Color, 1976/1978, 134/109m.
Directed by John Cassavetes
Starring Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, Meade Roberts
BFI (Blu-Ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Criterion (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Optimum (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Pionieer (US R0 NTSC)

The Killing of a Chinese BookieFollowing the successful of the independently made and released A Woman under the Influence in 1974, director The Killing of a Chinese BookieJohn Cassavetes reunited with Husbands actor Ben Gazzara for what would prove to be perhaps his divisive and difficult film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. On the surface it's a gritty crime film in the same mold as other '70s films as Fingers and Mean Streets (the latter a logical connection since this was initially conceived with Martin Scorsese while he was finishing that film), even treading closer to drive-in territory than anything else in Cassavetes' directorial career (except for perhaps Gloria). However, it's still anchored with the improvisation and probing character studies found in his other work. The film was rushed to completion and briefly released in a 134-minute version, earning largely negative reviews and disappearing from screens after a few days. Two years later, Cassavetes revisited it with a refined 109-minute cut, paring down the first act considerably and using additional and alternate scenes to clarify some points left obscure in the first release version. That version wasn't a success either, but the film's revival on VHS and then DVD caused its reputation to soar even as fans continue to debate which version is actually preferable.

The cocky owner of a Sunset Strip burlesque club called Crazy Horse West, Cosmo Vittelli (Gazzara) finds himself dragged into the world of mobsters when he celebrates the last payment on his place by spending a night on the town and winding up with a $23,000 poker debt. The mob (including scene stealers Seymour Cassel and Timothy Carey!) suggests he clear his obligations by killing one of their rivals, an agreement he may not be able to escape.

The basic storyline is basic film noir material, of course, reminiscent of the same elements found in films made by Jean-Pierre Melville around the same time. The difference here is Cassavetes' preference to soak in the atmosphere of Cosmo's life, including the materialistic club filled with disinterested strippers (keep an eye out for Russ Meyer regular Haji from Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), garish lighting, and cigarette smoke. As usual Gazzara delivers a fantastic performance but here he's put in a somewhat different The Killing of a Chinese Bookiecontext with the unhinged presence of Carey next to him; a genuinely crazed cinematic presence, Carey had previously appeared in Cassavetes' Minnie and Moskovitz and provided a jolt to such cult classics as Head The Killing of a Chinese Bookieand The World's Greatest Sinner. The revised version of the film gives him much more screen time, which will put it on top for many viewers, though he has some creepy flourishes only in the first cut as well.

It's difficult to really single out one version over the other in the end, though for a general rule of thumb, Cassavetes newcomers will probably find the shorter one more accessible while seasoned viewers will probably like to hover around the longer initial cut. Both are worth watching and can be found on the BFI dual-format release, which presents both cuts on the Blu-Ray disc along with a selected scene commentary with producer Al Ruban (who also appears in a supporting role) and admirer Peter Bogdanovich. You can access their scenes through a separate menu and hear it all in sequence, covering the ins and outs of the Los Angeles location shooting and the production process of completing the first film and then revisiting it again. The transfer itself looks terrific and easily the equal of previous BFI Cassavetes titles like Woman, Opening Night, and Faces. The longer cut only was previously issued on DVD in the UK from Optimum (with the same partial commentary), with both versions on the U.S. box set from Criterion and the shorter cut only on the Pioneer. The Blu-Ray easily bests them though, especially in the club scenes with scarlet lighting that turned to a blurry mess in standard def. Optional English subtitles are also included. (Criterion owners should hang on to their version since it has Gazzara and Ruban video interviews and a Cassavetes vintage audio interview found nowhere else.) The liner notes booklet is substantive as well, containing a lengthy essay by film writer Tom Charity, an enjoyable recollection by Ruban including a fascinating bit about Cassavetes questioning the central turn of the film's plot, and a vintage review by John Pym.

The extensive BFI package comes in two iterations, a two-disc set also containing a DVD with the same two cuts and commentary, as well as a three-disc limited edition (1,000 units) with a bonus DVD. The 21-minute Tamar Hoffs short film "The Haircut" stars Cassavetes as an exec going to a barbershop for a trim and finding his worldview altered by the other people around him; it's a quirky and charming piece previously seen on the long discontinued Anchor Bay DVD of the Susanna Hoffs vehicle The Allnighter, since this was directed by her mom and features The Bangles in a fleeting appearance. Tamar Hoffs also appears for a five-minute video interview shot in 1993 in which she sits in a barber chair and talks about how she got John for the film (a student project at the time made with AFI funding) through Gazzara's daughter. The biggest extra is the 90-minute 1993 TV documentary, Anything for John, directed by Dominique Cazenave and Doug Headline. A lot of familiar faces pop up here talking about the late filmmaker including wife/leading lady Gena Rowlands, Gazzara, Ruban, Peter Falk, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, director/actor Samuel Fuller, Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd, Sam Shaw, and Michael Ventura; the anecdotes fly fast and furious here, with Cassel getting some of the best moments rattling off stories while puffing on a cigar in an Italian restaurant. Great stuff!

Reviewed on July 9, 2013.