The Killing of a Chinese Bookie 1976 Movie Scene Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vittelli smoking in his strip club

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – Gangsters, Strippers and The Art

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the title of this movie sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? It sounds like one of those seventies neo-noir hidden gems you’re going to love. At least that’s what I thought when I first stumbled upon it. We will be following Cosmo Vittelli, a hedonistic and laidback strip club owner who gets into trouble with the mafia. You see, that hedonistic aspect of his personality makes him a compulsive gambler, alcoholic, and a risk taker. Cosmo is also a man who takes great pleasure in running his club, designing all the numbers and making sure everything is running smoothly.

So, far so good, you’re thinking. So, why the long and cautiously optimistic intro? Well, while the story might be your standard-issue crime tale, the storytelling, camerawork and pretty much everything else is exquisitely peculiar. I don’t remember seeing something so authentic, intriguing, and, above all, open to interpretation. This is the reason why they call John Cassavetes the father of American independent cinema. His willingness to put you there, on the spot, as a witness of this thing we call life is truly extraordinary.

On a personal level, I have to say that I completely identified with almost everything Cassavetes tried to convey in this movie. As you already know, I do have a day job and Rabbit Reviews is something that I’m doing in my free time. I would love to just write about movies but I don’t want to sell out or compromise my vision.

There’s Levels To This Shit

To quote the great American poet Meek Mill: “There’s levels to this shit”. What I’m talking about is the Cassavetes’ approach to filmmaking generating a lot of different levels and dimensions. You have the surface level that pertains to the story and the deeper level, still in the story, developing the characters. You can get lost on any of these levels as they’re also interconnected. One thing might pique your interest, for example, the type of show we see in Cosmo’s strip club, and next you know you’re in the depths of the Internet, researching it.

So, yes, American Burlesque is that special type of erotic show featuring a strange host and an even stranger sense of humor. Today, we have a totally different perception of the fine establishment that is a strip club. And you can bore into this concept, looking at how it connects to the story, history, and development of this type of joint. This ties into the levels that pertain to your interpretation of the events and themes in the movie. 

This is something we will talk about in the next section. And remember, anything you come up with is totally valid. Next up, you have the levels that pertain to your interpretation of the events and themes in the movie. And on top of it all, the video from almost fifty years ago captured everything the seventies had to offer. On this level, we also find the actors and their performances.

Ben Gazzara who plays Cosmo Vittelli was struggling to get into the role when Cassavetes told him something that changed everything. He broke down in tears while explaining to Ben that his character, Cosmo is actually Cassavetes himself trying to make a movie. The criminals who keep pestering him are the studios trying to prevent him from making his dreams come true.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is Not a Gangster Movie!

That wasn’t the only time Cassavetes said he was going to cry because someone misunderstood what the movie was about. During the interview with Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson, he said exactly the same thing! I urge you to listen to it because it’s absolutely mindblowing. And that’s not an understatement. Michel tried to anchor the movie in the gangster genre because of its main story. And Cassavetes doesn’t dispute this but this is not the point of the movie.

In fact, if you went into The Killing of a Chinese Bookie thinking it’s going to be a cool neo-noir crime thriller you would come out disappointed. Moreover, you might think that the movie doesn’t have a point. On that note, please do not watch the original cut of the movie The Killing of the Chinese Bookie featuring a running time of 135 minutes. Two years later, Cassavetes released the new 108-minute cut that’s much, much better. The two-hour one is just a tedious affair for those who are willing to experience it.

Back to the whole gangster thing, this is a movie without that satisfying, exciting, and emotional journey we see in other movies. There were numerous opportunities to ground the character of Cosmo Vittelli using just a couple of scenes. To ground him to something more recognizable like a mid-life crisis or a death wish or anything else that’s easily recognizable. However, this is not what the movie is about and this is not the story Cassavetes wanted to share. In my opinion, it’s best to look at the movie as a character study and leave it at that. Once you do that, a whole new line of inquiry opens.

The Inspiration For The Movie

During that same interview, Cassavetes explains exactly why he decided to make a movie about a sleazy yet intriguing and charming strip club owner. You see, Cassavetes would drive to work each day, seeing all these strip joints along the Sunset Boulevard. Of course, this is happening in Los Angeles, California. And he kept wondering what kind of person would own such a place.

In this case, the strip club is a gateway to a different world. And it’s the characters that we find in this world that fascinated Cassavetes. Not just the owners but also the visitors and performers. When you think about it, strip clubs stand out from all other places you might visit in your life. Especially if you put them in context with our officially defined society. You don’t learn about strip clubs in school. You don’t see ads for strip clubs on television.

Along with sex work, they’re still in the shadows. I really don’t know why because there’s clearly “a need” for them. I think everything goes back to that Puritan system of values that extends to the underlying Judeo-Christian handling of these issues they deem immoral. However, I don’t want to get too bogged down in this, but I simply had to mention it. To get back to that interview, Cassavetes goes on to say that he stopped in one of those clubs and met the owner.

He told him all about the club and how he knew mobsters and everything else. And then he said something surprising, that he personally designed and wrote the acts. In a sense, he was not too different from him. An artist, trying to make his vision come to life and make a few dollars along the way. And his strip club looked amazing, better than most restaurants in the area.

Skip the Philosophy Lesson and Tell Me What’s This Movie Actually Like

Before we delve deeper into this thought-provoking movie, I want to, just briefly, go over the basics. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a slow-burning and atmospheric thriller dangerously close to both drama and comedy genres. We follow Cosmo Vittelli, a strip club owner, who’s in too deep with the mob. The places he visits are fascinating and just cool. And the same goes for the characters he meets along the way.

I completely agree with one of the reviewers who said that this is a summer movie. And since it’s taking place in Los Angeles, California, that’s not surprising at all. You can feel that magical night air telling you that anything might happen in the next few hours. You’ll probably drink, smoke, and gamble too much, but that’s life for you. At least you’re living it, says Cosmo. The sets are authentic and the whole movie has this almost documentary vibe about it.

The nudity here is not sleazy or titillating, it’s more just there. And we will learn a lot about what goes on in the back rooms of this particular strip club. When it comes to the crime stuff, there will be just a couple of scenes and the same goes for the action. So, don’t think this is a crime thriller or something like that despite the main plot. Additionally, there’s this positive undertone that I can’t quite explain enveloping every aspect of this movie. Even when things are bad, they’re not really bad.

Is This a Character Study?

I think that this is the best way to approach this movie. Mostly because The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a character study first and foremost. As we already talked about in one of the previous points, this is a multi-layered masterpiece. Depending on your personality and other variables, certain elements will speak more to you. I was just consumed with Cosmo. He is chasing that feeling of “being alive”, something perhaps could be better explained by his mid-life crisis.

Although that would immerse the movie in stereotypical waters and muddy them at the same time. And because of that chase, he keeps getting into trouble. The movie actually opens with him paying off the last portion of his gambling debt. He keeps getting into trouble and he keeps getting out of it using his charm, skills, and intelligence. Cosmo is also an artist with a vision, although he doesn’t seem like one. His show is quite unique, offering a different kind of strip club experience.

All these aspects of his personality collide, intertwine, and work with one another, just like in all of us. It’s his determination to see his dreams fulfilled that brings everything he experiences into existence. And yet there are so many other themes here on display that we could talk for hours about each of them. How about the iconic American Dream or the ruthless capitalistic, money-oriented system?

A system that fucked Cassavetes so hard, he had to make a movie about the ordeal. Or our fascination with exhibitionism and our society’s stubborn refusal to accept it as a natural part of the human psyche? Within all of these lines of inquiry there are dozens and dozens of thought-provoking concepts. And you can go down each of these rabbit holes whenever you like.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a Movie About Work Ethic (Individuality and Conformism)

Cassavetes openly states that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a movie about a work ethic. He goes on to further elaborate on that: “You are put in a position of doing your work without any basis of any individuality of your own life. So you have to apply yourself to what other people want.” One of the journalists sums it up best as: “You only exist for others”. This is something I often talk about on this site.

I know that Rabbit Reviews is a primary site for recommending movies worth watching but I also like to put a bit of a personal twist on it. In this case, the tribal system of values hammers you into this unit that’s supposedly beneficial to the tribe. And in this process, it completely erases your individuality. As you get older and more mature, you start to realize this and you desperately seek ways to compensate for it.

Of course, you do this within the confines of the tribal system of values, adding quirks and personality traits that are deemed acceptable by others. You might be this vanilla-ass, ordinary Average Joe type but you smoke. Or you drink a specific beer or you’re interested in cars or guns. Something that makes you stand out from all the other vanilla-ass ordinary Average Joes. We talked about something along these lines while discussing The Banshees of Inisherin.

To bring this around to what Cassavetes was talking about, he says that our society is an “anti-art society”. And to ground it further, we have the scene when Cosmo loses his money and acts very nonchalantly about the whole thing. He’s very formal and the movie is very close to a comedy at this point. However, I have to remind you that this movie is what you make of it. And if you interpret this scene or any other in any other way, you’re not making a mistake.

The Climactic/Anti-Climactic Finale

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie ends with our main character Cosmo, looking into the distance in front of his strip club. Wounded, bleeding, and on the run both from the Chinese and Italian Mafia along with the police, he still feels comfortable. Or at least that’s what he wants us to think. One of the first things he says during the finale is “You gotta work hard to be comfortable.” He continues by saying that the only people who are happy are the ones who are comfortable.

By this logic, the key to happiness is to work hard. And I’m sure you’ve already heard this mantra a thousand times before. However, I’m certain that you’re noticing that something is not right here. And Cosmo confirms this just a couple of minutes later. He says that he’s only happy when he’s angry, and sad, when he can play the fool. And the next sentence is absolutely crucial: “When I can be what people want me to be rather than be myself.

I do want to emphasize again that there are no wrong interpretations of this movie. I think that my biggest takeaway was the notion that you have to be comfortable. And I don’t want to go any further than that because we can break down that concept into a thousand different things. Finally, I think that this movie perfectly targets the audience that might be willing to break through to the other side.

Some will be drawn by the strip club setting, some by the neo-noir crime aspect and some will just want to see something different. And The Killing of a Chinese movie is a distinctly unique movie. Deeply personal and authentic, it’s so different from the generic drivel commercial Hollywood usually spews out. I think it might help you to view all movies in a different light. And I guess that’s about it. I still wanted to talk about loneliness but I don’t want to make this into a novel.