Criterion's fat boxed set of John Cassavetes films will be a dream acquisition for serious actor-oriented film fans. The five films (and an additional 200 minute docu) in the box chart the progress of an actor drawn to directing movies through sheer creative frustration. Technical values cherished by Hollywood meant nothing to Cassavetes, to the point that his first film was shot by whoever on the crew was available at any given moment. Although by the end of this collection the camerawork and technique are the equal of anybody's, his earliest films, Shadows and Faces have qualities that Hollywood polish can't buy. As reiterated time and again by his actress wife Gena Rowlands and their longtime creative associates, Cassavetes was an actor's man who cherished truth in emotion and had a knack for capturing it on film.
Shadows is an experiment in grainy 16mm with variable lighting, shot by members of Cassavetes' actor's cooperative. Already struck with the idea of dropping traditional plots in favor of extended scenes that examine people in crisis, Cassavetes half-improvises a couple of days in the life of a beautiful young black girl, Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), her relationship with her singer brother (Hugh Hurd) and his longtime agent pal (Rupert Crosse) and her brief romance with a white guy who doesn't know she's black (Anthony Ray). The settings are rehearsal halls, train stations, 42nd street, central park and the loft apartments of Lelia's art-oriented friends. We also follow her other brother (Ben Carruthers) around as he carouses with his layabout friends, trying to pick up girls but mostly getting into trouble.
The filming is flat and sloppy but the movie's interesting personalities draw us in. Without the usual exposition, we have to figure out what Lelia's story is and why she's allowing herself to pass for black with her new boyfriend. She sleeps with him on the first date, a casual arrangement that mainstream movies weren't acknowledging in 1959, and we get her frustrated face when she finds out that first-time sex isn't the romantic miracle she thought it would be.
The movie is definitely written, although Cassavetes takes no credit. His perception of what makes a drama 'real' for an audience is already fully-formed; it's clear that his potential as a filmmaker is far greater than the narrow range of roles he was given to play as an actor in Hollywood
The set skips ten years later, past Cassavetes' two Hollywood films for Paramount and United Artists (Burt Lancaster, really) that he more or less disowns because he wasn't able to shape their final forms. Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting are remarkable films pulling sensational performances from actors we didn't know had it in them - Bobby Darin, Stella Stevens. Even Judy Garland is effective in an entirely different way than we expect.
Faces is considered Cassavetes' free-form masterpiece. John Marley and Lynn Carlin are a couple headed for a divorce. He's attracted to a bar-girl with soul (Gena Rowlands) and she goes on a to-Hell-with-it night on the town with some equally frustrated housewife friends, eventually picking up a young non-conformist eager to get it on, Seymour Cassel. Although the movie is plenty long, it consists mainly of five or six extended scenes, expansive one-acts covered with a roving docu-like camera. Rowlands and another b-girl entertain Marley and another crude businessman (Val Avery) in a long drunken party. Carlin and her middle-aged girlfriends reveal everything about themselves when confronted by Cassel's hip-talking uninhibited stud. Cassavetes indeed concentrates on faces, but the film has the look of unpredictable unfilmable emotional reality being captured by a camera too intimate to be believed.
It isn't the same thing as turning a camera loose on a one-act play. Carlin and Marley pass an evening together, laughing and joking about their friends as they drink and eat. His sudden demand for a divorce seems to come out of nowhere, but not really. Just as in reality, 'unexplained' emotional collisions are there waiting to happen.
The end of Faces has Cassavetes' earliest powerhouse scene, when Carlin tries to commit suicide after a one-night with Cassel. Cassel goes into paramedic mode, dragging her about, trying to slap her into consciousness and finally sticking his fingers down her throat over a toilet. The closeness to the reality of the characters is remarkable. This relatively cheap and 'homemade' effort accomplishes things Hollywood hadn't in 60 years of movies. Cassavetes' films are about actors and people, not filmmakers trying to fit actors into preconceived patterns.
The boxed set then skips a title or two (Husbands, for one, is not here) for a trio of 70s pictures. The two with Gena Rowlands are phenomenal, and the third only marginally less impressive. In anyone else's hands A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night would simply be a director showcasing his actress wife, but Cassavetes instead allows Gena Rolands to embody two very complicated characters to the point of fusing with them. We walk away from these films thinking that in terms of sheer acting, we've seen nothing that can compare.
Influence is a domestic saga told in just a few long scenes, of the nervous breakdown of a loving housewife Mabel (Rowlands) and her loving husband Nick, a civil engineer (Peter Falk). He knows she's not normal and frets when he has to leave her home alone, and with good reason. Rowlands' emotional 'engine' has no governor, and she just runs away with herself in affection for her kids and frequently embarrassing 'honesty' with acquaintances and strangers. We think the show is going to be about alcoholism but it's really about unrestrained love - Mabel shows her true feelings at all times without restraint. She goes bonkers at her kids' birthday party, freaking out a visiting father. She asks for the time on the sidewalk so erratically that people avoid her. With Nick's work crew all come home for a spaghetti dinner, Mabel is so touched by one's singing voice that she can't restrain herself from walking over and touching him.
It's not normal behavior, and of course the immediate thought is to question the nature of 'normal.' Nick shows his own lack of judgment; when he reaches the end of his patience he starts hitting. Several scenes become a chaos of caring people and good intentions gone nuts, with Nick's mom (played by Katherine Cassavetes, John's mother) and a psychiatrist intervening in undesired ways. The film is fascinating, exhausting and highly rewarding.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is presented in two cuts, the first long one that was quickly withdrawn and the second shortened by half an hour. This picture was a boxoffice flop and even though Cassavetes and the star Ben Gazzara were understandably proud of it, we can see why. It's a recognizable film noir story where our concern goes toward things like plot detail and narrative clarity. Those concerns are never what Cassavetes concentrates on. Strip-club owner Cosmo Vitelli (Gazzara) is free of debt for only a few hours before he allows himself to be conned into a $23,000 gambling tab by some gangster sharpies, Seymour Cassel and Timothy Carey among them. It's all a plot to extort him into carrying out a difficult murder for them. Cosmo is presented as a lightweight dreamer dazzled by his own extended family of beautiful female performers, and we never see how he expects for a moment to succeed in his assassination mission in a strange house surrounded by bodyguards. Just as we're getting deep into standard genre material, Cassavetes naturally opts for character detail and the odd fantasy of Cosmo's awful burlesque-oriented strip shows, and we feel lost.
Opening Night makes a triumph of the oldest story in the book, the emotional strife of an aging actress cracking up in the days before an all-important Broadway opening. Gena Rowlands is once again amazing; Cassavetes stretches even more as a director, retaining his feel of instantaneous reality while telling a more complicated story than usual. He even makes room for some impressive stylistic flourishes. A ghost story intervenes in the form of a psychological specter that haunts Rowlands' star - a teen fan run down on the road while trying to get an autograph.
There's a flawless ensemble at work. Ben Gazzara is her suffering producer, ignoring his wife Zohra Lampert to coddle Myrtle's neurosis. Joan Blondell is the author whose play seems to be the cause of the misery; like Ronald Colman in A Double Life, Myrtle identifies with her characters and is crippled by the play's pessimism and lack of relief for its leading lady - an older woman. Myrtle asks where the hope is. The last act of the show is an amazing balancing act where a drunken Myrtle forces the play into a different direction, with a previously unsympathetic costar (played by Cassavetes) following along with her risky improvisation before a first night audience. Myrtle works out her neurosis right in front of our eyes, through drama therapy. As in all of Cassavetes' work, the actors are in charge, even on the stage.
Criterion's disc set of John Cassavetes Five Films is clearly a labor of devotion from the director's wife and surviving associates. Even Ben Gazarra seems pleased to appear on behalf of the films he contributed to. All five pictures are in individual plastic and card holders; Faces is a double disc for extra content and Chinese Bookie doubles up to present both release versions of the film. In addition to that there's a sixth disc, Charles Kiselyak's lengthy docu feature A Constant Forge, The Life and Times of John Cassavetes which I recommend only after seeing the films. It's mainly composed of key interview material, and each title comes with more of the same produced specifically for this disc set and in several cases filmed in Gena Rowlands' house. I've listed all the extras below, but my favorite is the follow-camera interview piece by a French company for Faces. We accompany John to his Mulholland Drive house and listen to him talk about his situation, making films on the cheap and keeping Faces going for about 40 minutes. When it's all over, we want to volunteer to help him make movies for free. He's got the kind of engaging, honest personality that wins one over in no time flat.
There's also a book-length collection of essays and Cassavetes interviews to compliment the movies. Criterion's packaging design and menus are tasteful and attractive.
The Cassavetes films were quite a revelation; I'd only seen one of them before and with every new title they just seemed to get better. Criterion's set is a pricey package, but I've never seen anything so thorough and satisfying on an individual director.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
John Cassavetes Five Films rates: