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JOHN CASSAVETES:  FIVE FILMS
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Box Set ****

John Cassavetes has often been described as the father of American independent film.  During a directorial career that stretched from his 1959 debut Shadows until his death in 1989, Cassavetes was steadfast in his determination to create films his way, with complete control and outside the Hollywood studio system.  By self-financing a majority of his films, Cassavetes was able to remain true to this vision rather than compromising between a studio's box office aspirations and his own artistic concept.  His independence afforded him much greater freedom of expression in his films, most of which he not only directed but also scripted.  Cassavetes was certainly not the first American auteur, but his undeniable influence upon subsequent generations of up-and-coming young filmmakers and his championship of artistic individuality has made this iconoclastic director virtually synonymous with independent cinema, even more than a decade after his passing.

Cassavetes' career began in acting, with one of his first roles being in 1954's The Night Holds Terror.  Over the ensuing years, he would appear in numerous further TV and film productions, garnering a solid reputation as an intense and fine Greek-American actor.  His most memorable early role was perhaps that of Johnny Staccato, a detective on the popular television show of the same name.  Cassavetes would eventually use the income from his various acting stints to finance his true aspiration - directing.

As a young actor, even in the 1950's, Cassavetes had become increasingly cognizant of the flaws of the studio system.  Cassavetes had arrived during a period of great flux in the American film industry.  The Hollywood studio system, under pressure from television, was slowly collapsing, and a new opportunity for self-expression in films was arising.  During this time, the European film industry was caught in the excitement of the New Wave, and this energy inevitably made its way to American shores.

Cassavetes may well have been influenced by the New Wave, for his own directorial debut, Shadows, was hailed as an exciting, new kind of film that moved American cinema into challenging, fresh directions.  Cassavetes was considered an American Godard, and Shadows won the Critics Award at the Venice Film Festival, leading to a big studio contract for Cassavetes.  However, Cassavetes quickly became very frustrated by studio-imposed limitations and interference during this period and thereafter decided never to work with another studio again.

Cassavetes' subsequent films were remarkable character studies which delved deeply into the human psyche and interpersonal relationships.  These films were less concerned with technical perfection than with spontaneity and vitality.  Cassavetes wanted to "capture a feeling" in his films, and his actors were given a liberal amount of freedom to develop their characters and to explore the full realm of raw human emotions.  Cassavetes became widely recognized as an actor's director, and certainly the women in his films - Lelia in Shadows, Maria in Faces, or Mabel in A Woman Under the Influence - represent some of the boldest, most startling honest portrayals of women in 1960's and 1970's cinema.  These characters were three-dimensional women, with their honest insecurities and adult emotions, not the simplistic, adolescent cardboard cutouts of typical Hollywood productions.

Now, for the first time, Cassavetes’s finest films have been assembled together in a box set by Criterion.  This five-film set contains the three films mentioned above along with the rarely-seen The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night.  All five films in this set are quite remarkable, with A Woman Under the Influence generally being considered Cassavetes' finest film.  Each film is a penetrating dissection of relationships, whether within the family or between friends and colleagues.  Each delivers a strong visceral punch and can easily be exhausting at times to watch, akin in their thematic density and complexity to a typical Ingmar Bergman film.  It is this strong resonance of authenticity that lends Cassavetes' films their strength and which ultimately differentiates them from most other American films of their day.

SHADOWS

Stars: Lelia Goldoni, Anthony Ray, Hugh Hurd, Ben Carruthers, Rupert Crosse
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Lelia Goldoni and Seymour Cassel interviews, workshop footage, restoration demonstration, stills gallery, trailer
Length: 81 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004

"Filmmaking although unquestionably predicated on profit and loss...cannot survive without individual expression." - John Cassavetes

Film ***

In the mid-1950's, to encourage young actors, John Cassavetes began running a small acting studio in Manhattan.  During a regular workshop session, Cassavetes recognized in one particular improvised skit the premise for a potentially good film.  He used the basis of that skit to develop a plot and, by 1957, had begun filming what would eventually to become his directorial debut, Shadows.  Made on an eventual budget of just $40,000, the film featured many of the young students from Cassavetes’ acting workshop.  In fact, many of these actors would even use their real first names in the film.

Shadows offers an exploration of the interpersonal dynamics within an interracial family - two brothers and one sister.  The eldest brother is Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a long-time, struggling dark-skinned jazz singer with aspirations of hitting it big someday.  He has faith in his cheerful manager, Rupert (Rupert Crosse), who remains optimistic though they must frequently travel afar to find singing gigs for Hugh.  The second brother, the light-skinned Bennie (Ben Carruthers), is a James Dean-esque drifter still searching for some purpose to his life. Affecting a rebellious demeanor, he is occasionally antagonistic, getting into unwarranted conflicts or fights.  Their younger sister, light-skinned Lelia (the extremely photogenic Lelia Goldoni, resembling a young Louise Brooks), is an impressionable girl upon the brink of womanhood. 

At the film’s core is the rocky relationships between Lelia and her suitors.  David, the first suitor, is acquainted with Lelia’s brothers, yet she finds him a bit boorish, opting instead for the younger and more exciting Tony (Anthony Ray).  In truth, Tony is shallow and probably not interested in anything more than a one-night stand, or at least nothing beyond a superficial relationship.  Not surprising, when Tony discovers Lelia’s mixed lineage in an unexpected meeting with her brother Hugh, the encounter does not go well, revealing a degree of bigotry in Tony’s character.  The last suitor, Davey, is polite and courteous but Lelia treats him poorly in an effort to incite jealousy in Tony.  Of the three love interests, Davey is the best suitor, a fact that does not dawn upon Lelia until perhaps during a dance sequence near the film’s conclusion.

In fact, all three siblings will eventually come to a realization that the direction in their lives needs to be changed.  One fight too many causes Bennie to question his motive for being rebellious; he resolves to abandon his drifting ways.  Hugh finds a new optimism within himself when his usually cheerful Rupert, frustrated by years of non-success, nearly throws in the towel; ironically, it is then Hugh who must encourage Rupert not to abandon their dream.  Lelia, of course, learns a valuable lesson about race and relationships, that while there is acceptance among her family and friends, others (particularly in this period of the 1950-60's) may not yet share those sentiments.

Shadows in general follows the lives of the three siblings over a short period of several days, offering us brief glimpses into their desires and their frustrations.  The film has a very open-ended feel to it, and its loose plotting charges the film with a sense of freshness, as the outcome of any scene or encounter cannot be easily predicted.  Dialogue flows in a very stream-of-consciousness mode, mimicking the cadences and flow of conversations in real life.  While commonplace in cinema today, these characteristics made Shadows a highly unusual film in its day.

Not surprisingly, the film's very first screening was not a success.  Shadows was simply too different from the regular Hollywood fare, and audiences were initially unsure how to interpret the film's radical new approach and free-form plot structure.  Cassavetes himself concluded that he had not yet adequately explored the essence of his film's potential emotional resonance.  Cassavetes re-shot portions of the film, removing trick angles or fancy camera shots and replacing them with additional scenes designed to focus upon the characters.

It was this second version of the film which was screened more broadly and which received a much warmer reception.  Although crude at times and certainly a bit rough at the edges, Shadows was instantly recognized as an innovative, new film in American cinema.  It employed location shooting and numerous sudden cuts, sometimes in mid-action or dialogue.  The actors, although amateuristic and clearly uncomfortable or uncertain at times before the camera, displayed a sincerity and natural behavior that provided a strong sense of spontaneity to the film.  The film's ambience was a very experimental and improvisational one (despite the fact that Shadows was actually quite carefully-scripted).  Few films in America had ever achieved this degree of authenticity.  Shadows, in braving these untested waters, would usher in a new phase in America cinema, much as the New Wave films had rejuvenated European cinema.

BONUS TRIVIA: Cassavetes has a cameo in Shadows as a pedestrian who saves Lelia from a potential molester, while Gena Rowlands appears briefly in a nightclub scene.

Video **1/2

Shadows is generally free of debris or scratches.  Except for one early instance of a jarring frame jump, the frame is quite stable.  However, the film's image looks quite rough due to the 16mm film stock upon which the film was originally photographed; as a result, the image is generally grainier and softer than that seen in a regular 35mm film.  Nevertheless, this roughness contributes to the film's documentary-cinéma vérité style.

For this disc, the film has been carefully restored from the original 16mm negative and a 35mm dupe negative made from a 35mm blow-up master positive (now lost).  These negatives were used to create a new composite 35mm dupe negative and, from that, a new 35mm analog restored print.  There is a restoration demonstration in the extra features section which details the time-consuming restoration done on Shadows.  The demonstration is worth a look to truly appreciate the amount of work involved!

Audio **1/2

Shadows was recorded using very rudimentary sound equipment, and as a result, the soundtrack is often scratchy, with thin and somewhat distorted sound in the upper registers.  Ambient noise occasionally obscures the dialogue somewhat.  The original post-dubbing was uneven at times, so sound does not always match the on-screen action.  The soundtrack was cleaned during the restoration process, but the essence of the soundtrack was left intact to preserve the original intent of the film.

I want to mention the wonderfully jazzy if sparse score, which captures the atmosphere and energy of early rock 'n' roll music.  Jazz legend Charles Mingus also contributes to the fine score.

Features **

The features on this disc are short but numerous.  First is an interview (11 min.) with Lelia Goldoni.  She relates how a friend persuaded her to attend one of Cassavetes' acting classes after a New York musical dance gig fell through.  Goldoni describes the genesis of Shadows from these sessions and how she ended up being cast in the film at the young age of only eighteen.  Lastly, she mentions differences in the second version for the film after scenes were added from the re-shoot.  Regrettably, the Blu-ray does not include the first version of Shadows.

Actor Seymour Cassel also began his film career with Shadows.  In a brief interview clip (4 min.), he describes how his first meeting with Cassavetes led to his voluntary engagement in crew duties for Shadows and afterwards his own introduction to acting.

Workshop footage (4 min.) is included of actors improvising.  The footage is entirely silent, so perhaps lip-readers can have fun figuring out what is going on.  There are also appearances by some actors from the final version of Shadows itself.

Next is a restoration demonstration (11 min.) detailing the efforts at the UCLA Film and Television Archive to restore this film while still preserving the rough visual texture and scratchy sound of the original low-budget vision.  Narrated by Ross Lipman, one of the men involved in the restoration, this featurette describes the many obstacles encountered, such as an original negative that was in an advanced state of disrepair (it required months of restoration just to enable it to be projected).  Furthermore, the restoration process was complicated by differing 1957 and 1958 versions of the film, which often led to varying contrast or image quality.  Lipman goes into great deal about the research and complex flowcharting involved and the occasional digital restoration techniques used to clean up certain shots.  Overall, this is an informative featurette revealing the degree of work required to restore many older films (and not just Criterion releases).

There is a stills gallery (68 entries) comprised of camera frames, publicity shots, and on-the-set shoots.  Snapshots are included of the recording session with Charles Mingus and his musicians, inter-cut with an anecdote about Mingus.

Lastly, the disc includes the film's trailer, which mentions many of the rave reviews for this then-innovative and provocative film.

FACES

Stars: Lynn Carlin, John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Alternate opening sequence, Cinéastes de notre temps episode, Making Faces documentary, Lighting & Shooting the Film
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004

"I am myself.  Who else would I be?"

Film *** ½

Following the success of his debut film Shadows, John Cassavetes was offered a big studio contract.  Unfortunately, this led to an unhappy period during which the director created only two mediocre films - Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting.  Disgusted with his Hollywood experience, Cassavetes opted to return to the iconoclastic, improvisational style that had been so successful with Shadows.  By 1965, feeling that the stage offered actors the greatest degree of freedom for creative expression, Cassavetes wrote a stage play exploring friendships and mutual dissatisfaction.  Eventually, he adapted this play into a film - Faces.

Today, Faces is considered a landmark achievement in American cinema, not only for its influence on future independent filmmakers but also for its anti-Hollywood stylizations.  Most Hollywood films concern themselves with big or unusual events (therein, after all, lies the meat of any action-driven story).  Cassavetes, however, was more interested in exploring the ordinary flaws and pockmarks of everyday life, mundane things which are so often ignored in the typical Hollywood production.

Faces embodies much of what Cassavetes felt was vital to the stage and missing from cinema.  In a break from the Hollywood convention, the film utilizes numerous hand-held camera shots with drifting focus, protracted scenes, and seemingly amorphous dialogue that nevertheless feels real, unforced, and unscripted.  The men and women of Faces' ensemble cast are a reflection of true middle-class America suburbia, and each character has his or her own personal flaws and problems.  We are introduced early on in the film to two such people, Richard and Freddie.  They are old college chums, now married and middle-aged.  In a drunken revelry one evening, they pick up Jeannie, presumably a prostitute, and for the next thirteen random minutes of film time, they cajole merrily and behave in an uninhibited fashion.  This entire sequence is essentially plot-less, drifting through a myriad of poor jokes, old college gags, and impromptu singing and dancing.  A jealous fit over Jeannie’s divided affections between the men eventually halts the merrymaking, and the evening ends poorly as the two friends somberly go their separate ways.

However, this encounter serves as a catalyst for Richard's emerging dissatisfaction.  Richard (John Marley), in the midst of a developing mid-life crisis, yearns for an escape from the pressures and monotony of business and married life.  He will eventually seek out Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) once more, rejecting his own young and devoted wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) in the process.  It is a selfish act, one that drives the previously faithful Maria to search for a release from her own inhibitions as well.  This leads to absolutely electric, dialogue-free nightclub scene as Maria goes out on the town with her girlfriends and encounters a dashing, young player (Seymour Cassel).  The next morning consequences of these extramarital trysts signal the alienation and increasing emptiness of the marriage between Richard and Maria.

Faces is about our outwardly personas and the dangers or dilemmas which arise when we strip away such disguises.  It suggests that all our external personas are pretenses, merely social performances which mask our deeper, hidden insecurities or vulnerabilities.  As with many of Cassavetes' film, Faces is a film about adult relationships and communication, or lack thereof.  The depth of his films, as they pertain to the complex and often ambivalent emotions of adults, generally precludes children viewers from truly comprehending these emotions; such appreciation can only be acquired through maturity and sometimes painful experience.  Among all of Cassavetes' movies, this is probably most true of Faces.

The multiple characters of Faces initially appear at ease and relaxed.  And yet, these personalities are so labile, going from anger to merriment in a span of mere seconds, that one wonders how honest they truly are to themselves.  Are these people as they seem or merely facades, with public faces masking actual emotions?  Faces thus raises this notion of everyday life as theater.

In many scenes, the dialogue and scenes flow with a rhythm like the cadences and tempo switches of a jazz jam session.  Characters burst into laughter or jokes spontaneously, and the “plot” unfolds in an unpredictable, stream-of-consciousness manner.  The actors themselves often seem to be beyond performance in Faces; rather, they simply are these characters to the point where Faces seems like a candid documentary, not a fictional film.  Consequently, the film frequently feels voyeuristic.  Its characters chuckle or cry about their personal jokes or crises; sometimes the references make sense, other times they don't, as though the characters were sharing a secret joke of which only they, and not necessarily the audience, are aware.

For instance, Richard and Maria in a happier moment share laughter and playful petting in bed.  This scene is re-iterated later between Richard and Jeannie.  Both scenes end soberly when reality is allowed to set in.  Maria tells Richard after a while that his jokes are not so funny after all, and the previous light-heartedness descends into quiet solitude; in the later scene, Richard asks Jeannie to “just be yourself,” which produces an uncomfortable silence that is only broken once Richard assumes his joking demeanor.

The characters in Faces, much like in real life, are afraid of revealing their true selves.  To do so is to become vulnerable, to leave oneself defenseless.  The superficiality of laughter and gaiety mask the true feelings for these characters.  More significantly, such barriers are the ultimate reason for the breakdown of communications between these characters.  Everyone is so busy pretending to be merry and carefree that no one has the time to truly understand or listen to one another.  Any moment of truth which arises is quickly subdued, either by the resumption of laughter or the breaking up of the party as each character goes his or her separate way.

Faces concludes on much the same note as many of its encounters do, in silence.  The married couple Richard and Maria sit on opposite ends of a staircase, unable to express themselves in light of the exposed nature of their true feelings.  Without the protective armor of gaiety and laughter, Richard and Maria have nothing to say to one another.  As the film suggests, we all in turn wear our own unique faces, and perhaps social life is, in essence, nothing more than a theater of and for the masses.

Faces was completed and released in 1968.  At the Venice Film Festival, the film won Best Actor (John Marley), Best Director, Best Foreign Film, and the Jury Award for Best Picture.  In its American distribution, it was hailed as a ground-breaking film, eventually receiving Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin) and Best Screenplay.

The success of Faces was a vindication of John Cassavetes' vision for film as something more meaningful than simply a way to make a buck.  This personal style of filmmaking marked Cassavetes' triumphant return to independent cinema.  After several fruitless years in the Hollywood studio system, Cassavetes had returned to his element with Faces, one of the most influential films of the 1960's and certainly a forebear to the character-driven American cinema of the 1970's.

BONUS TRIVIA:  If John Marley looks familiar, that is because he played a producer who received an offer he couldn't refuse in The Godfather!

Video ***

This transfer of Faces was made from a 35mm dupe negative created off of the original 16mm negative.  The general graininess and mildly softness of the image are a remnant of this blow-up process.  Otherwise, the film looks quite good, with only a slight speckling of dust.  The camerawork has a handheld, loose feel to it that further enhances the film's documentary feel, with protracted sequences which play out in real-time.  Contrast levels are excellent, as is the amount of detail in the frame.  Overall, Faces looks fairly decent for a black & white, 16mm film.

Audio **1/2

The audio in Faces is a little scratchy and occasionally shrill.  Speech is a bit fuzzy at times, and with the overlapping, improvisational nature of the dialogue, can be difficult to hear clearly.  To complicate matters, sound synching was flawed due to an error during filming (this problem is detailed by Al Ruban in one of the disc’s documentaries), so lip movement does not always match the sound.  Clearly, the original film's rudimentary sound recording technique makes for a less-than-optimal audio experience, but oddly enough this contributes to the film’s spontaneous, true-life feel.

Features ****

"Nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other."

Of interest will be the alternate opening sequence (17 min.).  Lifted from an early edit of the film, it includes a few additional scenes as well as a re-shuffling of certain scenes from the film.

There are three documentaries on the disc.  The first, Cinéastes de notre temp (48 min.), contains two episodes of the long-running French television show devoted to important cinema.  The first segment (23 min.) shows rare 1965 archival footage of Cassavetes humorously discussing his personal interests, his experience in Hollywood, and his film currently in production, Faces.  The second segment (25 min.) has an interview from 1968 with Cassavetes discussing his film theory, his early film Shadows, and his now-finished film Faces. This documentary is presented entirely in English, so no subtitles are required.

Making Faces (42 min.) is a new documentary featuring interviews with Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, and director of photography Al Ruban.  All of them discuss their roles in the film and Cassavetes’ unorthodox approach to filmmaking.  Most interestingly, Rowlands describes how she was pregnant during filming and had elected to play Jeannie as opposed to Maria (a more physically demanding role); ironically, Lynn Carlin turned out to be secretly pregnant, too!

Ruban returns as narrator in In Lighting & Shooting the Film to discuss in rather technical language how certain scenes were lit and photographed.  There are a few pages of introduction, followed by several pages detailing the equipment and film stock.  Then, there follows actual film footage (11 min.) accompanied by subtitled explanations of the photography.  The information provided in this featurette is probably beyond the appreciation of most viewers but should be of interest to those with a background in photography or film technique.  At the end, Ruban briefly discusses the film’s open-ended conclusion.

A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE

Stars: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Katherine Cassavetes, Lady Rowlands, Eddie Shaw
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, interviews, trailer, stills gallery
Length: 147 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004

Mabel’s not crazy.  She’s unusual.  She’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy.

Film ****

In the early 1970’s, when actor Peter Falk (TV's Columbo) first worked with John Cassavetes (on Husbands), he had become so frustrated by his experience that he firmly determined never to work under the director again.  Simply put, Falk did not understand Cassavetes’ iconoclastic style of direction at the time.  Yet, as Cassavetes was preparing a screenplay for his new film, Falk contacted the director after all and expressed an earnest desire to act in the new film.

John Cassavetes had that effect on actors.  He was a fiercely independent director and for his films would often assemble only those actors and crew who shared his love for cinema as art rather than as commercial venture.  For that reason, Cassavetes usually preferred to cast amateurs, who would be untainted by the Hollywood system and who would be receptive to new ideas or a new approach to filmmaking.  Or, Cassavetes would cast from a regular stable of enthusiastic, like-minded actors, many of whom appeared repetitively (and sometimes exclusively) in his films, often for little or no pay.

Cassavetes was the quintessential "actor’s director," which was the reason that Peter Falk was ultimately drawn back to working again with Cassavetes.  Falk would indeed appear in Cassavetes' next film, portraying a family man and construction worker, Nick, whose wife is slowing breaking down.  That film, considered Cassavetes’ finest, was A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

The film was originally a trilogy of three-act plays which Cassavetes re-edited into one screenplay.  A Woman Under the Influence features many of Cassavetes’ cinematic tendencies - the extended takes, handheld camera shots, and closely-cropped images (much of the film was photographed within one house).  Most of all, the film displays the intensely powerful characterizations that are the hallmark of any Cassavetes film.

A Woman Under the Influence features Gena Rowlands as the film’s central character, Mabel, Nick’s wife.  Mabel is an unbalanced and unconventional woman whose quirks do not conform to normally acceptable social behavior.  She frequently exhibits poor impulse control, either bringing strange men into her home, dancing around at inappropriate moments, or occasionally accosting complete strangers along the sidewalk.  She has difficulty relating in social gatherings, yet despite her routinely bizarre tendencies displays a strong maternal instinct for her children.  Her close bond with her children, even more so than with her own husband Nick, helps Mabel to maintain a semblance of stability.

In contrast, Nick is not entirely a good father or husband.  He is not always lucent and can become emotionally labile, resorting to shouting, not reasoning, to establish order or to maintain discipline.  He wants things in his life to be normal and uncomplicated, and he desires a happy family setting.  However, Nick is ultimately too simple-minded to adequately cope with the difficulties of family life.  While he clearly loves his wife, he does not really comprehend her problems (or chooses to ignore them), and he is unable to offer meaningful comfort in her times of need.

There is a significant and heart-breaking scene late in the film during which Mabel, obviously in some despair, asks her own father to "stand up for me."  The father responds by literally getting up from his chair.  Mabel meekly repeats the request, to which the father confesses that he doesn't understand her, because he is already standing.  This situation might easily be applied to Nick as well.  He does not know how to support his wife when she truly needs his help, and in times of stress, Nick looks to others and not within himself for guidance.

In the ultimate test of his devotion to Mabel, when she experiences a nervous breakdown, Nick is unable to fully express his love for her.  Instead, he rages about and then succumbs to his stern and manipulative mother's demands that Mabel be institutionalized.  It is an inadequate solution to a complex dilemma.  Without Mabel, Nick is at a loss over how to properly raise their children.  He takes them out of school mid-day for impromptu beach trips, or he allows them to sip from his beer cans.  Most telling, when Mabel eventually returns from the hospital, during a family crisis, the children run to her, not him.

A Woman Under the Influence is often cited for Gena Rowlands' truly bravura performance as the disturbed Mabel.  There is a simple, unmasked honesty to Mabel's behavior that provides the film with its tragic strength.  However, Peter Falk's fine performance as Nick should not be overlooked, either, as it offers leverage and balance to the film.  In this sense, A Woman Under the Influence is perhaps more about a breakdown of communication between two people in love than about a woman’s descent into madness.  The film is divided into two portions, the front half progressing towards Mabel’s eventual institutionalization and the latter half picking up the story six months afterwards with Mabel’s return home.  The true tragedy of Mabel's plight is that it is not entirely clear whether she is truly "better" for her experience or merely trying to put on a brave face and to restrain herself.  On her homecoming, she appears timid, too scared to relax.  After re-entering her home, Mabel's first request is to see her children; they are her comfort, not Nick, with whom she barely makes any initial eye contact.  "There's nothing you can do wrong.  I just want you to be yourself," Nick reassures her.  If only she could truly believe him.

Watching a Cassavetes film can be frightening at times.  That is not to say that his films are designed to frighten audiences.  Nevertheless, they are so emotionally raw and unflinchingly sincere that they frequently reveal aspects of our nature that scare us, that we would prefer not to face directly.  A Woman Under the Influence is one of Cassavetes' most devastating films and features a stunning, Oscar-nominated performance from Gena Rowlands that is not always easy to watch.  Rowlands simply disappears into her role, offering one of the most powerful female performances of the decade.

A Woman Under the Influence raises the question about whether honesty, with its flaws and vulnerability, is better than a pretense of calmness and stability.  Is Mabel any better for having spent six months in an institution?  Has there been any significant change in Nick and Mabel's marriage after her return?  The film's provocative natures provides it with a strong resonance long after any viewing, and for anyone who has never seen a John Cassavetes film before, there is no better film with which to start than this one.

BONUS TRIVIA:  The filming of A Woman Under the Influence was clearly a family affair.  John Cassavetes’ mother, Katherine Cassavetes, plays the holy terror of a mother-in-law (frighteningly so), while Gena Rowlands’ mother, Lady Rowlands, plays the more gentle and grandmotherly mother-in-law.

Video ****

Quite simply, the film looks spectacular. It is shown in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, and the transfer is practically pristine, featuring glowing colors and superb clarity.  A Woman Under the Influence appears virtually new. 

Audio ***

A Woman Under the Influence is presented in its English monaural soundtrack.  The track is not particularly dynamic but works just fine in the context of the film, which is understandably mostly dialogue-driven.

Features ***

There are a few bonus features on this disc.  First is a commentary track by crewman Mike Ferris, a camera operator, and Bo Harwood, the composer.  They mostly discuss Cassavetes’ acting and directorial style and to a lesser degree Cassavetes’ relationship with the actors and his wife, Gena Rowlands.  Regrettably, none of the cast is featured in this commentary.  However, their thoughts can be accessed elsewhere in the John Cassavetes box set (especially in the documentary A Constant Forge) and also in a new interview segment (17 min.), included on this disc, with Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk.  Both actors discuss their memories of working on the film and Cassavetes’ unorthodox method of filming.

There is also approximately one hour of audio interview clips between John Cassavetes and film historian Michel Ciment.  These clips include comments on the film’s philosophy and financing, character background, the casting, improvisation on the set, and much more.  There are seven total sub-divisions to the audio interview which can be accessed individually.

Among the promotional features, there is a trailer and a stills gallery.  The gallery is comprised of over one hundred photos covering behind-the-scene shots, publicity shots, and artwork.

THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE

Stars: Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Azizi Johari, Timothy Carey, Meade Roberts
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: 1978 re-edited version, interviews, stills gallery
Length: 135 minutes (re-edited version 108 minutes)
Release Date: September 21, 2004

Karl Marx said opium was the religion of the people.  I got news for him.  It’s money.

Film *** ½

Remember the early scene from The Godfather where a humble shopkeeper begs Marlon Brando’s Godfather for help?  The Godfather acquiesces upon the condition that someday in the future, he might call upon the shopkeeper to perform a “favor,” however unpleasant, for him in return.  John Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) is a film about such a favor.  The shopkeeper in question, however, is a lowlife who runs a small strip club along the dark streets of a big city.  His profession may not be entirely praiseworthy, but that shopkeeper, Cosmo (Ben Gazzara), gives it an earnest effort - managing the club, performing emcee duties, arranging the song and dance numbers, even providing occasional pep talks to his dancers as needed.  Career choice not-withstanding, Cosmo prides himself on his honesty and his work ethics.  The club is his life, his only reason for existence, and any money he earns (or borrows from loan sharks) goes back into the club.

Unfortunately, one day Cosmo runs afoul of the local crime syndicate after he builds up a big debt at a gambling parlor.  The sum is $23,000 (a hefty sum back in the 1970’s), and Cosmo proves unable to pay off the debt on the spot.  It is a grave situation for which Cosmo is offered a choice - pay immediately, or perform a small “favor” for the mobsters in return.

As the film’s title implies, that favor involves a hit job.  The storyline follows the events leading up to Cosmo’s debt, the night of his reluctant deed, and its fateful aftermath.  In this sense, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is very much in the vein of many other suspense thrillers of the 1970’s.  Photographed progressively in darker, grainy shadows as Cosmo falls deeper into the tangles of the crime syndicate, this film illustrates the grime and dirt festering just beneath the cheerful daytime facade of most big cities.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a film that would seem more within the domain of Martin Scorsese than John Cassavetes.  As it turns out, both men had come up with the storyline years prior in a brainstorm together.  After completing A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes turned to this story of a nightclub owner who must kill in order to pay off a debt, infusing it not only with the taut suspense typical of the genre but also with his trademark understanding of the human psyche.

As the anti-hero of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Cosmo is a flawed man who nonetheless tries to eke out a small living in a dreary world.  There is something seemingly simple about his outlook - the nightclub is his world and his escape.  Even during the fateful night of the assassination, Cosmo finds time to call his nightclub, inquiring which stage number is currently being performed.  Later, as he bleeds from a gunshot wound, he returns to the nightclub to give a proper pep talk to his stripper-dancers and a lengthy stage introduction for them, too.  Events in Cosmo’s life may spiral out of control (he is eventually kicked out of his girlfriend’s home, the gangsters double-cross him, etc.), but Cosmo finds comfort within the club milieu.  It is a world that he understands.

In a way, Cosmo is similar to the classic Hitchcockian hero.  He is thrust involuntarily into a situation of which he wishes no part.  He is not a completely innocent man (his gambling debt is real), but his destiny is seemingly controlled more by the machineries of crime and intrigue around him than by his own hand.  The film’s ending is also ambiguous in this sense, too - with the deed done and Cosmo wounded, retribution cannot far off, yet Cosmo's fate is left undecided.  Where a Hitchcock film might start, this film ends, just as the pinchers of the underworld start to close in around Cosmo.

As far as Cassavetes films go, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie depicts a relatively pessimistic, violent, and seedy underworld of criminals, gamblers, and strippers.  It is a departure from Cassavetes’ usual stagey, theatrical films but nevertheless bears his recognizable touch.  Although the film was not a success on its initial release and is often overlooked today, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie holds up quite well compared to the other suspense thrillers of the day, like the French Connection films.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Some viewers may recognize Timothy Carey, who plays a hit man in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, from his memorable roles as a marksman in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and as a cowardly soldier in Paths of Glory.

Video *** ½

The cover artwork proudly boasts of the stunning new transfer for this film, and it is not exaggerating.  The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is presented in its original widescreen format, and the transfer itself is quite excellent, with solid colors and no compression artifacts.  Scenes are very crisp and clear, and even nocturnal sequences, though slightly grainy, show no evidence of image break-up.  Criterion has also cleaned up this print of virtually any dirt or age spots.  Kudos for a job well done!

Audio ***

The film’s soundtrack is monaural.  While it will not tax current speaker systems, it is adequate, with clear dialogue over the ambient background noise.  The sound effects are not sweetened either, so gunshots actually sound like the crack of real gunshots and not the typical Hollywood mini-explosions.

Features ****

This disc contains the original 135-minute theatrical release version of the film.  However, Cassavetes disliked this theatrical version, which he felt had been rushed during the editing process.  In 1978, he re-released the film in a 108-minute cut that was more focused and tightly-edited.

The 1978 version is a highly unusual “director’s cut,” as it is not only significantly shorter than the theatrical version but still contains additional scenes not found in the 1976 version!  This 1978 version excises some thirty minutes of footage while re-arranging the sequence of early scenes.  Most of the deleted scenes are early character development scenes concerning Cosmo and his relationship with his girls.  The new scenes mostly focus on Cosmo’s interactions with the gangsters.

I recommend watching both versions.  The theatrical version has more soul and provides a better sense of Cosmo as a three-dimensional, sympathetic character, whereas the 1978 version is more dramatically edited for pacing and trims away much of the excess fat (including portions of the stripper musical numbers which, while titillating, are somewhat dull).  Coincidentally, the transfer on this 1978 version is as solid as for the 1976 version.

Next, there are interviews (18 min.) with Al Ruban and Ben Gazzara.  They discuss the poor audience reception to the film and Cassavetes’ displeasure with the theatrical version.  Gazzara also expresses an opinion that the film is not really a gangster movie at all but rather an allegory about Cassavetes’ own struggle to remain a true artist despite all obstacles.

The second interview is an audio-only segment with Cassavetes and film historian Michel Ciment.  It is sub-divided into sections entitled A genre film, Young filmmakers, Revolutionary, and Better than living.  (Note - there is no way to fast-forward, reverse, or pause during these recordings; the only option is to click on a different menu option.  This also applies to audio interviews between Cassavetes and Ciment found on the discs for A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night).

OPENING NIGHT

Stars: Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes, Joan Blondell
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Interviews, trailers
Length: 144 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004

You’re not a woman to me anymore.  You’re a professional.

Film *** ½

One of the most remarkable movie couples in American cinema has always been that of director John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands.  Cassavetes first met his future wife during the early 1950’s, marrying her shortly thereafter.  It was a marriage that would endure until Cassavetes’ death in 1989 and would encompass many films together.  Usually in these films, Cassavetes occupied the role of director with his wife in a lead or major role.  Such was the case with A Woman Under the Influence, perhaps the couple’s most successful film, but Rowlands would follow up that film's performance with another, equally-superb performance in Opening Night (1977) opposite her true-life husband.

Opening Night is a backstage drama that traces the destructive trail of an insecure stage actress unable to come to gripes with her gradual aging.  The desire to be remain young, or at least to become desirable again, had been broached previously in Cassavetes' Faces and implied in A Woman Under the Influence.  However, in Opening Night, this theme forms the central crisis for the lead character.  Rowlands portrays Myrtle, the star attraction in The Second Woman, a play being fine-tuned in New Haven before its Broadway premiere.  The subject of the play is a woman who, in growing older, becomes less alluring to men.  It is a theme which hits too close to reality for Myrtle, who has difficulty accepting the role as it is written and secretly fears that she will come to the same fate as the play’s aging heroine: “I’m looking for a way to play this part where age doesn’t make a difference.”  Myrtle rationalizes that if she plays the part, as it is written, too well, then she may be forevermore typecast in older roles, thereby ending her stage career in her own eyes.

As a result, Myrtle exhibits a great degree of passive-aggressive behavior, continuously changing her lines, throwing tantrums, or altering the overall tone of the play to the chagrin of the playwright Sarah (Joan Blondell).  Under Myrtle's fine-tuning, the play becomes less of a serious drama than an improvisational comedy.  Myrtle’s reluctance to play the role straight leads to inevitable friction between Myrtle and not only Sarah but also the director, Manny (Ben Gazzara), and Myrtle's opposite in the play, Maurice (John Cassavetes).

The casting of Joan Blondell as the old playwright was a stroke of genius.  Blondell, once a 1930’s sex symbol herself, offers a strong counterpoint to the Rowlands character’s fear of aging and becoming ordinary.  Blondell’s character has accepted her maturity and has aged gracefully, finding alternate means of expression and self-relevance through her writing.  Sarah is thus an example of what Myrtle is not - a woman secured with herself and her accomplishments in life.

Myrtle’s relationship with these central figures in her life is increasingly strained by her uneven performances.  In addition, she is further shaken after witnessing the accidental death of a young, devoted fan, Nancy.  Her death haunts Myrtle throughout the film, and Myrtle even begins to (perhaps) hallucinate Nancy’s subsequent ghostly appearances.  Possibly, Nancy represents a youthful ideal to Myrtle or perhaps she represents an image of Myrtle as she still imagines herself.  Interestingly, the first appearance of Nancy's apparition is as a reflection of Myrtle within a dressing room mirror (the secondary supernatural elements of the storyline were an unusual touch for Cassavetes in his films).

Myrtle's true problem, however, may be more ominous.  In truth, Myrtle is somewhat of an alcoholic.  It is a character flaw which is never directly addressed in the film yet whose signs are undeniable.  Myrtle is often seen sipping wine or drinking after performances.  She protests that her concerns over aging have caused her to drink more, but perhaps her drinking has actually caused her to worry more irrationally.

In this light, Myrtle's insecurities are a disguise for her greater problem at hand, one which her colleagues choose to ignore or dismiss. They even humor her attempts to rationalize her behavior.  The young fan’s appearances, rather than being considered probably hallucinations, are taken at face value, and Sarah even sends Myrtle to see a couple of mediums to help exorcise the apparition.  Maurice, though initially resistant to Myrtle's attempts to sabotage the play, ultimately relents and joins her in a third act improvisation during the opening night that negates any serious contention in the play.  Only the director Manny shows some resolve in the end - when Myrtle shows up late and extremely drunk for the opening night, Manny forces her regardless to crawl to her dressing room and prepare for the night's performance.  If Myrtle is to redeem herself, she will have to do so in front of a live audience, where she must face down her personal demons or fail and bring her acting career to a crashing halt.

In her own way, Rowland's Myrtle, like her Mabel from A Woman Under the Influence, is mad.  She clearly cannot differentiate between reality and stage, life versus art.  “I seem to have lost the reality of…reality,” she confesses at one point.  Myrtle is like a Method actress who has taken her craft too far and can no longer distinguish between her true self and her stage role.  Alcoholism may be at the root of her mid-life crisis, but it has spawned a great many more problems, too.

The film ends with an extended sequence that covers, appropriately enough, the play’s opening night on Broadway.  Myrtle’s problems have by now bubbled to the surface, and the success or failure of the play now rests entirely on her ability to overcome her insecurities and to produce a meaningful performance.

Whether or not Myrtle succeeds is in the eye of the beholder.  Myrtle does manage an passable performance, but is it a performance that has remained true to the spirit of the play's original intent or to Myrtle's own manipulations?  For that matter, has Myrtle resolved anything by the film's conclusion, or has she succumbed to her own insecurities?  In the final equation, perhaps the conclusion to Opening Night touches upon a very familiar theme in Cassavetes' works - that everyone wears a mask and that all outwardly emotions are not always as they seem.

Video ****

Opening Night is presented in a widescreen format with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and appears quite marvelous.  Colors are crisp with good details, and contrast levels are strong.  The print itself looks nearly pristine and benefits from a virtually flawless transfer.

Audio ***

Opening Night is presented in a monophonic soundtrack.  The audio quality is not especially dynamic but functions quite adequately within the context of this dialogue-driven film.

Features ** ½

There are three interview pieces on this Blu-ray.  The first interview (22 min.) is with Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara.  The actors discuss improvisation which occurred in Opening Night as well as humorous anecdotes involving Joan Blondell or the theater audience scenes or even John Cassavetes himself as a director and a person.  They reveal that the play's final scene was mostly improvised before the large theater audience, so the laughs encountered on the soundtrack are genuine.

In the second interview (8 min.), Al Ruban, the director of photography and producer, talks about how he became involved with Opening Night as well as some of his frustrations during the production.  Ruban also discusses the film's distribution difficulties (Opening Night only ran for a couple of weeks in America and has rarely been screened since its original release).

The final interview is an audio-only segment between Cassavetes and Michel Ciment.  It is sub-divided into five segments which include discussions of the play within the film, cinema vs. theater, the Gena Rowlands role, and the film's final scene.

Lastly, there are two trailers for Opening Night.

BONUS TRIVIA:  In a nod to another superb backstage drama, All About Eve, Joan Blondell’s role had been originally offered to Bette Davis.

Box Set Features ****

Criterion has really done a tremendous job on this extensive box set.  Each of the five films in this set is accompanied by a wealth of extra features which are discussed in greater detail in their respective reviews.  However, there is also a fine bonus supplemental disc and a large booklet, both of which merit mention here.

The supplemental disc contains the huge 200-minute documentary A Constant Forge (2000).  This documentary briefly covers Cassavetes' career from his early acting days and then explores in great detail many of his films.  There are numerous clips from the films (and various plays) as well as archival footage from acting sessions with Cassavetes.  Furthermore, there are a large number of interviews and reminiscences from Cassavetes' favorite regulars, including Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, Lynn Carlin, and Lelia Goldini.  Additional interviews are included with various crew members and some of his stage actors, such as Sean Penn and Jon Voight, director Peter Bogdanovich, and film historian Annette Insdorf.  These segments all reveal much about Cassavetes' directorial technique and style and the characters and themes in his films.

Among the revelations in this documentary are various deleted scenes from his films, and the Cassavetes regulars also reveal practical jokes or happy accidents which occurred on the sets.  One particularly hilarious anecdote, recounted by Jon Voight, describes how Cassavetes once played a dead chicken!  The documentary ends on a somewhat poignant note as Cassavetes' friends reflect on his final days (he died of cirrhosis).  I absolutely recommend this documentary as a wonderful starting point for anyone unfamiliar with this highly-influential director.

The disc includes a cast section and a poster gallery, too.  The cast section contains biographies and photographs for twenty-five of the most recognizable Cassavetes regulars.  Each entry also lists the actors' roles in Cassavetes films.  Interestingly, many of these actors appeared exclusively in Cassavetes films only, while some also had roles in various Columbo TV episodes.  The poster gallery contains twenty-five entries covering a range of promotional lobby artwork for Cassavetes' films.

As for the booklet included with this set, it is a handsome 68-page overview of Cassavetes' career as covered in over a dozen articles.  The articles are partitioned into chapters relating to the five films in this Blu-ray release and are generally quite engrossing, although I would recommend watching the films prior to reading their respective articles.  That said, first up is an introduction, "What's Wrong with Hollywood," by John Cassavetes, in which the director describes what he considered a stagnation of the Hollywood film industry circa 1959.  He calls upon the artist to express himself creatively without regard to commercialism in order to keep American cinema vital.  "...And the Pursuit of Happiness," also by John Cassavetes, is a 1961 article in which the director discusses his debut film, Shadows, and its evolution.  He mentions the two differing versions and the improvisational workshop method used to fully realize the film's storyline.  "Eternal Times Squares," also about Shadows, is film historian Gary Gibbins' dissertation on the film's context within American cinema and its examination of interracial relationships.  Gibbins also mentions some of the later film roles for Shadows' principal actors.

Two articles pertain to Faces.  First is "Introduction to Faces," Cassavetes' original introduction to the published screenplay for Faces.  It gives a nice little synopsis of Cassavetes' career up to Faces and then discusses early treatments and ideas for Faces.  "John Cassavetes: Masks and Faces," by film critic Stuart Klawans, describes the restoration of this landmark film and presents a very good overall of its themes.

Two more articles concern A Woman Under the Influence.  "An Interview with John Cassavetes" is a long 1975 interview conducted by Judith McNally with the director.  They discuss his film A Woman Under the Influence and particularly his directorial technique.  "The War at Home, " by Kent Jones, editor of Film Comment, discusses the slowly-disintegrating family relationships in the film.

The next three articles relate to The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.  First is "Cassavetes on Cassavetes," a brief excerpt from Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1978, in which the director examines the potential impact of one pivotal scene from the film.  More interview excerpts appear from Positif, April 1978, and Cahiers du cinema, June 1978, in which Cassavetes defends his film and comments further on his own unique style.  Lastly, "The Raw and the Cooked," by Phillip Lopate, discusses the film's avant-garde elements which alienated critics and audiences nearly thirty years ago but which today feel right at home.  He also comments briefly on the differences between the theatrical version (135 minutes) and the re-edited version (108 minutes).

Three articles relate to Opening Night.  More 1978 interview excerpts, from Monthly Film Bulletin and Positif, appear in "Cassavetes on Cassavetes" and "An Interview with John Cassavetes."  In both articles, Cassavetes discusses the film's main character, a theatrical actress in the midst of a career crisis.  "The Play's the Thing," by Dennis Lim, discusses the inseparability of actor and character in the film; it’s quite a descriptive essay and one of the best in this booklet.

“An Ideal Combustion,” by Charles Kiselyak, is the sole article relating to the documentary A Constant Forge.  As Kiselyak also directed the documentary, he is able to provide some background into his interest in Cassavetes and how it led to the creation of the documentary.

Finally, the booklet wraps up with three tribute articles about John Cassavetes.  One is by director Martin Scorsese (who had worked as a sound editor for Cassavetes and who had received invaluable advice for his film Mean Streets from Cassavetes).  Another is by Elaine Kagan, an author/actress who was once Cassavetes’ secretary for many years.  The last article, by Jonathan Lethem, is the longest in the booklet and provides a fine closing tribute to one of America's most iconoclastic and fiercely independent directors.  At the very end of the booklet, there are listings for the cast and crew details of each film in this set as well as acknowledgements and technical information concerning the discs.

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