It’s the 1970s in John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, but it won’t be much longer.
That’s bad news for Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara), owner of a Hollywood strip club. A couple of years after Deep Throat, porn still had some mainstream credibility, but second wave feminism was also in the air. And so Cosmo notices smaller crowds, among other things. “Skirts are getting longer,” he observes to his dancers in their dressing room, where there isn’t a skirt to be found.
Cosmo presses on, because to him this is more than a business. He arranges and directs the elaborate onstage routines, in which a morose host who goes by the name of Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) delivers droll monologues while half-dressed women prance around him. (It’s something like R-rated, Andy Kaufman performance art.) Cosmo considers himself a true entertainer, if not an artist. “We’ll make their lives a little happier,” he tells his harem before the curtain rises. There’s a sad moment in which Cosmo, busy across town on other business, calls the club to make sure that night’s show is proceeding as planned. When the bartender who answers the phone can’t even identify which number is being performed, Cosmo realizes that the only one who really cares about all the work he puts into these routines is him (and maybe Mr. Sophistication).
And so Cosmo is sympathetic, but he’s no innocent. Cassavetes opens the film with an elegant single take that follows Cosmo from his car, across a parking lot, and to an outdoor table at a restaurant where a shady character awaits. Money is exchanged, then Cosmo hisses, with the tenor of a death threat, “You have no style.” (If there’s anything Cosmo values, it’s style.) He also has a bullying habit of pouring alcohol down his dancers’ throats, and it’s clear that he keeps them at his beck and call. When Rachel (Azizi Johari), the one dancer he seems to be closest to, walks in on him auditioning another woman, things get violent.
Gazzara is riveting as a man who exudes cool and calm—“style”—while also stinking of panic. That panic only increases after Cosmo has a bad night at a gambling club and falls into debt with some mobsters. Here’s where the movie’s title comes in. These loan sharks—including Seymour Cassel as a cheshire cat with claws—offer Cosmo a deal: they’ll forgive his debt if he takes care of a Chinese bookie they want dead.
This shifts the film into genre territory, including an extended suspense sequence that’s functional at best (it’s like Cassavetes attempting DIY De Palma). Far better is the film’s final scene, which finds Cosmo—bruised and bloody—back at the club, giving a speech from the stage. “They say everything is sex,” he says, “but here at the Crazy Horse West, we give you more than that.” He goes on to thank his employees, each by name, then touts the new number about to debut. The audience, though? They just want the girls.