Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) is the proud owner of a strip club.He makes a point of being well dressed and he feels important in his own sleazy environment. It's clear right away that he owes a payment to a criminal organization. He enjoys his work in every detail. He very quickly makes the last payment and gets himself out of the hole. He tells the guy taking his payment that "you're a lowlife, no offense, You have no style and I don't ever want to see you again."
The thug responds "don't push it" but nonetheless Cosmo is off the hook and free to do his own thing.

He finds a bar and goes out to celebrate. he starts out drinking by himself and when a girl at a nearby table asks him what he's looking at, he can't help but tell her that he "has a golden life." and that "he's grateful."

The next day he gets dressed in a tux, and starts making the rounds picking up "his girls" Sherry, Margo and Rachel in a limo, insisting that they get dressed up too, even bringing outfits for them. They accompany him to a private poker game, where he promptly gets himself in debt again, claiming he was promised unlimited credit, which gets everyone laughing. He's detained in order to settle his debt. This lender though, isn't as lenient as his last arrangement, and makes a habit of getting payment immediately. All debtors are called into a room with Mort Weil (Seymour Cassel) the casino owner. They ask for his license and credit cards and inquire how he plans to pay the $23,000.00 he owes them. He explains that he puts all of his money back into his business. He tries to be friendly with them, as if they're colleagues, but they don't return his affability, requiring him to sign some forms. The girls are forced to wait through the process.

He drops off his girls and considers how to get some cash quickly. He runs into a waitress who recognizes him and wants to audition for his club. While the audition starts well, Rachel, one of his regular girls, and possibly his girlfriend, shows up and in a jealous fit, attacks the new prospect, cutting it short and sending her running away. Cosmo isn't angry with Rachel though, comforting her as he explains that "I'm a club owner. I deal in girls." Besides the girls, the club employs Mr. Fascination (Meade Roberts) and odd man who fancies himself artistic. He sings badly and involves the girls in poor sketches. The audience doesn't have much tolerance for him, but tolerates his presence as long as the girls show their skin.

Mort comes to visit the club with an entourage. They ask him about his mortgage. They know he doesn't have the money and start talking about a "punk Chinese Bookie" they can't get to. Cosmo reveals that he fought in Korea and killed some people in the war. They propose that he kill the bookie. He initially declines, bragging about being a club owner and how he built himself up from nothing. He says that he's interested in reducing the debt but not eliminating it. (killing the bookie) After some back and forth, they suggest that he take his girls and use them to draw out the bookie (he likes beautiful girls) go locate him and invite him to his club to reduce the debt by $10,000.00.

He starts to reconsider, when Mort comes by the club and asks him to step outside. He presents it to Mort as "I'm going to do you a favor, I don't want to reduce the debt." Mort is insistent that he come outside and after they hit Cosmo a few times they force him into a car and make it clear that they're willing to kill him. They give him a car, a map, a gun and specific instructions for dealing with the bookie's dogs, guards, and locks. Cosmo heads out to do it, seeing no choice in the matter any longer. He has some difficulty with the car which breaks down on the highway while he's driving, so he finds a gas station and calls a cab. Despite his crisis, he also takes the opportunity to check on the club, getting angry about only having two girls on stage and the music choice. He stops at a bar and orders meat for the dogs and then sets out for the bookie's place.

The guards don't seem to notice him at all and he makes his way into the bookie's quarters to find the old man in a hot tub with a younger woman. He waits for her to leave and confronts him when the bookie returns to the hot tub alone. The girl was close by however, and sees him shoot the bookie. The guards come running and he's forced to kill some of them on his way out, getting shot himself. He catches a passing bus and heads home then switching taxis as they'd planned for him. He collapses once inside, but still insists on getting to the club. Mort and his people hear that the Bookie's dead, and are obviously surprised. Mort appears angry about it and quite surprised.

Cosmo gets back to the club. checking on every detail. He notices Flo one of Mort's guys
waiting for him. Flo insists that Cosmo come along to meet his "friends." Cosmo is wary when Flo brings them to an abandoned building and honks the horn. Flo can't bring himself to kill Cosmo, respecting his guts and what he's accomplished. Cosmo sees him struggling and tells him "Do yourself a favor. You're an amateur. Take a walk." Flo agrees and driving out as Mort drives in, he tells Mort "That's my friend in there. Take care of him. He's your problem." Mort acts as if he's Cosmo's friend, apologizing he tells Cosmo that the bookie was more than a bookie, and was really the heaviest guy on the west coast, so much so that they could never touch him. They set up Cosmo to get him out of the way and to take the heat for it. They could then take over his club and have their competitor out of the way.

While they talk another car pulls in. Cosmo punches Mort, when he realizes someone else is there. He looks around for Cosmo with gun in hand. Cosmo hides playing a cat and mouse game with the thug by making noises in different parts of the warehouse.  We don't see the resolution but Cosmo ends up back at home, suspicious after overhearing Peggy (Rachel's mother) on the phone. She tells him she doesn't want him there anymore as she knows from the bullet wound that he's in trouble, and she doesn't want to know about it.

He runs back to the club to find an empty stage, with the audience calling for a show. He finds everyone in the dressing room and  tells them to give the customers a show.Mr. Sophistication is having problems,because he doesn't feel he's getting his due. He gives them all a speech, telling them that what people think of each other is different than what they really are. He encourages them to go give a show, and make them smile. He then takes the opportunity to address the audience acknowledging everyone in the club for their work and revealing that Rachel isn't coming back. Cosmo is still bleeding and obviously in pain. His jacket, once out of the club and under the streetlights, is visibly soaked in blood as Mr. Sophistication sings badly and the crowd calls for the girls to take their clothes off.

Cassavetes constructs a rough world, gritty and completely unpolished. The only thing beautiful in it are the girls, and they are only spectacle. He doesn't obsess over every detail, leaving many things ambiguous. It doesn't matter exactly how things happen, as much as what does happen and why.It doesn't matter exactly what Mort's guys are doing in the car to intimidate Cosmo, or why the car breaks down. These are minor details which only serve to produce the next action along the course, which is already clearly set. Cosmo determined that himself, at the beginning of the movie. Free and clear after seven years, he doesn't wait one full day before getting himself in debt to the mob again. He's in love with a certain perception of himself and has created a world to support that. He imagines himself as a shady underworld character and when reality is added to his perception and rather than just skirt the underworld, he must participate in it, the consequences are too real for his facade to maintain.

Gazzara's acting is brilliant and his Cosmo is a believable character, pathetic while trying to present himself as grandiose. The depth of his performance is amazing, as we can see that Cosmo's smallest gesture has probably been practiced in the mirror a thousand times, yet still doesn't convince anyone. Add to this a character who can calmly kill a man, and still keep his club his main concern and you have a person with an amazing capacity to self destruct. Seymour Cassel, is great here too, although it's tough to say that, as he does a wonderful job at being impossible to like. The ability to warmly smile and shake your hand while telling you how he set you up is reprehensible and feels completely authentic.

"The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" is a wonderful film, but don't mistake it for an action movie. It's simply the meticulous filming of a man's final steps towards his own destruction.


Ken said...

Crap... my online rental service doesn't stock this title!

Sounds good, though -- I'll have to check it out. Nicely done on the review, as always.

Christopher Ivey said...

Nice look at the film and analysis of the Cosmo character. I really want to check out some Cassavetes soon! Great blog, I'm liking the approach!