The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
Directed by John Cassavetes
December 15 at Anthology Film Archives, part of its Ben Gazzara retrospective
“They hated it. It broke my heart,” Ben Gazzara once said about the first screening of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. “I was using angry expletives about what do they know, what do they know… [Cassavetes] was calming me down: ‘Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it.’ It was his money, all of it, and he’s calming me down—wonderful.” Cassavetes was a son-of-a-bitch saint, immoral for the good of cinema, but Gazzara was a mumbling mensch. When he—with that gravelly purr, those smiling eyes, that bitter grin—died earlier this year, it felt like a certain style of quiet 20th-century manliness died with him.
Even when you see him in the 70s, when he was in his prime, he seems like a throwback to a different generation. It’s never what he says that matters, but that he never says what he really means, like when gross, bushy-browed Mr. Sophistication—the emcee of the tawdry strip show at the center of the film—explains his freakishness is the key to show’s appeal. “Straight-laced,” is Gazzara’s one-word retort. Gazzara’s Cosmo is the owner of this club, The Crazy Horse West, and while tragically going under thanks to mob debt, he still offers a nightly oasis of red-filtered lights, pastel nylon chiffon, tits, ass and cheap champagne as an alternative to the lowlifes with no style that surround him on the Sunset Strip. His is a gorgeous and heartfelt fall, accompanied by multiple, rollicking versions of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” a song best known previously in film for the time Cary Grant, in drag, sang it to a leopard. Grant was Gazzara’s only competitor for suave, prickly sensitivity—and perhaps also for the title of the best male actor in cinema.