At the start of the film, “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,” Cosmo Vittelli has just paid off the debt he owed a loan shark, Marty (Al Rubin). In exchange for paying off what he owed, Cosmo’ nightclub, The Crazy Horse West, located on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, is once again his place, free and clear. Cosmo is portrayed by Emmy winner Ben Gazzara (Run for your Life) who gives a first-rate performance. Instead of basking in his financial accomplishment, Cosmo decides to celebrate with a handful of his female employees. He doesn’t furnish the women with expensive gifts, nor does he whisk the ladies off on a private plane to a tropical island. Instead, he has each of the women picked up, by a chauffeur driven limousine, and each lady is given a carnation to wear. The limousine drives Cosmo and the women, to an illegal gambling establishment run by local gangsters with mafia connections; it is a place, where seemingly anyone can receive a line of credit to play. Payment, however, for those who lose, is expected immediately, unless other arrangements can be agreed to.
By evening’s end, Cosmo, is called in to meet with the establishment’s boss (Morgan Woodward) to settle his debts. After being in the financial clear for less than a day, he is back in debt. According to the accountant (John Kullers), Cosmo owes $23,000 dollars, which in 2018, would be equivalent to approximately $105,000. Cosmo doesn’t have that kind of money, nor would his club generate that kind of income in sufficient time to pay back the gangsters. Working in Cosmo’s favor, albeit, just in the manner in which it buys him more time, is that one of the gangsters, Mort, played by Oscar nominee Seymour Cassel (Faces), happens to personally like Cosmo.
The gangsters agree to let Cosmo and the ladies leave, but they will be in touch soon, to discuss how he can pay down his considerable debt. When the gangsters catch up with Cosmo, they inform him that they have a way for him to erase his debts. What they want, is for Cosmo, a Korean War veteran, to kill one of their competitors, a Chinese bookie, Soto Joe Hugh. Cosmo is hesitant at first, but after being taken into a back alleyway, by Flo (Timothy Carey), and physically worked over for a bit, to see what he would be in for, with an outright refusal, Cosmo accepts the job.
Cosmo has no desire to either be disabled or killed, nor does he want to lose his club. He considers the club, and the people that work for him, to be his true family, having no immediate family of his own. He even fancies himself a bit of an artist, even though the paying customers are there to see women strip. Cosmo insists on putting on musical numbers, as a way to separate himself from the other strip clubs. The musical numbers and skits are designed by Cosmo, and hosted by Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts). He is a heavy set individual, who wears brash makeup, and dresses in a tux, replete with cane and a top hat.
Given a gun – directions to where the bookie lives – instructions to purchase hamburger meat in order to keep the man’s guard dogs busy, and a key which unlocks the door to the building the bookie lives in, Cosmo sets off in a stolen car. From the outset, what can go wrong, does go wrong. When Cosmo arrives at the bookie’s house, the man is entertaining company. Additionally, the bookie has a number of bodyguards spread out throughout the property, more than Cosmo thought he would be contending with.
Only because it is not the primary focus of the movie, merely the catalyst for what comes afterward, I will let it be known, that Cosmo does successfully kill the bookie. After doing so, Cosmo has placed himself in tremendous peril. What Cosmo doesn’t know, information that the gangsters withheld from him, for obvious reasons, is as follows: The gangsters never expected him to be able to pull off the job. They figured he would kill the bookie, and one of the bookie’s people would take out Cosmo, and they would step in and take over Cosmo’s nightclub. Furthermore, the person Cosmo killed, wasn’t just a simple bookie, but was the head of west coast operations for an international criminal Chinese syndicate.
Is there a way out for Cosmo? Will he have to go to war with the gangsters to win his freedom? If he succeeds, and bests the gangsters, what about the Chinese crime syndicate? Do they come looking for Cosmo to extract their revenge against him for taking out one of their leaders? All of those questions and more will be answered by the conclusion of the film.
“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” was written and directed by three time Oscar nominee John Cassavetes (A Woman Under the Influence). The film premiered on February 15, 1976 in New York City, New York. When the film first premiered, and for approximately a week thereafter, its runtime was 135 minutes, but after receiving less than stellar critical reviews, Cassavetes released a 109 minute version of the movie. The original story for the film had been developed years earlier by John Cassavetes and Oscar winner Martin Scorsese (The Departed). The film comprises the genres of crime, drama, and thriller. The pacing is slow, but that only enhances the realism that Cassavetes was striving for while dealing with people who are on the fringes of society. In closing, the role of Cosmo was an excellent character study, thanks to the performance given by Ben Gazzara; the cast as a whole was uniformly good, and the score by Emmy winner Bo Harwood (Ups & Downs), helps to elevate the tension of what is taking place on screen.