My favourite interpretation of John Cassavetes’ Killing of a Chinese Bookie is that Cosmo Vitelli and the strip-club he presides over, as father-figure, lover, director, producer and all round life and soul, is a metaphor for Cassavetes the artist and his films; his metaphorical depiction of all the rubbish an artist has to put up with in order to assert his vision. Poor Cosmo has to deal with gangsters and money men trying to take his club away from him; recalcitrant performers who don’t understand his vision or insist on bringing their personal problems to work: a public indifferent or even contemptuous of his art; and so on.
This interpretation of Killing of a Chinese Bookie always made a lot of sense to me, and it’s one Ben Gazzara, who played Cosmo, gives credence to: ‘I remember when we shot the scene in the limo, where I’m alone without the girls, and John was on the floor, holding the camera. Between takes, he explained what the film meant to him: “All these people who destroy art, who persecute you, who make you do things and never leave you alone.” He began to cry. I thought: My God, it’s really a personal thing for him. The gangsters were a metaphor, Cosmo was John. The club was where Vitelli created beauty, with its girls, music, jokes and spectacle… and the gangsters were the system, which was so hard on John.’
Above is a clip of Gazzara in Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and below he – and producer Al Ruban – discuss the hostile reaction the film received from audiences and critics on opening, causing it to be withdrawn after a week.