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With: Ben Gazzara, Timothy Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John Red Kullers, Al Ruban, Azizi Johari, Virginia Carrington, Meade Roberts
Written by: John Cassavetes
Directed by: John Cassavetes
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108
Date: 02/15/1976

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Strip Searching

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is my favorite John Cassavetes movie, perhaps because it's the most appealingly sleazy. Ben Gazzara stars as Cosmo Vitelli, the owner of a dingy, depressing strip club, though Cosmo clearly loves it and dedicates every fiber of his being to its daily operation. One night he goes out on the town with three of his favorite girls and racks up a serious gambling debt. Already in trouble with the loan sharks, they strike a deal with him: if he kills the "Chinese bookie" of the title, his debts will be cleared. Cosmo heads off into the night to perform his deed, breaking into the victim's fancy house for a striking juxtaposition to his club. But of course things do not go as expected.

Much of the film is about appearances and facades, especially for the sake of entertainment. Cosmo seems to buy into the sexy dream that his strip club sells, whereas viewers can see it for its tawdry truth. At the same time, Cassavetes presents a harrowing crime story of the streets, a cousin to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973). The cast also includes Timothy Carey and Seymour Cassel, as well as Russ Meyer girl Haji as one of the dancers.

Cassavetes released a long, 135-minute cut to theaters in 1976, but pulled it one week later due to poor business. (Gazzara reportedly hated this long cut as well.) Two years later, Cassavetes cut the film down to 108 minutes and re-arranged certain scenes for a new release. This later cut has been in circulation ever since. The Criterion Collection restored both versions for their 2004 Cassavetes box set, and now they are available separately in this double-disc set. (In essence, the neither version is definitive, but the film itself is now "complete.") Extras include an interview with Gazzara and an old radio interview with Cassavetes (who died in 1989). Phillip Lopate provides the liner notes.

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