So as to avoid the tension: this post is enormously indebted to Ray Carney and based on the original 1976 cut of the film.
John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is, as with seemingly every film of its decade, ripe for analysis as an exploration of the cultural miscommunications of the 1970s, but only after a fashion. Unlike nearly every other film mired in then-contemporary issues, it is not blindsided by the minutiae of references or tangible representations of reality. Cassavetes’ work, like all his masterly films, is instead submerged in the milieu of the time period at an emotional and cognitive level. It excavates the unsettled consciousness of the period in a man dissociated from himself, a man who retreats into a mental or imaginative space where he is a lothario, a noirish type who erects a vision of himself through appearance, routine, and a surfeit of arbitrary significances draped over empty signifiers. Cosmo (Ben Gazzara), the strip-joint don suddenly thrust into a murder plot, shelters himself in the realm of ideas and romantic visions of selfhood. Unlike most films that deal in any time period, the plot, and indeed any gangster trappings in the film, are purely prisms to refract an understanding of imaginative experience through. Cosmo, and the film, is a battleground of the lived and imaginative selves, the self as it exists in reality and the self as it exists in the mind.
The main character of Cassavetes’ film The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is, at least outwardly, an un-disruptable cipher defined by strict adherence to an identity he tries to control. Gazzara’s masterclass in disturbed sangfroid emanates stilled, controlled, and un-melodramatic tension; his character, Cosmo, maintains a cool in spite of the threat to himself. But his attitude or inability to be fazed, rather than being endorsed, is a crevice to investigate for Cassevetes, as though Cosmo has a masculine personal script for himself – an artistic performance he plays in life for other people, a Romantic vision of his self – that is being disrupted even as he tries to maintain his routine composure. At one point, when meeting his loan shark, he rebuffs the man for adhering to no stylistic principles, but Cosmo’s own style is something of a tomb.
Tasked with murdering a bookie to repay a gambling debt, Cosmo seems to barely register a fluster. But his collected visage belies how the only expression available in his repertoire is his paternalistic cool-customer routine, probably a facsimile ingested from Hollywood films throughout the century. He’s a con man whose only effective trick is getting himself to believe his put-on costume identity. This is a costume that most films either adopt themselves or otherwise redress (see Tarantino) in exclusively hypocritical feints while they draw from the very well of overt style they otherwise position themselves against. Rather than gallantly striding through space in a search for visual serenity a la Tarantino, Cassavetes’ style harshly rebukes Cosmo, exposing his frail and fraudulent countenance by projecting a vision of experience antithetical to Cosmo’s demeanor. While Cosmo has an insatiable lust for perfection, the film does not alloy itself to carefully sculpted, pristine visual gestures or an aural soundscape that parts from the disturbances of reality to realize only the bare essentials of a narrative. The look of Cassavetes’ film, hoarse and unstable with the camera ricocheting around space and introducing conditions and qualifications to its every gesture, suggests that the clean film – the perfect composition – Cosmo and most American films pine for is simply an intellectual misfire that achieves stability through significant aporia.
At the risk of miring myself in abstraction, let us examine. Upon retrieving a number of his strippers early on in the film (to bring them to the ill-fated gambling game) Cosmo asks them each to put on a flower, a kind of abutment to his crystalline vision of beauty and surface cool he projects. He begins to help them, only to ask his driver to complete the task because he himself cannot actually wield the flower. He adopts a visage of control, a concern for pristine appearance, when he actually relies on other people and can be disrupted by other people.
The vision of life in Killing is the contrast between the smoothness of Cosmo’s desire (or self-imagination one might say) and the scrapes or disruptions of reality. Many of these scrapes manifest in the formal style of the film as well; they aren’t simply narrative scrapes but visual lesions for the audience. After Cosmo and the first girl ride around in the car, the film cuts abruptly to on the car window with a new girl and a man who we can’t see putting a flower on her. Since the space is approached without complete knowledge, we are not sure who it is since we are given no establishing shot, only for the film to give us a disconnected series of shots showing people getting into car windows without any idea who is entering where in the car. Contextualizing information withheld, the space isn’t gifted to us with an establishing shot that affords for the complete vision of the space. We have to work toward it, navigate fluxion and disturbance, since the artistic space of the film or the reality of life is effortful, like something we have to react to and remain attentive to, reconsidering in every moment rather than flattening by applying a pre-calcified mental type to every experience.
Once the three girls have been retrieved, we cut to the three of them in a room without Cosmo, each voicing hang-ups and anxieties about the gambling game, disrupting Cosmos’ vision with moments of slight rebellion or unruliness, with their own personalities outside Cosmo’s vision of them as personal baggage and accoutrements. There is a more literal disruption in the next shot when the girls need chairs, but the formal style of the film, cutting between moments with only tenuous ties to the narrative and including moments outside of Cosmo’s vision, gives us a film we can’t easily control but must work for as well. Cosmo’s illusion of personal stability/control is tentative, and Cassavetes suggests a vision of life where performance or role-playing is central (either to certain people or everyone), where life is a tension between personal scripts and the disrupting forces of the outside realm. In this capacity, his films are fiercely individualist but they reject the Hollywood and American intellectual tradition of heroism. They are about individual eccentricity and beauty through personality surviving by navigating society, existing within it, rather than triumphing over it or creating your own heroic society that exists beyond or above lived experience. Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is antithetical to his mindset; life isn’t about pulling oneself up or conquering society but existing within and exploring society as it exists.
Obviously, having to murder the Chinese bookie is the central disruption of the narrative, but Cassavetes includes other moments that introduce other disruptions, other tensions between Cosmo’s social roles. One is when his employee/girlfriend Rachel arrives at work, disrupting the boundaries between work and romance, dismembering the categories of life that are porous but Cosmo separates and sequesters to safe, hermetically sealed zones. But rather than awkwardly navigating the conversation by acknowledging its tension, Cosmo tries to control it, to pacify it, by returning to his almost-patriarchal self-act by offering his recalcitrant girlfriend a drink rather than actually addressing her concerns and descending into interpersonal conflict. Tellingly, while Cosmo is observing the other girl like a lecher, the camera films her as if cutting her apart at the torso, only her bottom-half visible. But when Rachel interrupts, as Cosmo is walking to Rachel with the drink, the camera briefly follows the other stripper running out with her shirt (having forgotten it the first time she left) and then struggling to open the door on her way out. This sliver of humanly clumsiness suggests, firstly, that the camera is sensitive to the outside world and other people in a way Cosmo is not and, secondly, that Cosmo is trying to withhold this clumsiness or this worldly chaos to assert his own control of the space around him. This woman, while Cosmo may mentally cut her off mid-section as an object, introduces her humanity through her mistakes.
In the moment where Cosmo speaks with Rachel’s mother, leading her into a story he tries to sell her on like a used car, she responds she doesn’t care, breaking his routine and launching him into lashing out at her, yelling. While the camera holds on him early on, her statement – the camera moving to her – disrupts his formal control over the camera, his composure of the film in addition to himself, with the camera now shuttling back and forth between them, even cutting between the two violently as he erupts into volcanic frustration. Cosmo’s only recourse when someone refuses to settle for his personal scripting is to break down. Cassavetes doesn’t explain Cosmo or give us complete access to Cosmo so he remains a partial mystery, but his actions emanate a willful mental world where everyone will fall for his demeanor, a place he controls like the strip joint. The strip joint almost seems a metaphor or symbol Cosmo has created of his control, where-as the film world seems more unsettled, cluttered, and fragmented, composed of fluxional parts that do not always cohere into the whole Cosmo envisions for it. The murder, in this sense, is less about the murder itself than the nature of disrupting habitual routines and peering beyond the suit-and-tie shell this man has set up for himself, leaving him emotionally exposed on stage.
En route to commit the titular deed, Cosmo has to call a cab and takes advantage of the opportunity to call his strip joint (the magenta halls of which suggest a vagina canal for this most insecure male), frustrated that the club isn’t performing the right song. He doesn’t raise a brow about the murder, as though he exists at a willful remove. Mentally, he’s still trapped in his only safe space, the strip joint, an inclination Cassavetes underlines by having Gazzara motion the position of a sign in the strip joint as though the person on the other end of the phone can see him. Cosmo is ideologically codified and thus confined in his abode. In the strip club, as in his suits, he mentally hibernates, but he mistakes it for life.
The film’s finale seems most indicative of Cosmo’s life as a personal script/performance, with Cosmo on stage one last time announcing his show while a bullet wound festers in him. Throughout, Cosmo seems to vacillate between his performative routine and moments of introspection or consideration. Primarily, his confident motions, calm disposition, and smooth voice absent hesitations suggest a routine of control on the stage he partially structures his life around, but punctures in his performance reveal themselves. When announcing one of the girl’s names to the crowd, he momentarily looks down at his glass, as if speaking to himself, noting “I love to say that name, a beautiful name, and uhh…” finally hesitating only to recede almost immediately to his speech. The audience disrupts him asking about a delay in his arrival, only for him to initiate a response which is again disrupted, finally noting “one girl left us, gone on to bigger and better things” as he looks down again at his glass. In the early portions of the speech, whenever the film cuts to the audience, the film is seemingly prey to Cosmo’s fingertips, the light shining on the women he mentions, the camera still and calm as if he is directing the space and the camera to where he wants it (completing his personal vision, perhaps).
Yet, when the camera cuts back to the audience as he is explaining the disruption in his routine, however, the camera moves hesitantly, jerkily, jostling between audience members seemingly not under his control. When the film cuts back to him, he is hesitating, looking down again, in reflection, his script threatened, only able to look at his drink, noting “uhh, she was a black girl, black and beautiful” without looking at the audience and speaking pensively as if in reflection. However, he almost immediately returns to his canned smile looking at the crowd with his introduction of “Mr Sophistication”, as if Cassavetes is having him move in and out of his performance, torn between them in a liminal state. The irregular rhythms of conversation so essential to life reveal themselves in moments of tension where his control is threatened. If the stage suggests Cosmo’s theatrical mindset, the heckler and Cosmo’s own mistakes in expressing himself when his routine fails remind that life gets in the way and that something human or individual emerges in his failed expressions rather than preplanned or perfect routines he’s created in his mind. Cassavetes’ film introduces the fluidity of experience Cosmo decries.
While some films construct a purely realist realm or an exclusively psychological space wrapped around one character though, Cassavetes does not allow this harmoniousness. His film defies the common filmic assumption that drama emanates from only one character and a central psychology organizes the film; Cassavetes almost seems to create a character who occupies the latter imaginative world and then strands him in a world that bedevils his style system. The emotionally eclectic film, ruthlessly modernist, dismantles the emotional or stylistic monolith by scrubbing away our foundational assumptions of how film ought to visualize itself. One minute, it seems to dive into Cosmo’s mental space, and the next it about-faces with a wake-up call. When sequestered in his mental safety zone, the strip joint, the frequency of blinding Hollywood-y lights refracted by the camera’s head-on stare insinuate that many of these scenes are something like blind mental visions or constructs, even fantasies, on Cosmo’s part, not a representation of reality but his filtered or blinkered version of it sculpting around his mind. Light and the camera morph around his ego, flashing in awe of his performance as if he is a grotesque parody of a Hollywood star.
At other times, however, the camera is an extension not of Cosmo’s vision but the irremediable disharmony of lived experience. Faces and bodies ambiguously relate to the camera, the frame (as in an Altman film) not sure of where to focus or how to glean information or control these people (as in the aforementioned shot of the man adorning the woman with the carnation, the camera adamantly refusing to gift us with Cosmo’s pristine vision of physical beauty). At times, the noirish lighting gives the appearance of Cosmo as a phantom stalking his prey, a supreme-agent, and at others, he feels like a sleepwalker irradiated by his own ineptitude to adapt to life or even acknowledge that he cannot adapt. When he is at his most vulnerable, and thus most deluded, the lighting is overexposed, invoking a vulnerable incandescence like moral florescence revealing every emotional bruise of his own pathetic-ness. The film is thus dialectically torn between invading and visualizing his character’s mental architecture and holding itself at a cruel remove to emphasize the hollow partialness or essential tenuousness of that mind-state which only thinks it holds dominion over the unruly world around it. These modal shifts between highly subjective lizard lounge spaces with crystalline camera movement and the disarray elsewhere are precisely what Cosmo hates: formal structures that externalize the vacillations and multivalences of life. Vacillating between premeditated, even graceful movements in moments of control and shambolic disharmony, the film is a puzzle that doesn’t fit with pieces that aren’t even fixed. It is, depending on the minute, an endorsement or an autopsy of a man who seems to both represent Cassavetes’ incendiary vision of self-competence (he was famously vain and egotistical, thinking himself an above-it-all bad-boy) and a scathing dismantling of that very archetype through a style that engulfs itself in psychosomatic seizures.
Never entombed in ideological structures about how to direct, Cassavetes’ film adheres to no principle, adapting to the needs and fluctuating energies of the moment improvisationally. At times, it is almost dictatorial in how directed it is toward conveying information specifically, as Cosmo would want. But, elsewhere and much more often, it defeats that classical, canonical style of filmmaking and introduces something less coifed and fluffed and altogether helter-skelter. Cosmo is a drone or a cynical victim imposing his own perfection on an imperfect world, unable to react when his perfection fails. But rather than giving in to nihilism, the camera proposes an alternative vision alive to the beauty of differentiated, unstable experience. Unlike Cosmo’s anonymous poise and rote routines, the camera is personal, inflecting each moment with a vigor that defeats cliché. The style, opposite of Cosmo’s one-size-fits-all aesthetic, harnesses contradictory film grammar to puncture the psychological and realist spaces with one another to provoke the modernist reflex and defy any foundational structure. Cassavetes’ mind substitutes a sense of visual imperfection if not quite chaos. It does not camouflage itself in a masculine ideal of beauty or mastery. He even rejects essentializing Cosmo. Although I have described Cosmo’s actions which suggest a need for control or poise, even he always exists somewhat fluxionally or as someone who cannot be pinned down; even his life performance breaks down revealing hesitance and personal stutters that do not “explain” him but only further complicate him in a way that drags him and our understanding of him deeper into the unknown.