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John Cassavetes's first crime thriller (1976) failed at the box office, and this recut shorter version, which he released two years later, didn't fare much better. A personal, deeply felt character study rather than a routine action picture, it follows Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara at his very best), the owner of an LA strip joint—simultaneously an asshole and a saint—who gambles his way into debt and has to bump off a Chinese bookie to settle his accounts. What makes this tragicomic character so moving is its alter-ego relation to the filmmaker—the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered showbiz collective. 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. R, 135 min.

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