“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”: Bad Bets & Old-Timey Titty Bars

I guess it was last Saturday night when I decided to take a break from Berlin Alexanderplatz and pop in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—something I’ve been meaning to do for years. I hadn’t seen it since ’76, when I made it to the theater in time to see the original 135-minute cut that performed a very public belly-flop before it was withdrawn for recutting. That bit of alacrity on my part was mostly due to A Woman Under the Influence, a movie which—despite it being the definition of “emotionally exhausting”—thrilled me so much I saw it four or five times during its theatrical run. Lots of movies pull me back to them time and again, but A Woman cast a spell on me: when I came out of the theater the last couple of times I saw it, I felt pressed to literally express my appreciation to Cassavetes, Rowlands, and Falk, to the point that it seemed a part of the movie’s process. (I could be like that back then. The second time I saw Apocalypse Now, I was ready to quit my cushy oil-industry job and join the rebels in El Salvador. Now I’m just glad it was a Saturday night and the acid wore off before I did anything stupid.)

Chinese Bookie was a different story. When it was over I not only didn’t feel like wiring my thanks to John Cassavetes, I barely spoke to my buddy on the ride home. It’s not a movie that jazzes you up that way. When we first meet the world-class small-timer Cosmo Vitelli (that name alone may be my favorite thing in the movie), he’s just paid off his debt to a loan shark, and to celebrate he goes out for a night of gambling; then, when he loses his shirt again, he’s ordered to whack a rival mobster to rub out his debt. Cosmo makes his living from his L.A. nightclub—the Crazy Horse West—which is a hybrid affair, a topless bar dressed up as a cabaret club, although how it survives is a mystery: though it’s often packed, it’s also often empty, and even when it is packed the customers are unhappy with the show.

Clubs like Crazy Horse West are harder to find than Route 66 today, but when I was of titty-bar-going age a club very much like Cosmo’s place could be found on Market Square in downtown Houston. At some point in its checkered past the Moulin Rouge had probably offered entertainment that was both reputable and actually entertaining, but I only knew it as a rundown two-story brick theater whose roof was topped by a crumbling Dutch windmill that tilted to one side like a sad, dilapidated hat. The inside resembled a cavernous old barn, with several small tables and chairs crowded around a felt-topped stage, and the blinding white spotlights filtered through the strata of cigarette smoke before leaching away to darkness beyond the corners of the dance floor. The place was strung with tinsel and mirrors and threadbare velvet curtains, and white trellises curled with plastic ivy vines reached up to the darkened balcony that ran around the top of the hall, while some large planter boxes covered the floor in an irregular enough pattern that customers navigating their way to their seats regularly barked their shins on them.

Contra the usual strip-club, most of the patrons were as old as I am now, maybe even older. It was a mixed crowd, with a surprising number of women, by no means all of them hookers; even stranger, everyone dressed for the occasion, and they all behaved as if they were attending a real stage show, something in Vegas maybe. The thing is, the Moulin Rouge’s performers were barely worth putting your pants on. They were all on the order of off-key barbershop quartets, bad magic acts, and underpopulated Dixieland jazz bands—there was even one guy who’d climb onstage and spell out words fed to him by the audience. After the night’s straight act had finished, the announcer—powder-blue tuxedo, coiffed gray hair—would climb onto the stage and make a great to-do about whichever stripper was getting ready to come out next, trying to build anticipation for her by not shutting up about how great she was. Then, after an eternity, she’d finally come out, and the real show would begin…I remember one woman, 50 years old if she was a day, who appeared in a blonde beehive wig and backless blue sequined dress. She simply walked around the stage in her heels while Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” played on the PA system, slowly untying the strings around her neck and finally peeling the front of her dress down to her waist. Then she stripped off one of her elbow-gloves and methodically worked it around her neck like a snake until its fingers were spread across her left breast, and she looked down at the glove in coy surprise before shooting a saucy Oh, my! smile at the front row, where a line of tired old men stared back at her.

I can see now why I felt so flat that night in 1976: Chinese Bookie is one jammed-up movie. Cassavetes’ juices just aren’t flowing in moments like that cheesy phone call about “the Paris number” while other long passages—Exhibit A: the gangsters’ double-cross—burn a big fat hole in the screen. You can read Cosmo’s hopes for Crazy Horse West as a metaphor for artistic passion and commercial degradation, and while the idea that Cosmo’s headliner, the third-rate entertainer known as  “Mr. Sophistication”, is a stand-in for Cassavetes’ actors (or himself) is a tempting (if unflattering) one, it doesn’t explain why, whenever this important character opens his mouth, such boring things have to come out of it. Chinese Bookie might make a more resonant character study if Cosmo had even a teaspoon of talent, but instead he’s a clod whom we happen to catch just as he’s committing the last in what is undoubtedly a long line of fuck-ups. And what a clod he is: he fumbles the job when he tries to pin a corsage on his date’s dress, and even the stupidest of his strippers is turned off by his bush-league trumpeting of Dom Pérignon as “The best!” The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has other problems—a cookie-cutter shootout, a stiffly symbolic gunshot wound, and the racially awed shots of Cosmo’s black girlfriend. And while Ben Gazzara could ooze middle-aged defeatism like he invented the stuff, Bogart, Holden, Brando, Finney, and any number of unsung noir actors did, too, only their movies used disillusionment as a taking-off point—not the final destination.

With the kinks worked out of it Pat Garret & Billy the Kid might’ve been Sam Peckinpah’s greatest masterpiece, but fixing all of Chinese Bookie’s problems might still leave a movie that’s more fun to think about than it is to actually watch. Yet in 35 years I never did shake its sour morning-after vibe, and there’s something to be said for that. Douglas Sirk once said that you can’t make a movie about things but only with them, and in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie Cassavetes draws a picture of oppressiveness with little more than a rumpled tux and a bagful of hamburgers. That surely counts for something; I’m just not convinced how much.

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