This weekend's must-see revival: The Killing of a Chinese Bookie on 35-millimeter

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Ben Gazzara stars as the wonderfully named Cosmo Vitelli.
  • Ben Gazzara stars as the wonderfully named Cosmo Vitelli.
There are several impressive repertory screenings in Chicago this weekend—Doc Films has The Godfather Part II and Chris Marker's Sans Soleil, and the Music Box is showing Orson Welles's Touch of Evil and Rene Laloux's Fantastic Planet—but if I had to single out a must-see, it would be John Cassavetes's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), which the Chicago Cinema Society will screen at the Patio Theater on Friday and Sunday from a 35-millimeter print. Like Touch of Evil, Chinese Bookie is a highly personal take on the crime film; in his Reader capsule, Jonathan Rosenbaum described the film's antihero, a strip-club owner forced to commit the titular crime, as the director's alter ego. Cosmo Vitelli (what a name!) is "the proud impresario and father figure of a tattered showbiz 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)."

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.

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