I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

A Portrait of the Artist as Mr. Sophistication in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

You see the Director in the dark, sitting behind prismic braids of purple-pink light that dance off a curtain of beads like slow mercury. 

He watches from the sullen dimness, the auteur, as his performers hit or miss the marks he has set, as they nail or flail the lines he’s written, as they dance in the whiteblast spotlight that holds them.

Behind endless curlicues of blooming cigarette smoke, his boozeglassed eyes look past his troupe and follow his Surrogate in their center, the outsized actor embodying his every fevered desire, his anger, his sadness, his life-bluff, his love. He watches the actor who is playing a version of him, playing the fool, playing “Mr. Sophistication.”

He watches from his table in the dark, watches as a narrative unfolds upon the stage, his narrative, his life transubstantiated into a tit-flashed song ‘n’ dance of crude and sweat-yellowed heartfelt burlesque.

His name is Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara). He deals in girls.

What you don’t see is his director kneeling even further back, in the ink-black corners of the club, behind the rippling ribbons of red and blue gel-lit heads of extras in the crowd.

You don’t see him in the shadows, the auteur, as his performers pretend to be someone else’s performers, dancing upon cheap plywood to the song he’s selected to tell his story.

You don’t see that behind the handheld camera he’s personally operating, his bloodshot eyes look past the extras to follow his surrogate in the center, the actor embodying his every creative desire, his rage, his melancholy, his dreams, his love. He watches the actor who is really playing a version of him, playing the fool, playing “Cosmo Vittelli.”

You don’t see as he watches from his camera, watches the story unfold in this scuzzcrusted and grubscrabbled club, his story, his life smuggled into an ugly-beautiful strip club-set gangster picture.

His name is John Cassavetes. He makes films.

~ ~ ~ 

The most spiritually and stylistically tortured of the 10 films he both wrote and directed, John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a work unintentionally at war with its self-identity while intentionally portraying a character at war with his own, all crafted by a man consumed by that selfsame conflict. The appositive pressures building within the chasmic faultline that zigzagged throughout his career of staggeringly powerful independent films (Shadows, Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, et al.) finally erupted here, in 1976, during the conception and creation of Chinese Bookie. These warring forces—the need to appease both financiers and audiences with easy genre entertainments versus the drive to make complex and performance-driven character studies, with the latter derisively eschewing the aestheticized sex and violence the former would require—jutted against one another with a fricative brutality, shattering Cassavetes’ original intent for the film, rendering it a messy, purgatorial wasteland of aesthetic cross-purposes.

And yet, it is a masterpiece—not in spite of its messiness but rather because of it. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, with its jazzy, inchoate polyrhythms of conflicted authorial intent fortuitously and incidentally mirroring the world and the conflict of both Cosmo and his creator John Cassavetes, is neither a simple noir piece nor another idiosyncratic personal drama but rather a megatonic fusion of both into a living, breathing document, an abstract expressionist work of hired gun genre craftsmanship that novas into a startling self-portrait and a nearly indefinable work of art.

~ ~ ~

“Earlier films such as Shadows and Husbands grew out of personal experiences reaching all the way back to my childhood days,” Cassavetes said in a pre-Bookie interview, noting that the groundbreaking independent films of his career’s first half were “expressions of my innermost feelings and now that I’ve dealt with all that, I feel obligated to view life in other terms…I want to explore other areas of human and artistic experience.” Following the extraordinary critical success of his devastating 1974 Oscar-nominated drama A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes felt ready to move away from such difficult and innovative art-house material and develop genre films of pure craftsmanship—like a gangster picture.

Long a compulsive gambler addicted to the high of scoring on long shots (once going so far as to make a 60:1 bet that the Mets would take the World Series in their first year as a team and winning $30,000 as a result), Cassavetes was flush with the success of Woman and looking to double down, to let it ride into outright financial independence. And as an auteur whose control over his independently-financed films included acting as his own distributor by personally booking his films in theaters across the country, Cassavetes was looking for a win: “I can’t withstand the rejection anymore because I want to live. I want to enjoy my life now,” he noted. Bookie would be made “just as an effort to get out of the distribution business” and capitalize on the post-Godfather gangster movie fad, despite it being a genre that Cassavetes, always disdainful of exploitative sex and violence in film, found particularly uninteresting. Using all of his critical, financial, and artistic capital from Woman, Bookie would be his celebratory buyout, a “one for them” movie after 15 years of struggling to make his “one for me” films.

Within two weeks Cassavetes had cranked out a script about a gambling-junkie nightclub owner who gets in over his head with the West Coast mob, and had assembled his troupe of familiar actors (such as Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Timothy Carey). And perhaps it was his disdain for the material, or the haphazardly quick pre-production, or the strength of his obsession with/admiration for performers and artists, or maybe all of the above, but Cassavetes’ vision of Chinese Bookie began to slip almost as soon as filming began. His instinctual drive towards expressionism—to create profoundly insular visual worlds in which time is tricky and traditional story beats dissolve into the ether—destabilized the carefully crafted script, as did the intensely rushed post-production schedule that forced a messily incomplete film into the world, a film that ultimately failed its creator’s every intention of delivering uncomplicated genre thrills and instead became a brutally honest work of art, an amorphous fever-dream in which Cassavetes seemed to subconsciously project his nightmares on celluloid, unintentionally revealing the spiritual and artistic dilemma at the heart of his work.

Indeed, the writer-director was more correct than he knew when he declared that “if I made a gangster film, I would have to make it sheer entertainment, since that’s what we expect from that specific genre, which is a specific American art form.

“I don’t know whether I’m capable of making sheer entertainment.”

~ ~ ~

Cosmo Vittelli is the owner of the Crazy Horse West, a cheap and cave-dark strip club that, past its fuckfogged veneer of tits and ass, and beersweat and leering audiences, is a vehicle for Cosmo’s creative expression, all led by “Mr. Sophistication” (Meade Roberts), a showtune-slinging master of ceremonies whose garish makeup, overweight physique, and ruined dignity and charm make him a warped funhouse mirror of Vittelli’s every showbiz dream and neurosis. Backing Mr. Sophistication are a troupe of strippers (“the De-Lovelies”), who perform a bizarre form of burlesque musical theater with Cosmo acting as their director (“I’m the owner of the joint. I choose the numbers. I direct them. I arrange them. You have any complaints, you just come to me, and I’ll throw you right out on your ass”). Like Cassavetes, Cosmo is far more interested in the magic of performance than he is in meeting the requisite titillating requirements of the medium in which he works. And as Cassavetes projected onto Cosmo his own conflicts about working within the grimy constraints of Hollywood, Cosmo envisages his desperate need to project an air of old-world style and grace upon Mr. Sophistication despite the scumcrust rung of showbiz they inhabit together.

It’s in this way that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie begins by quite literally mirroring its own creative conception. Whether this was an intentional choice on the part of Cassavetes or not, it created the strange, grease-slick slippery slope of the film’s relationship with his reality, in which more and more of the auteur’s autobiographical demons would come to haunt the film’s mythic-fatalistic dream-journey through an L.A. hell. And it’s in that hell that Bookie’s lank-limbed plot kicks off: Gambling addict Cosmo finally pays off a seven-year debt to a loan shark and, now finally financially free for the first time in nearly decade, chooses to celebrate by letting it ride and doubles down on his newfound financial independence by entering into a high-stakes mob-run poker game that he’s lured into by some of the Crazy Horse West’s Mafioso clientele. Just as Cassavetes took the high of A Woman Under the Influence’s success and pushed all his chips forward onto Chinese Bookie, so too does Cosmo see his escape from loan-debt as a cosmic entreaty to push his luck and talents to their outer limits.

He fails, ferociously, and finds himself owing $23,000 to the mafia in an unnecessary gamble that seems just as couched in his (and his director’s) need to succeed on long shots as it does his need to craft a narrative, even if that narrative is the shape of his own tragic end—and in doing so presages his own maker’s fate with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.

~ ~ ~

While shooting the sequence in which a humiliated Cosmo escorts each of his De-Lovelies home in a limousine following his monumental poker loss, a lost, taciturn Gazzara called for a cut, telling Cassavetes he couldn’t “bring the character into focus” and understand what would drive him to take the risks that he does, to play the fool, to put on his shows. “I’m just not having any fun,” he lamented.

An equally distraught and lost Cassavetes, sitting on the floor of the limo and cradling a camera, thought about what his on-screen analogue had said. Then he began to cry.

“Ben, do you know who the gangsters are? They’re all those people who keep you and me from our dreams. The suits who stop the artist from doing what he wants to do. The petty people who eat at you. You just want to be left alone with your art. And then there’s all the bullshit that comes in, all these nuisances. Why does it have to be like that?

With that, both men were curiously re-energized, as if discovering a new purpose within the strange story and its character. It was as if in this moment, both the director and the man playing a version of him understood for the first time that the film they were making was more than just a genre exercise. Instead, it was a portrait of the existential dilemma at the heart of Cassavetes’ work—the need to entertain like a Mr. Sophistication, but maintain the “class” of a Cosmo Vittelli, all while his financiers pulled him one way and his natural instincts drove him another, effectively ripping Cassavetes apart. And from that rip poured forth the oily black miasma of Chinese Bookie, a film that tears itself to pieces as it pulls in the same antithetical directions.

~ ~ ~

Much as John Cassavetes was faced with a choice when making his follow up to A Woman Under the Influence—either continue the same grueling grind of crafting emotionally-draining films with little money and arduous self-distribution, or essentially show that he could work as a hired gun, a professional shooter who could make entertaining, audience-friendly genre fare—Cosmo Vittelli faces a similar crucible. He can go back to being “shylocked up to here” with soul-crushing, club-destroying mob debt, or he can work as a hired gun, using his military training from his time in the Korean War to work as a shooter for the mob, and execute a Valley-based Chinese bookie who’s been making trouble for the them—in effect, canceling his debt by canceling the Bookie.

Both men made their choices, and it is with a doomed sense of romance that both men, simultaneously—one onscreen, the other off—wrote and directed the dual tragedies that would bring them down. Cosmo’s need to project the air of a sophisticated artiste is undone by his street-edge, his need for action, and it puts a .45 in his hand and a doomed Chinese gangster in his path—just as his director, while shooting these very scenes, was being undone from his stated goal of creating popcorn entertainment by his own artistic edge, his need to craft difficult, phantasmal psychological studies loosed within plotless, eerily time-absent environments. Together, both men, with only love to give to their arts, grabbed their weapons and leapt into the dark L.A. night and the fates that awaited them.

~ ~ ~

Immediately after filming on Bookie wrapped, Cassavetes flew to Europe for a location shoot followed by a return to the States to star in John Frankenheimer’s disaster film Two-Minute Warning (he needed to pay off Bookie’s upcoming distribution expenses), leaving the editing to Tom Cornwell…who became deleteriously sick in Cassavetes’ absence, and left much of the cutting to assistants. The footage they found was strange and discordant, with little to no coverage of the action sequences—such as Cosmo taking down the Chinese bookie, or his subsequent mob shootout when he learns it was all a double-cross to get him killed by Chinese gangsters, leaving the Crazy Horse West open for the mafia’s taking—and with whole reels of film given over to extraordinarily long performance pieces by Mr. Sophistication and the De-Lovelies at the Crazy Horse West.

Tasked with rushing out a cut of the film to meet the wildly optimistic distribution dates Cassavetes had to accept to get the film in theaters, the editors welded together a strange, subterranean vision—time seems to dilate and contract in the theatrical cut without reason, with days compressed to minutes and minutes stretched into what feel like days. There is no discernable act structure to mark our place in the plot; Cosmo just seems to simply “exist” like a phantom haunting Los Angeles, without a home or a car or any kind of life beyond vague references to a romantic relationship with a De-Lovely—if he is not at the Crazy Horse West, he is always working for it, running errands for it, fighting for it, killing for it. The film plays like a jingle-jangle dream, abruptly shifting from scene to scene, section to section.

In short, the film was a 135-minute mess, one dominated by long sequences of Crazy Horse West performances punctuated by “plot” scenes in which the information rendering those scenes fathomable had been left on the cutting room floor (example: this version of the film makes no mention of Cosmo’s wartime military service, making his adept killing work later in the film borderline inexplicable). Yet in that mess, buried in the murky undertow of a haphazard edit, was a violent throb of meaning, the powerful story of a man driven both by demons and dreams to create the narratives of his stage and his life. And neither Cosmo nor Cassavetes could let either narrative go.

~ ~ ~

Discovering that the bookie hit was a double-cross, Cosmo confronts the mob in a concrete firefight in an underground parking garage, effectively reediting the doomed narrative he crafted for himself by placing a bet in that mob card game. Cosmo changes the story by killing the dreamkillers, “the petty people who eat at you,” and saves himself from their grasp…but not before taking a bullet to the stomach, leaving a bloody trail across L.A. as he makes his way back home, to the Crazy Horse West, to continue the show, that which he loves so much.

Discovering upon his return from Two-Minute Warning that The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was a colossal critical and financial bomb, Cassavetes confronted the film head-on, re-editing the doomed narrative he’d crafted nearly a year before when betting on himself as a commercial filmmaker. Cassavetes changed the story by cutting out much of the extraordinarily overlong (albeit hypnotic) De-Lovelies sequences, changed the running order of several scenes while replacing other scenes outright with alternate takes, and backboned it all with a clearer narrative superstructure that more clearly outlined Cosmo’s descent and possible redemption…but not before taking a massive career hit, and limping on to his next project, the wonderful Opening Night, to continue the show he loved so much.

~ ~ ~

If the 135-minute theatrical cut is like the nebulous memory of a dream, the 108-minute director’s cut of Chinese Bookie is the bone-hard and plot-driven version that pulled all the film’s (and its director’s) contradictory elements into a cohesive, logical knot. Still the queerly fugue-like vision of the more “Cassevetes-esque” original cut, it’s now given the shape of a traditional ‘70s crime-noir thriller (ironically—though perhaps apropos for this odd film—it was the editorial assistants who gave Bookie its very loose Cassavetes “feel,” while it was Cassavetes who tightly re-edited it into a more “old-fashioned” gangster picture). As such, the director’s cut is remarkable unification of the disparate impulses that warred within Cassavetes—the need to simply entertain, the need to create “difficult” art—and thus the friction it creates, the tectonic grinding of these two appositional impulses, creates a deliriously fascinating, thematically resonant superstructure to this messy story both of a man and made by a man split by the same forces.

All of which dovetails into The Killing of a Chinese Bookie’s final scene, a scene that is left wholly untouched in either version: Rather than announce Mr. Sophistication and the De-Lovelies’ nightly performance from the P.A. mic behind the stage as he normally does, Cosmo, his black suit soggy with blood from the bullet he took just hours before, steps onto the stage for the first time in the film and announces his surrogate in-person. Cosmo’s introduction of a new stage show could just as easily be Cassavetes’ own for this new version of the film: “We’re gonna introduce you to a new number tonight. We’re gonna take you on a whooooooooole new trip. And I know you’re gonna enjoy it.” And with that, Mr. Sophistication takes the stage with Cosmo, crass surrogate and difficult artist unite, and a vision is completed.

Later, as Mr. Sophistication sings the jazz standard “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” to an adoring audience, Cosmo stands outside the Crazy Horse West, bleeding profusely. Does he live? Does he die? Does it matter? The film closes without an answer. Because what matters is the show—the messy, contradictory, difficult, thrilling, heartfelt, artful, real, killer show—and it goes on.