JOHN CASSAVETES: FIVE FILMS
Review by Ed Nguyen
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Lelia Goldoni, Anthony Ray, Hugh Hurd, Ben Carruthers, Rupert Crosse
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Features: Lelia Goldoni and Seymour Cassel interviews, workshop footage, restoration demonstration, stills gallery, trailer
Length: 81 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004
although unquestionably predicated on profit and loss...cannot survive without
individual expression." - John Cassavetes
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
the disc includes the film's trailer, which mentions many of the rave reviews for
this then-innovative and provocative film.
Lynn Carlin, John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Video: Black & white, widescreen 1.66:1
Features: Alternate opening sequence, Cinéastes de notre temps episode, Making Faces documentary, Lighting & Shooting the Film
Length: 130 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004
am myself. Who else would I be?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
TRIVIA: If John Marley looks
familiar, that is because he played a producer who received an offer he couldn't
refuse in The Godfather!
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 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.
has the time to be vulnerable to each other."
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.
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.
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!
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
Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Katherine Cassavetes, Lady Rowlands, Eddie Shaw
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Features: Commentary, interviews, trailer, stills gallery
Length: 147 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004
not crazy. She’s unusual. She’s
not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy.”
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Azizi Johari, Timothy Carey, Meade Roberts
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Video: Color, widescreen 1.85:1
Features: 1978 re-edited version, interviews, stills gallery
Length: 135 minutes (re-edited version 108 minutes)
Release Date: September 21, 2004
Marx said opium was the religion of the people.
I got news for him. It’s
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
for A Woman Under the Influence and Opening
Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes, Joan Blondell
Director: John Cassavetes
Audio: English monaural
Video: Color, widescreen 1.85:1
Features: Interviews, trailers
Length: 144 minutes
Release Date: September 21, 2004
not a woman to me anymore. You’re
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
presented in a monophonic soundtrack. The
audio quality is not especially dynamic but functions quite adequately within
the context of this dialogue-driven film.
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.
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).
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
there are two trailers for Opening Night.
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 ****
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
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.
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.
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
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'
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.