From the Chicago Reader (September 27, 1991). — J.R.
John Cassavetes’s first crime thriller (Gloria was the second), a post-noir masterpiece, failed miserably at the box office when it was first released in 1976; two years later, he released this recut, shorter, and equally good version, which didn’t fare much better. Actually more a personal and deeply felt character study than a routine action picture, it follows the last days of Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara at his very best), the charismatic owner of an LA strip joint who recklessly gambles his way into such debt with the mob that he has to bump off a Chinese bookie to settle his accounts. In many respects the film serves as a summation of Cassavetes’s view of what life is all about. In fact what makes the tragicomic character of Cosmo so moving is that Cassavetes regarded him as his alter ego — the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered show-biz collective (read Cassavetes’s actors and filmmaking crew) who must compromise his ethics to keep his little family afloat (read Cassavetes’s career as a Hollywood actor). Peter Bogdanovich used Gazzara in a similar part in Saint Jack (1979), but as good as that film is, it doesn’t catch the exquisite warmth and delicacy of feeling of Cassavetes’s doom-ridden comedy-drama. With fine performances by Timothy Agoglia Carey, Seymour Cassel, Azizi Johari, Meade Roberts, and Alice Friedland. (Music Box, Friday through Thursday, September 27 through October 3)