious.
We are less than two minutes in. I should move this along. Coincidentally, I have to go to a bar later.
Cosmo finally settles with a yegg to whom he owed a substantial sum for years. It is clear that these men are not friends, but rather men brought together by a debt; one owes, one collects. Cosmo doesn’t even pretend to like the guy as he gives him the last of that day’s take at the club.
Cosmo makes sure things are bouncing along inside the club, introducing the host, “Mr. Sophistication”. Mr. Sophistication is an aging master of ceremonies with a terrible comb-over and a greasepaint moustache, embodied to perfection by Meade Roberts, playwright of “Summer and Smoke”. An almost spectral figure of gravitas and theatrical grace, he will provide the film’s most acutely poignant moment, just before the end credits roll.
Also there’s tits, because one of the finest aspects of the 1970s was the idea that breasts make films artier, which I have always firmly believed.
The club atmosphere proves too tense for Cosmo. He rolls uptown to a dank watering hole where no one knows him, and nuts up before he meets again with the collector. He pounds liquor, plays the jukebox, and claps off-beat like a loon. He casts nervous energy in all directions as he builds himself back up.
Again the music displays a palate of bygone emotions; the vocals rise and fall softly over sleazy horns, a man “singin’ in the shower”, simply happy to be reminded of the one he had missed. Cosmo sinks into the darkness, smiling as he drinks his troubles away. Some chippy asks him what he’s looking at, and he replies with the line I paraphrased above.
“I got a golden life. Got the world by the balls. That’s right, I’m great.”
As soon as the words come out of his mouth, you can see in his face that he doesn’t believe it.
By the next day, he has again convinced himself; as he sports a ruffled tuxedo with carnation and smokes a fat stogie in his limo, he mutters to himself, “I am amazing.” This is another example of Harwood’s brilliant score, a languid, hazy duet for piano and keyboard that hangs in the air like beautiful clouds.
Golden sunlight streams through long blonde hair as Cosmo gathers his ladies for the day. The first one he picks up is a braless hot tomato we saw performing on stage earlier. If you put Uma Thurman and Heather Graham into a Brundlefly machine, this is exactly what you would get.
A brief aside: this is a film you will never see in “hi-def”. It’s not supposed to be. Crafting a film once involved lighting and filming your actors in a way that made them look good. It was not about seeing every single pore on an actor’s face (or lack thereof).
We were all forced to accept hi-def as part of an economic stimulus. And, I grant you, I do enjoy hi-def for big budget sci-fi extravaganzas. But you must understand that an important part of filmmaking has been killed off for good by it. All that shadowbox, theatrical, movie magic stuff is dead. The closest you can get to it in 2015 is Martin Scorcese’s brilliant yet all-but-ignored Hugo.
What I’m saying is, in the 1970s you could put a REAL WOMAN on screen. Nowadays everyone would launch into a discussion of her flaws, which are imperceptible to anyone farther than an inch away from her.
Back to our film. Cosmo gathers up the redhead, a shorty with amazing gams who looks a little like Linda Blair. Then he completes his collection with a foxy black chick, whom I know for a fact drove a young Roger Ebert into a froth. At first it looks like they’re out for a day on the town, but when we see the girls looking bored in a dirty waiting room, you know something ain’t kosher.
If you are a grown man, once you grasp what is happening, your nuts will inch up into your stomach. Despite how he comports himself, Cosmo is a degenerate gambler. A day after he’s paid his debt, he loses $23,000 in a card game with some very nasty-looking men. Mobsters. He loses face so badly that the commodore punks him in front of everybody when he asks for “unlimited credit”, exclaiming “I never heard of such a thing.”
Cosmo, his three dancers, and several losers sit anxiously for hours in yet another waiting room. Everyone is uncomfortable and exhausted. A thug in a suit (Robert Phillips, whom you may recall as Joe Don Baker’s chief in Mitchell) comes to collect a young couple, and assures everyone else that they’ll be taken care of soon. It is clear that this is a bad situation, and bad people are in control. This is where people are pressured into signing their life away, and then some. This is what your dad always warned you about.
Plus, as you enter, there is a huge, completely terrifying man, with a face you will never forget. For whatever reason, he stops laughing, sticks his fingers in his ears and turns the light off.
This is Timothy Agoglia Carey.
Tim Carey plays Flo. Or rather, Flo is the name of the role Tim Carey is channeled into. For the uninitiated:
1. Marlon Brando once stabbed him with a pen out of frustration.
2. When the director of this film first visited Tim Carey’s house, Carey made him wear a padded suit and turned his attack dog loose on him.
3. He wrote, directed and starred in his own movie, The World’s Greatest Sinner, as an insurance salesman who calls himself God and plays rock and roll. A teenage Frank Zappa was hired to do the music, but Carey thought him a bum.
4. His birth name is Timothy William Carey, so god only knows where the “Agoglia” came from.
It goes without saying that they don’t make ’em like Timothy Carey anymore. It’s been bred out of the human species.
So, the young couple is brought into a dark room full of the ugliest mugs you’ve ever seen, and forced into an unpleasant deal. Flo pops out into the waiting room, and gurgles out a little diatribe:
“There’s hope, there’s hope, there’s hope. People who owe money… shhhhhh, that’s the worst sin in the world. (raises glass) To the biggest sin in the world: people that owe money.”
All this from a walking, grinning cadaver. The world’s greatest sinner.
When it’s Cosmo’s turn, things get uglier, and not just with the addition of wonderfully craggy character actors like Seymour Cassel and Morgan Woodward. A lot of people’s true nature is revealed, when they aren’t permitted to leave.
Cosmo is ushered into the main room by a gruff old creep unimpressed by the dancers; “This entourage of biscuits follow you wherever you go?” Curt introductions are exchanged, and then Cosmo’s credit cards and drivers’ license are requested. One of the men asks him if he intends to pay his debt by check. They have him by the balls. Inevitably, Cosmo signs his life away.
The mood is dampened as the girls are dropped off at their respective homes. Everyone is irritable and confused. Cosmo has a deeper connection with the black girl, who lives with her mother. As he leaves, he tells her he’s going to the club to get the money, and pay off the debt. When the limo driver opens the door in front of the club to let Cosmo out, the corner scrapes into the sidewalk with a shriek.
Instead of entering the club, Cosmo dismisses the driver and walks down the street to an open-patio restaurant. Traffic continues to roar past. The waitress is what’s known as “’70s hot”.
She knows Cosmo runs the Crazy Horse West, and asks if he’d like her to audition. This is not what he told Rachel he was going to do, but you can forgive him because it’s such an awesome idea.
The waitress seems to have some lofty ideals about dance, because Cosmo has to repeatedly tell her to stop leaping like a timorous fawn. Finally she approaches him, her areolae just visible through her gauzy robe, and before she can pop his weasel, Rachel, his prized black dancer, makes a surprise visit.
Rachel is played by centerfold Azizi Johari, and she is truly something to behold. This is a goddamn ebony princess here. There is no polite way of saying it; Rachel’s boobs and lips are gigantic. I could spend a happy weekend on those lips alone. I would smooch this lady until my face fell off. COME ON!!!
Despite her absolute smashability, Rachel isn’t there for fun. She wants to know why, after waiting with him for hours in some craphole casino, Cosmo is happily auditioning a cute new dancer. None of this is spoken. It’s all in her face.
The waitress gets a right hook from Rachel, who then proceeds to smack Cosmo in a fit. He does his best to calm her, as the terrified waitress runs topless into the street, and we are briefly treated to the spectacular undulations of her unbound bosoms. I feel like a cool ’70s dad just watching this. No kids necessary.
Cosmo lies on the floor with Rachel, unsuccessfully pouring brandy past her incredible lips. Finally, he lays it all out with her.
“I’m a club owner,” Cosmo says, his five o’clock shadow now visible. “I deal in girls.”
And deal in girls he does. On stage, Mr. Sophistication (introduced incorrectly by a new dancer) weaves a tale of Old Paree, the City of Lights, as the ladies dance and frolic half-naked around him. You may recognize one of them as Haji, from Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! The mood is light, but Cosmo is tense and jumpy. Things are about to turn sour.
Outside, boatlike luxury vehicles pull up to the curb, disgorging a crew of surly mobsters. The young doorman tells them they can’t park there, and you can see the boys are meaning to play nice. Except Flo.
Tim Carey cruises up to the doorman like the Grim Reaper. Without even looking at him, he asks “COSMO VITELLI INSIDE?” The doorman, rapidly being shoved out of frame, replies that he’ll go and get him. Flo loudly hums a single note. Just “HNNNNNNN”, like a passing wasp. The ghoulish gunsels gawp at the club’s facade. “We’ve found us a valuable spot,” one mutters.
When Cosmo finally emerges to pay the piper, Flo runs up to him and shakes BOTH his hands at the same time.
Imagine the terror this would make you feel. These goons are on your turf now. What’s worse, this dead-eyed rock crusher has you by both hands. It’s every bit as awkward and enervating as it’d be in real life. Flo makes a big show of phony introductions, grunting out false names unintelligibly, and even shaking hands with his own buddies. To a child, this would look like a group of men acting silly. To a middle-aged adult, it’s a complete horror show.
Cosmo is escorted to a diner, where the men surround him at a table. The burgers aren’t all that’s getting grilled (honkhonk); Cosmo is repeatedly questioned about his personal finances, his mortgage, why he felt he had to borrow such a debt. It comes out that Cosmo is a veteran of the Korean War. There is a “punk Chinese” in Chinatown that’s giving the mobsters a lot of grief, and since Cosmo is a former killer of slant-eyed folk, they want him to take care of the issue. Doing so will reduce his debt considerably. Cosmo balks at the idea of killing again, so the men convince him to take some of his best girls to Chinatown, and try to lure the bookie back to his club.
In Chinatown, Cosmo and the three favorite girls from the early scenes half-ass it, and go to kung-fu movies all day, meeting no one. They barely make it back to Crazy Horse West in time for their own show. Mort (Seymour Cassel) drops in to ask how the Chinatown mission went. Cosmo replies that he didn’t see anyone, and he doesn’t want to reduce the debt after all. If you know anything about loan sharks, you know how delighted they get when you keep changing your mind. Mort grips Cosmo very tightly behind the neck, and growls “step outside.”
Outside Flo is waiting.
If you’ve been unfortunate enough in your life to deal with people like this, you know a tune-up is coming.
Flo looks around, grabs Cosmo by the arm, leads him down a dark alley and beats the shit out of him. Then he’s led into a car and given a choice of a .38 or a .45 pistol. Flo instructs him that his “new car” runs on wire, so don’t stall it; there’s no key. Mort gives him the directions with a map and flashlight. Cosmo gets a key to the Chinaman’s compound that a locksmith swears by. Go get some hamburgers for the guard dogs. Twelve, and don’t put mustard on ’em, neither. And no pickle on it. Or ketchup. And don’t put any onions on it, he’s told. The old man sleeps alone, and the guards are all in a nearby A-frame. Take a taxicab back, and throw the gun away.
The mobsters give Cosmo the $23K debt form he signed, and allow him to rip it up. He leaves for Chinatown in his new hot-wired car, which promptly blows a tire and nearly gets him killed on the dark freeway. He runs for blocks until he finds an honest-to-god phone booth. Just a booth with a pay telephone inside it, sitting out in the open! How crazy is that?
Even while on a mission to kill, Cosmo can’t keep him mind off his club. He calls to make sure that the Paris number is going as planned. Are they doing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” like they’re supposed to? This is a terrific mini-master class, with Ben Gazzara delivering all the dialogue into the phone, and you can tell that he’s shouting over the din of the crowd coming from the other end. Of course, it’s just Ben and a prop.
Cosmo hits a greasy spoon for the burgers, and the nice lady can’t understand why he’d want 12 hamburgers in a paper bag. We get another brief slice of ’70s social life, before Cosmo departs on foot for the compound.
Cosmo gives the guard dogs the burgers (I always want burgers when I watch this part), and lets himself into the courtyard. Slowly and methodically he explores the compound before finding the titular Chinese bookie, who is bathing in an expansive tiled pool, playing patty-cake with a concubine. He is blind as a bat without glasses, which proves his undoing when Cosmo catches him in the water alone. There is a marvelous moment where the Chinese bookie clearly spots Cosmo standing there, but second-guesses himself and shakes his head like he’s seeing things. Cosmo takes this opportunity to do the deed.
However, the sound of Cosmo’s gun alerts the concubine and the guards. He shoots a few of them, and just before he escapes through the fence, he takes a slug in the lower back. Adrenaline pounding, he catches a bus, before jumping off, and into a taxi. He stops at a dirty movie theater, before hopping into another taxi, covering his tracks. Wounded, he stumbles into Rachel’s house, where her kindly mother tends to his injury.
Meanwhile, the mobsters have heard about Cosmo’s little “bloodbath” in Chinatown. The news is all over it. 25 squad cars. Some asshole went up and started shooting. Kids, too. Mort excuses himself from the table, and goes to tell Flo.
Flo is having a nice meal with a party girl and some mook, and Mort ruins it by telling him that Cosmo killed the Chinaman, meaning Flo has to kill Cosmo. As Flo contemplates this, a single bead of sweat rolls slowly between his eyes.
Cosmo returns to Crazy Horse West looking like death warmed over. It’s a packed house, as Mr. Sophistication sings “Imagination” a cappella on stage. Slowly legs and breasts are exposed, and as Cosmo drinks, things almost return to normal. You don’t even notice when Flo slips in and takes a seat.
Until you see him in action, it’s difficult to convey just how compelling- and terrifying– Tim Carey is in this role. Look how friendly he appears as he calls Cosmo over to join him. No cigarettes, just a bunch of matches. He looks like Rich Vos possessed by Pazuzu. Everything he says sounds like a threat, whether it actually is or not. If he ever blinked, I missed it. This is as hardcore as 20th century character actors ever got.
Cosmo puts on a fake smile and joins Flo, who reveals that he’s been playing some sort of game with the matches. This is a man whose rhythms are never in sync with other men. “I gotta meet some friends at 11 o’clock,” he says. “Maybe you should, like, come along… we’re all fairly interested in your experience,” Flo continues with a devilish grin. Cosmo refuses this obvious invitation to a painful death, but Flo is insistent, even after Rachel and her beautiful naked rack make an appearance. Flo drives Cosmo to a lightless garage, signaling with his horn, and things certainly appear grim.
Then something incredible happens.
Flo exits the car, and Cosmo senses that he’s about to buy the farm. “You killed a top Chinee dog,” Flo tells him. Everyone wants Cosmo dead from here to Canarsie. Flo misquotes Karl Marx, before launching into another tirade about money. Before you know it, Flo is unloading about his father, and what a nice guy he was. Cosmo asks Flo if he cried when his father died, and Flo releases a guttural, angry sound. Cosmo sees a weak spot in the armor, and straight-up ALPHAS THE SHIT out of Flo. Just says to him, with no fear, “Why don’t you do yourself a favor and get out of here. You’re an amateur. Take a walk.”
And that’s exactly what Flo does. Game respect game. It’s so well-played that you may not even get it on the first viewing. There’s a point you reach, as a man, where you’re no longer afraid of the things you once were. There it is, on the screen, bold as brass balls.
Flo leaves the garage, telling Mort “That’s my friend in there. Take care of him. He’s your problem,” while brandishing his pistol. Mort drives in to finish the job, calling for Cosmo in the darkness. Cosmo gets the drop on him, and after Mort apologizes and lays on the smooth talk, senses an ambush and blows Mort away. Now the stage is set for the final act, as Robert Phillips pursues Cosmo through the parking garage in a houndstooth sportcoat and black turtleneck ensemble. It is quite a sight to behold, but then we cut to Azizi Johari’s great brown boobs in the shower, and I forget what I was talking about. (I’m not screencapping that, it’s not that kinda website. Go rent the movie if you haven’t already. Are you even still reading this?)
Rachel’s mother has taken her away from the club. She’s on the phone with Rachel’s brother, asking for help, when Cosmo appears with a flower, wondering why Rachel’s not at work. Mom has to talk to Cosmo alone, because she’s totally onto his shit. He is no good, and he’s got a bullet in him. He lays on the charm, but she won’t have it. Out he goes.
Back at the Crazy Horse, the stage is vacant and the crowd is clamoring for entertainment. Cosmo heads backstage to see what the holdup is, and finds Mr. Sophistication in the dressing room with the girls, sans maquillage. Cosmo addresses him as Teddy, and pleads with him that the show must go on. Teddy feels that he gets the blame when things go badly, and that no one cares about his material unless the girls show their tits. This is the eternal artistic conflict. Cosmo pulls upon his inner resources to deliver a pep talk that is by turns oily, inspiring, insulting, jaded, and hopeful. He likens the club to a great enlightenment, and his performers to fine artists. Soon the bandleader is singing, and the girls are rehearsing their lines and laughing. The show will go on.
While the girls get ready, Cosmo talks to the crowd, drink in hand, and says that Rachel has gone on to bigger and better things. He wistfully reminisces for a few moments, before introducing Mr. Sophistication and his Delovelys once again. The convivial atmosphere has returned. The crowd is cheering. Until Cosmo jumps from the stage, he completely forgets about the bullet in his gut.
Cosmo steps outside, fingering the bloody fabric over his wound, and gazes into the darkness at an uncertain future. Inside, Mr. Sophistication croons “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby”, while tossing dollars into the audience spitefully. He’s pouring his heart into it, but Haji apparently thinks he’s dragging the show down, so she sneaks up and lights a flash paper on his shoulder to liven things up.
Startled, embarrassed and upstaged, Mr. Sophistication stands silently at the microphone, sweat and makeup dripping from his downcast face.
The sight of this man, this performer, this artist, holding onto the very last threads of his dignity before he shoulders his way through the beaded curtain and into the dark void backstage. It sucker-punches me to tears every time I see this film.
I have no doubt that this is one of the finest American films ever produced. If you consider yourself to be any kind of film buff, you absolutely owe it to yourself to see it. It is positively bursting with textures and feelings that simply do not exist in modern movies. It’s in that exclusive club of movies that I’ve rented from Videodrome so many times, I could’ve bought my own copy by now.
Anyway, like I said, I have a bar to go to*, and now I want burgers. Goodnight.
(*This is a lie. I’m actually proof-reading this bloated article while watching the movie for the second time today.)