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Blu-ray Review: ‘John Cassavetes: Five Films’ (The Criterion Collection)

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Home video releases don’t get much more essential than The Criterion Collection’s John Cassavetes: Five Films, a box stuffed full of masterpieces from the father of American independent film. Originally released on DVD in 2004, the set has received a very welcome upgrade to Blu-ray.

Cassavetes has often been thought of as an actor’s director, and the searing performances from wife Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel and a host of instantly memorable bit players or non-actors in these films certainly confirm that. Cassavetes’s love for improvisatory-style scripts and long, sometimes sprawling takes can be seen as a kind of intense generosity toward his actors; there’s ample room for characters to reveal themselves and for actors to walk a terrifying tightrope of vulnerability. Cassavetes’s love of long, digressive films that sometimes seem to loop in on themselves can also belie what an incredible formal craftsman he was. Despite what they may look like at first blush, these are not shapeless, meandering films, but precisely framed examinations of the human psyche. They are revolutionary in form and preternaturally honest in content. They are masterpieces.

The set opens with Shadows (1959), Cassavetes’s 16mm debut work about the rapidly evolving racial and sexual politics in New York City. While the film’s central conflict is the relationship between light-skinned black woman Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) and white man Tony (Anthony Ray), and his less-than-open-minded reaction to discovering her racial makeup, the film has many interests: the banality of show-business and its opposition to art, the awkward sexual maneuvering that’s subtext to polite party conversation, shifting gender roles that are embraced by some and terrify others.

One can see the stylistic DNA of Shadows replicated throughout the next 50 years of independent filmmaking — the loose, improvisational dialogue and the roving, handheld camera — but not many ever measured up to the example Cassavetes set.

Next, we jump nearly a decade to Faces (1968), an almost unbearably intense chamber piece where polite, socially expected facades are ripped away in an instant under the watchful eye of Cassavetes’s insidious camera and high-contrast lighting that makes it look like the whole thing was shot under police interrogation. Cassavetes again shoots in 16mm black-and-white, the format this time communicating potent emotional affliction instead of beatnik cool. Husband and wife Richard (John Marley) and Maria (Lynn Carlin) don’t seem like a couple on the outs when we first see them together, even if the previous sequence saw Richard frankly propositioning a prostitute (Gena Rowlands). But it doesn’t take long for their playful banter to acquire an edge of real meanness and finally explode in a declaration of divorce.

Faces is all about the mounting pressure that builds in situations where people have committed to playing people they are not. Richard goes after Rowlands’s Jeannie, while Maria takes up with Seymour Cassel’s Chet, each convincing themselves happiness is just a different person away. Scenes of carefree partying and seeming emotional freedom have their hollowness eventually revealed. The film is more of a tone and mood piece than the ones that would follow, but what an incredibly raw, discomfiting mood it is.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) might just be the crown jewel of the set, although who wants to pick a favorite from this lineup? Rowlands gives one of the greatest, most devastating and most life-affirming performances in all of film as Mabel, a mentally ill housewife whose tenuous grasp of her responsibilities begins to slip away. Her construction worker husband, Nick (Peter Falk), clearly loves her, but his grasp on reality often seems just as bad, driven by desperate self-deception and an insistence that things are good and his family is happy rather than mental illness. Comprised of two sections, the film first painstakingly documents Mabel’s descent, increasingly visible with every gesture and introduction. A spaghetti meal for Nick’s coworkers is the perfect example of Cassavetes’s ability to slightly shift the interpersonal dynamic over and over until the scene at the end has been wholly transformed from what it was at the beginning.

After Nick eventually admits to himself Mabel could be dangerous to herself and their three kids, he has her committed, and the film’s second section takes place six months later when she has returned home. Both sections of the film function like a symphony of dysfunction; Rowlands and Falk will take turns flaring up and becoming sullen, their tumultuous interactions feeding off each other. They need each other to survive and they’re simultaneously the biggest threat to that survival. All of Cassavetes’s films from this era practically require multiple viewings to digest the density of his visual storytelling, but maybe none more so than A Woman Under the Influence, where we see one of the most convincing depictions of a marriage, with a lifetime of joys and disappointments embedded into it.

Cassavetes moves away from domestic examinations with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976 and 1978), the most digressive film in the set, which Cassavetes returned to two years after its initial release to shave nearly 30 minutes away. Criterion includes both cuts here, although there’s certainly no reason to shy away from the original, 135-minute cut, which preserves more of the wonderfully scuzzy details. An atmospheric modern noir about a strip club owner (Ben Gazzara) whose penchant for gambling gets him in deep trouble with the mob, Chinese Bookie is another film about the disconnect between image and reality. Gazzara’s Cosmo Vitelli posits himself as a classy, successful businessman, even as his seedy strip joint struggles to attract paying customers and his attachment to his dancers is far more lecherous than he likes to believe.

Seymour Cassel stars as the obsequious Mort Weil, the face of Cosmo’s debtors whose easygoing demeanor conceals the sinister nature of the operation. Eventually, Cosmo agrees to carry out a hit for the mobsters to absolve his debt, but things go awry in both comic and violent ways. Cassavetes is in no hurry to dispense plot information, allowing the film to function as both a probing character study with a strong sense of place and a lean thriller.

Finishing out the set is Opening Night (1977), a dizzyingly ambitious work about the intersection between life and art and an actress’s struggle to reconcile her onstage self with her real self. All the lines are blurred here, including the line between reality and fantasy (or nightmare). After stage star Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands) witnesses the death of one of her desperately adoring fans, she begins seeing the young girl almost everywhere. A supernatural angle or just a delusion made explicit is atypical for a Cassavetes film, where a bruising sense of reality is generally on display.

Still, the conceit works perfectly as part of a larger whole, as Myrtle frets over her relevance. As the older woman in a play written by an even older woman (Joan Blondell), she resents any and every implication that her star and youth are fading. She begins to torpedo the play’s tryouts in New Haven leading up to a Broadway debut, drastically changing her lines and character on a whim, even as the ghost of her fan continues to haunt her, seemingly becoming more youthful and sexual with every passing visit. Rowlands’s performance is typically fearless, embracing a wide array of intentional ugliness to get at the heart of what it means to be a woman and a performer. As her director and co-star, Gazzara and Cassavetes himself are both spectacular as men who want to support her but not get fully entangled with the unraveling woman themselves.

The high-def upgrades for all five films are very pleasing. Shadows and Faces both have transfers that embrace the limitations of their source materials and the way they were shot, while still delivering crisp, film-like images with stable grain levels and excellent clarity. A Woman Under the Influence is a revelation, with vibrant and true colors and a consistently sharp and clean image. The shooting style of Chinese Bookie ensures the transfer is less stunning, but the film’s frequent dark and dingy scenes are handled beautifully, with no loss of detail or black crush. Opening Night features exceptional sharpness and clarity. All five transfers represent a significant upgrade over the old DVD set.

The copious extras from the original release are ported over, with Charles Kiselyak’s 200-minute documentary A Constant Forge demoted from having its own spine number to a spot as an extra on the Shadows disc. The Shadows disc also contains interviews with Lelia Goldoni and Seymour Cassel, who produced the film, footage from the acting workshop where the film got its genesis, a restoration demonstration, a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer.

The Faces disc includes an alternate opening sequence, an episode of French TV show Cinéastes de notre temps on Cassavetes and interviews with Cassel, Lynn Carlin, Gena Rowlands and director of photography Al Ruban.

On A Woman Under the Influence, there’s an audio commentary by composer Bo Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris, a conversation between Rowlands and Peter Falk, an archival audio interview with Cassavetes, stills and a trailer.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie includes interviews with Ben Gazzara and Ruban, an audio interview with Cassavetes, stills and a trailer. Opening Night has a similar line-up, with a conversation between Rowlands and Gazzara, an interview with Ruban, an audio interview with Cassavetes and a selection of trailers.

Also included is an 80-page booklet stuffed with great reading, including essays on each film by folks like Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate, introductions by Cassavetes, and tributes by Martin Scorsese, Elaine Kagan and Jonathan Lethem.

Not all of Cassavetes’s major works are represented here — one hopes for Criterion editions of Husbands and Love Streams someday — but the set is a jewel nonetheless.


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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • bliffle

    Thanks for this review of Cassavettes important works. New viewers may find his films difficult, but keeping an open mind and reviewing the material with grownup experiences will reveal much to illuminate ones own life.