The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) is a film that’s been recommended to me at various times, as a script writer for hire and UK script consultant I final managed to catch up with the film yesterday.

Wow, what an interesting and slightly strange experience this film is, and already I’ve got a feeling that this is one of those films that I’ll be visiting time and time again. 

Director Cassavetes was an actor’s director (and a good actor himself). Some of the scenes in this film are unlike any other.  The characters and characterisation take wild interesting diversions, and the plot slips and slides everywhere, the actual killing of the title is hugely affective, and a surprise for the audience and the men who hire (or cajole) the killer into committing the crime.

This is the Ben Gazzara performance and he’s in this with the great Timothy Carey and Seymour Cassel amongst others.  Carey and Cassel feel very real as mob bosses wanting a debt repaid. 

In a great showpiece scene where a public negation is taking place, on how the debt will be resolved the camera spends time on Gazzara’s face – he sits there listening, worried, concerned, scared, boasting, lying, not sure what to do and what he’s being asked (or forced) to do – it feels like a nightmare and the actors playing mobsters bully him, and feel like actual serious gangsters, not movie ones (especially Carey, who’s tall frame, and lived in wild gaunt face make him a scary presence). Gazzara watches them, shifts uncomfortably and is literally placed in a corner he can’t get out of.

Gazzara plays a nightclub owner, the sort of nightclub where there’s a compare and a cabaret act with naked girls and a strange man performing alongside them.  There are songs and applause and a spotlight, it’s like a dream of what being a nightclub owner in 70s LA felt like. Gazzara talks to the performers, loves them, knows every routine and song. He’s there every night and when’s he’s not he calls to find out about the audience and performance.

Gazzara is also a vet of the Korean war, many years ago he was an infantry man, he killed in the war, and when forced to kill a bookie (a suicide mission which the mob think he will never walk away from) he proves fabulously effective (which isn’t good news).

There’s as much time spent on Gazzara’s gambling issues, his running of the club, and his time spent with the minor showgirls he loves, than there is spent on the whole mobster killing part of the film. It’s an interesting and offbeat take on a film noir.

The film exists in various versions, and some contain footage not in others. It’s a film that one could become obsessed with.  

Special mention should go to some of the lovely ladies, including Haji of Russ Meyer fame.  

See the film if you can, I’ve watched the short version for starters.  

Matthew Cooper has been a script writer for hire, UK Script editor  and UK script consultant for over 20 years. He’s written for most of the UK soaps, including writing award winning episodes of Emmerdale, EastEnders, Hollyoaks and Family Affairs and has been BAFTA shortlisted and Royal Television Society nominated as a script writer. His UK script coverage service and script development service are highly sought after.

You can find some of his broadcast credits on the IMDb. His directorial debut, the rubber reality horror thriller Markham will be released in 2020. You can find out more about Matthew’s work as a director here.

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