Friday, April 19, 2013

Poker in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The plot of John Cassavetes’s gritty crime drama The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (first released in 1976) hinges on a poker game, presented in a brief though important scene early in the film. While the game’s result ultimately leads to the violence suggested in the film’s title, the scene also signals other themes that come to be explored further as the story subsequently unfolds.

The scene also perhaps tells us something significant about poker, too -- namely, how not everyone plays for the same reasons.

Like all of Cassavetes’s films, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie employs a challenging, distinctive narrative style, employing lots of unconventional editing and camera work, other documentary-like or “cinéma vérité” elements, not-always-linear plotting, and a consistently improvisational feel despite the fact that his films were often carefully scripted (by himself).

Sometimes likened to other independent “auteurs” who also produced their best work during the ’60s and ’70s, Cassavetes’s films are not for everyone, but for some offer wholly absorbing examples of cinematic storytelling, often punctuated by remarkably realistic performances from his actors, several of whom he used repeatedly.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie represented something of a departure for Cassavetes. Unlike his earlier ensemble-driven, almost experimental domestic dramas like Shadows, Faces, and A Woman Under the Influence, here the director chose to work within a particular, established genre -- the updated hard-boiled noir in which peers like Martin Scorcese (Mean Streets), Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation), Roman Polanski (Chinatown), and Robert Altman (The Long Goodbye) were operating at the time.

Also unlike some of his earlier films in which several characters receive detailed examination, here the focus is squarely upon a single individual, the strip club owner and inveterate gambler Cosmo Vittelli, memorably portrayed by Ben Gazzara.

While it is clear Cosmo’s gambling habit is an important part of his character -- and indeed, is the primary cause for the film’s central conflict -- he is in fact shown gambling only once early in the film when he visits a mob-run casino to play poker.

By the time Cosmo makes his visit to the poker room, we have been introduced to him and his struggling L.A. strip club where the dancers -- whom he calls the “De-Lovelies” -- engage in cabaret-like performances along with a somewhat morose singer-host with magic-markered-on eyebrows and mustache named Mr. Sophistication. By then we’ve also witnessed Cosmo paying off a loan shark, finally settling what appears to have been a long-standing debt presumably accrued because of his gambling.

In fact, the trip to the casino to play poker represents a celebration of sorts by Cosmo for having finally gotten out from under his creditor’s thumb. Thus to mark the occasion, Cosmo takes three of the De-Lovelies along with him -- including his girlfriend, Rachel (Azizi Johari) -- the group traveling via limousine and drinking Dom Perignon on the way.

Before discussing the scene, a word needs to be said about the different versions of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The original film released in 1976 ran a lengthy 134 minutes and proved a box office failure. Cassavetes then re-edited the film for a second release in 1978, the new version lasting 108 minutes. Unfortunately for Cassavetes, the second version didn’t fare much better commercially, although the film has been highly regarded by critics, some of whom rank it alongside the director’s best.

While most of the edits involve the removal of lengthy strip club routines, some significant differences are introduced thanks to the way Cassavetes reordered the sequence of a few scenes, truncated some others, and even introduced previously unused material into the shorter version. Some have noted how the portrayal of Cosmo and our response to him is significantly affected by the changes, turning what had been an unsympathetic, undisciplined loser in the earlier version into a more likable and understandable character in the latter.

The poker scene did survive the cuts, although it is abridged in the shorter 1978 version, probably the one those coming across the film over the last three-plus decades are most likely to have seen. (Both versions are included in a Criterion Collection compilation of Cassavetes’s films.)

In the longer version of the film, the casino visit is preceded by a personal invitation from one of the casino’s proprietors, Mort Weil (Seymour Cassel). A repeat visitor to Cosmo’s club, Mort tells him about the casino being “a place where you can go and play poker, you know, and nobody bothers you... [and] nobody cheats.”

The invite includes a slightly ambiguous reference from Mort about how “everything’s on us.” Mort is referring primarily to the “excellent cuisine” and “good wine,” although Cosmo’s response suggests he might be hearing something else. “Everything’s for free?” says Cosmo, and Mort says yes. “Except the gambling,” adds a grinning Cosmo.

The original, longer version also draws more attention to the limo ride over in which Cosmo and the De-Lovelies drink champagne, as well as to the awkwardness introduced at the poker room when Cosmo has to order staff to find chairs for the ladies so they can watch him play.

It is here that the shorter version picks up the scene, with Cosmo playing what appears to be five-card draw. Clearly distracted by the women, he has to be told when to bet and how much. He calls an opening raise to $50, then the pot gets raised and reraised to $850 total when the action is back on him.

With a nonchalance suggesting he’s much more concerned with the ladies’ welfare than with the fact that he’s down in the game, Cosmo interrupts the hand to tell a staff member he needs more credit. When he is refused, Cosmo is taken aback. “What are you trying to do, embarrass me?” he says. He then demands to see Mort Weil.

“The man said I could have unlimited credit,” adds Cosmo.

The staff member reacts animatedly, saying he’s never heard of such a thing, the response eliciting laughter from Cosmo’s opponents. Here the shorter version of the scene ends, but in the longer version the negotiation between Cosmo and the staff member continues, with Cosmo finally managing to get him to accept a personal check for $2,000.

As he writes the check, Rachel leans forward to interject, but Cosmo snaps at her. “Darling, don't do that, it irritates me” he says and she leans back. “It’s all right,” he adds. “It’s only money.”

From there we move to a meeting between Cosmo and the casino owners where we discover he’s somehow managed to lose not only the $1,000 he brought with him to the game, but a whopping $23,000 more on credit.

In the longer version of the film we first witness another player who has also lost money on credit nervously dealing with the scary casino owners before Cosmo’s meeting. By contrast, Cosmo appears calm and without worry as he confesses that he doesn’t presently have money in the bank to pay what he owes. “All the money I make, I put back into my business,” he explains. Before leaving, he signs documents acknowledging his debt and intention to settle.

One can see how even with this brief sequence the edits affect how we might view Cosmo. In the longer version, he appears selfish and self-destructive, recklessly putting himself back into a financial hole after having just climbed out. In the shorter version, he’s appears more a victim of circumstance, with the scene involving the other debtor making us sympathize more greatly with Cosmo than with the intimidating casino owners whose money he’s lost at the table.

Cosmo does not repay his debt as quickly as his creditors would like, and soon they pressure him into agreeing to kill a rival, the “Chinese bookie” of the title. They characterize the man to Cosmo as a small-timer, although later we discover the target is in fact “the heaviest cat on the west coast” -- that is, a highly prominent crime boss.

After efforts to settle the debt in other ways fail, Cosmo agrees to the plan. He appears utterly in over his head, having unwittingly fallen in with an especially dangerous crowd. Just like in the poker game, where Cosmo clearly was ill-equipped to complete with the other players, here he seems likewise outmatched. And making things worse, he doesn’t even realize his “opponent” is much more formidable than he’s been led to believe.

The film does not, however, necessarily play out as expected here. Cosmo, like all of Cassavetes’s best characters, turns out to be a much more complicated figure than we might suspect from these opening scenes. He’s better prepared to handle the ensuing challenge than we might have thought him to be. And despite his seemingly self-destructive gambling habit, Cosmo is genuinely motivated by a personal philosophy -- “to be comfortable.”

“You gotta work hard to be comfortable,” he explains to his employees at the club late in the film, his oration to them resembling the kind of monologue a character from a Dostoevsky novel might deliver.

“A lot of people kid themselves, you know. They… they… they know when they were born. They know where they’re going. They know whether they’re gonna go to heaven, whether they’re gonna go to hell. They think they know that. They kid themselves. But the only people who are, you know, happy are the people who are comfortable.”

As mentioned, those watching the shorter version of the film are probably more likely to understand Cosmo’s thinking here, even to agree that his actions throughout have been in line with this desire to seek comfort. It might seem strange to suggest that losing thousands in a poker game in any way increases a person’s comfort level, but not if we understand that for Cosmo having money doesn’t necessarily figure into his comfort or happiness.

Another of the characters -- one of the mobsters -- notes at the end of the film how “that jerk Karl Marx said opium is the religion of the people,” humorously mangling the quote. He then offers a revision that kind of unwittingly references the German philosopher’s theory.

“I got news for him,” he says. “It’s money.”

Cosmo, however, doesn’t desire money as possessing it does nothing for him in his constant quest to be comfortable. Rather, what Cosmo wants is “unlimited credit.” Thus does he continually reinvest in his struggling strip club where he serves as a kind of father figure to a most unconventional “family.” Such selflessness perhaps contradicts his obvious narcissism, but that’s what makes his character so interestingly complex -- what makes him human.

Despite the fact that many insist poker is all about the money, I think a lot of players might be able to understand Cosmo’s way of thinking -- that, really, what many of us are playing for is not to win money, but to be comfortable. And therefore, happy.

And while winning or losing certainly affects the comfort level of some, for many of us money is not our “religion” or the sole reason why we play. Such is one of many ideas Cassavetes’s film invites us to consider.

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Blogger Yakshi said...

I've been reading your blog for about eight months, and I think that this is your best post in that time. Thanks.

4/19/2013 3:43 PM  
Blogger Mike Owens said...

Great post Shamus! I found the full movie on youtube and I'm going to watch it soon. Thanks

4/19/2013 9:53 PM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

Thanks, guys.

As I say in the post, Mike, Cassavetes isn't for everyone, but I do think Bookie is a great film. Of his others, I actually prefer both Husbands (1970) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974), in part because I'm such a Peter Falk fan. Speaking of, Cassavetes is also great as a guest star on a Columbo episode "Étude in Black."

4/19/2013 10:38 PM  

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