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“The print’s about 20 percent faded,” estimated Chicago Cinema Society‘s Neil Calderone when I saw him in the Patio Theater lobby before last night’s screening of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. I can’t verify or challenge that figure, but the archival print (struck during the film’s initial 1976 run, Calderone proudly informed me) was indeed flawed. The warmer colors seemed to have melted together slightly, creating a subtle orange-brown wash over the images. I felt like I was watching the movie through a glass of whiskey.
This felt appropriate, given the major role hard alcohol plays in the film. Characters drink throughout Chinese Bookie, and never wine or beer; the only notable deviation from hard liquor is when Cosmo Vitelli treats three of his dancers to champagne in the back of a limousine. At the same time, no one in the film ever seems exceedingly drunk. The people who imbibe are just coherent enough, never quite losing control of their thoughts but seldom pursuing a single one to completion. As it often goes in John Cassavetes’s films, the characters flail in the vicinity of deep thought and come poignantly close to making contact. (Timothy Carey’s climactic monologue about the futility of chasing after money is a prime example of this.) Now that I think about it, if the cinematography of Chinese Bookie were any more pristine it’d probably look perverse.