The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

R   |    |  Crime, Drama, Thriller


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) Poster

A proud strip club owner is forced to come to terms with himself as a man, when his gambling addiction gets him in hot water with the mob, who offer him only one alternative.

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  • Timothy Carey in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Azizi Johari in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
  • Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

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9 August 2013 | chaos-rampant
Cassavetes: Meditations on the original face II
One of the most stimulating relaxations I know is simply floating on water. The good thing in living a short walk from the beach is that I get to do this every other day of nearly half the year. It's great at dusk, whereby the sea is not some abstract volume but the specific sensation of upfloat, and the early moon is that rock over there from me. Tangible moments of world, encompassing what the Chinese call the tao.

No film even compares to the feeling, certainly no piffle Koyannisqatsi. But a few filmmakers come close to this totality as something felt. Cinema is nothing in a large sense, that is until a certain point where it becomes a most powerful tool for enlightenment. Cassavetes is one of those guys, and knows just how to use it.

So I revisited this after many years as part of my Cassavetes series, this time watching the extended version. The shorter one may be tighter, more focused, but I'll always opt for a longer stay in his world.

The film is the perfect summer night movie, one to watch with the distant sound of motor noise flowing through open windows. Cassavetes loves the night, the neon signs, the sound of traffic, the hubbub of the nightclub, the brushing of people in close spaces. The film is full of extremely memorable spaces, years later I could recall Cosmo standing in the entrance of his club, the backalley where he's beaten up, the empty highway, the phonebooth in the middle of nowhere, running from the Chinaman's house.

Here, Cassavetes stretches two things. The existential noir where desire, not even so much for poker money, the desire it seems to look comfortable in front of people, summons the noir darkness. Usually in a noir, from that point we get some hallucinative fooling with the narration, here completely merged with the flow of things. The murky proposal for the kill in the cramped car, nothing telegraphed. The subtle menace and helplessness around the gangsters. The foreshadowing bang of the flat tire. The inescapable framing where he was the stooge of fate all along.

And a more gentle self-reference, where Cosmo, standing for Cassavetes, gambles with money-people and loses. These mafia executives want from him a straightforward movie that ends with a killing, the simplest stuff, which he grudgingly delivers. The starkest contrast from the fancy, lively improvisation going on in his club, that both reflects and ribs at Cassavetes' own stuff. He does it his way of course, with fumbling, confusion and uncertainty. And still succeeds. Only The Long Goodbye rivals it in the crime sweepstakes of the 70s, no doubt inspired by this.

Here, because of the adoption of genre with its clear horizon, the tethers are easier than previous Cassavetes films. Oh there is the anxiety, but that is part and parcel of the greater life. More than any of his films though, it achieves that sublime floating sense that encompasses a concrete totality.

His camera excites me like no one else's. Antonioni adopts the transcendent position. Tarkovsky the one of flowing mind. Cassavetes adopts the position of tentative coming-into-being, his visual space has a thick and viscous quality, it has time, it has a tangible and floating gravity, all things coming to be and vanishing again in a cosmic vitality.

Cosmo, a man of cosmic vitality. All through the gangster stuff, Cosmo keeps worrying about the show and the club. Because the show and the atmosphere around his club are of the soul of this man, the images and living space worth living for—dreamy and spontaneous, scented air, a little sloppy because it is re-discovered each night. But that is as much a role, the entrepreneur, as that of the killer, the gambler, the suave playboy, masks for the night. Not the original face.

Deep down I get the sense of a weary joy that runs deeper than happiness, a mono no aware.

Something to meditate upon.

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