Murder, my sweet: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

John Cassavetes' film, starring Ben Gazzara, is released in Dual Format Edition by the BFI on Monday, 15 July.

The notion of an artwork appearing in varying editions might be most commonly associated with literature – expanded editions, revised editions, censored and translated editions, and so on. But the same applies to films too, in the form of pan-and-scan transfers, re-edits for television, tweaks and cuts for foreign distribution, dubbing, changes in a silent film’s score and, of course, the director’s cut. It’s not difficult to see how alterations in narrative might affect our understanding of a film (whether elective, as with Blade Runner, or imposed, as with The Magnificent Ambersons). But there are also variations, no less appreciable, in terms of both image texture and composition.

As examples of image texture, take George Lucas’ repeated tweaks and reissues of the Star Wars trilogies, or the Blu-ray release of The French Connection, which was overseen by its director William Friedkin, who quite controversially emphasised the cooler tones of Owen Roizman’s cinematography through digital manipulation. In terms of composition, consider the implications of cropping a film shot in 16:9 to a 4:3 frame, which occurred commonly on VHS and which is still common on television today – the top of actors’ heads are cut off, the space around performers appears more claustrophobic than intended, etc. In the digital age especially, now, there is not only a wealth of hitherto unobtainable films available, but cinephiles have differing versions of the same film to choose from – and no version, whether it claims to be or not, can be definitive.

This is especially the case with a film like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, whose commercial failure upon its original 1976 release caused director John Cassavetes to withdraw it from circulation. Two years later, it reappeared, trimmed from 134 minutes to 109. But as Cassavetes’ biographer Tom Charity clarifies in an essay included with this excellent new three-disc release from the BFI, this wasn’t merely a trim: scenes included in the 1978 version were nowhere to be seen in the original, and vice versa. It’s to the BFI’s credit that both versions are included here – with a bonus DVD of extras, including Doug Headline’s feature-length documentary on Cassavetes, Anything for John (1993). Referred to on the disc menu simply as “long version” and “short version”, neither is emphasised as the more complete film. What one has, another one lacks, and so on.

The 1976 version of Chinese Bookie – to which this review refers – is an indulgent, rambling and intense mess. Like all of Cassavetes’ films, it wears its own imperfections on its sleeve, is up front about its own grit, and has a demonstrable disinterest in traditional plot development. Scenes go on for longer than is apparently necessary, as if the mere act of filming an actor’s face is a guaranteed route to the truth of things. Performers laugh when they shouldn’t – that is, when people do, out of embarrassment, or from nerves, or in response to some unheard private joke.

A pained and painful character study – one that might be read in autobiographical terms – it follows Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), a New Yorker who has just paid back the final chunk of the loan with which he bought the Crazy Horse West, the Californian strip joint in which he invests all his hours. A fellow club owner from Santa Monica named Mort (Seymour Cassel) visits to enjoy an evening at the Crazy Horse, and invites Cosmo in turn to his own establishment, a gambling den called Ship Ahoy. There, Cosmo quickly accumulates a debt of $23,000. Unable to repay it, he is tasked by Mort’s superiors with the murder one of their rivals, a Korean bookie.

This otherwise pedestrian set-up is thin on incident and heavy on atmosphere. Significant episodes either occur off-screen or unfold in darkness. Cosmo’s debt at the Ship Ahoy, for instance, is conveyed elliptically, while his orders to kill a man are given to him in the back of a car at night – and Cassavetes, working with DoP Mitch Breit, doesn’t assist delineation. Both instances tell us everything we need to know about this miserable, cutthroat world – that of nightclub showbiz, if not the film industry in general. In the first place, ellipses hurry things along, suggesting that while you’re working on keeping the basics together, you’re suddenly at the mercy of a band of thugs capitalising on your every error. In the second, this is a sleazy and murky underworld whose saturated neon isn’t kidding anyone – except maybe for Cosmo.

Cassavetes establishes Cosmo’s amateurish milieu to match his own glamour-free aesthetic. Cosmo’s vulnerability is evident throughout: one can sense it in Gazzara’s retiring eyes, and in the way his warm laugh threatens at any moment to turn into tears, anger or worse. One recalls Robert De Niro’s turn as Johnny Boy in Martin Scorsese’s similarly-themed Mean Streets (1973). Cassavetes makes us watch, for longer than we probably want to, the pathetic routine that Cosmo’s employees – a bunch of strippers (“an entourage of biscuits”) and the ironically named Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) – perform every night to a room full of hecklers, while Mort and co.’s repeated visits double as reminders of Cosmo’s dangerous predicament.

One of many American films in the 1970s that managed to match their protagonists’ unrest, ennui, angst and so on with visual experimentation and an unpredictable narrative progression (cf. Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, 1972), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie reminds us unhappily today of a period in which small-time directors had not only the technical expertise with which to say something significant, but the social understanding that preconditions truly great art. The film's imperfections say far more than the ornamental formulas of today. As I remarked to a friend earlier this week, for all the indulgence (the product of genuine experimentation rather than of bad artistry), each Cassavetes film has at least one thing - a moment, a line, a performance, a glance - that makes it unmissable. Which is more of an achievement than it sounds.