by Ben Sachs
Cassavetes's reputation has improved considerably since death. Now that he's frequently cited as a master by critics and filmmakers, it's hard to believe that Bookie was widely panned on first release. "Critics found it disorganized, self-indulgent, and unfathomable," Philip Lopate wrote in his essay for the Criterion Collection, before speculating why popular opinion has reversed.
Either our eyes have caught up to Cassavetes, or the reigning aesthetic has evolved steadily in the direction of his personal cinematic style. Now we are more accustomed to hanging out and listening in on the comic banality of low-life small talk; to a semidocumentary, handheld camera, ambient-sound approach; to morally divided or not entirely sympathetic characters, dollops of "dead time," and subversions of genre expectations.
And yet those genre expectations play an important role in the film. In spite of his uncompromising artistry, Cassavetes loved classic Hollywood entertainment: in an interview with biographer Ray Carney, he named Frank Capra his favorite American filmmaker. The title set piece of Bookie may be stretched out with deliberately languid digressions (I wonder if Cristi Puiu had it in mind when he was making Aurora), but it preserves the structural integrity of an old-noir-suspense sequence. Lopate notes that "the film, seen today, generates considerable suspense, part of which comes from the classic man-against-the-mob conventions: seeing how the noose of fate is tightened." A few years after Bookie Cassavetes would make a more straightforward man-against-the-mob movie, the underrated Gloria, demonstrating just how well he had internalized those conventions.