What's Your Take on Cassavetes? Four Films

Faces by John Cassavetes

For someone who loves independent movies, it sure took me a heck of a long time to watch anything directed by John Cassavetes.

Maybe that is because I had heard how emotionally intense his films were, tapping into a vein of real life and forgoing any sense of escapism that most movies offer. Despite that hesitation, I am deeply satisfied that I took the time to watch four great films by this stalwart of early independent film, who took many menial acting jobs so he could make something great.

Shadows, Cassevetes' first film, is a defiant statement against mainstream culture, both in terms of cinema and society. It follows three African American siblings living in New York City, two of whom are trying to pass as white. The film was shot without a script, and its black and white, 16-millimeter film stock lacks the gloss of Hollywood pictures of the same year (North by Northwest or Ben-Hur for example). With its jazz score by Charles Mingus and its focus on urban youth in 1950's, Shadows is a must see for any fans of Beat writers or early independent film.

Faces, made almost a decade later, clicks on a narrative level more so than Cassavetes' previous effort. It follows an older husband and wife who split up. Each of them leaves the house after a fight and go their own ways, encountering all sorts of people and having unforgettable experiences.

Many of the scenes in Faces take advantage of the theatrical background of Cassavetes' actors. The scenes are usually comprised of two to four people. Usually halfway into each scene, one character will shift in terms of attitude, immediately creating a conflict with the others.

Cover to ShadowsAccording to a documentary that comes with the Faces DVD, actors were forbidden to speak to each other between scenes about their characters or anything else, forcing the performers to think of each other as their characters rather than their true selves. These techniques, along with the ever-present documentary feel of the camera, make Faces truly fascinating.

A Woman Under the Influence, shot in color, offers a hypnotically distressing performance from Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes' wife. A mother of three, Rowlands' character is awkward in social situations. Not only does she say the wrong things to the wrong people, but she also tries to engage others with her childlike imagination and many nervous tics to the discomfort of those around her.

Her husband, played by Peter Falk, starts out the film in a mood similar to his famous character Columbo. He is genial and wants the best for his wife and family. As the film progresses though, we see Falk pushed to the breaking point, desperately trying to make sense of her actions while his own sanity appears up for question.

Be warned that both Faces and A Woman Under the Influence feature realistic portrayals of violence against women. Some criticize Cassavetes for essentially abusing his female actors while others praise him for featuring such startling and ugly scenes. 

There are two versions of Cassavetes' first crime thriller The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. Both are available on the Criterion DVD. The earlier, longer cut from 1976 is easier to follow. Though I used the words "crime thriller," this is starkly different than the Godfather films or Dog Day Afternoon, all from the same decade.

For starters, Ben Gazzara's character Cosmo Vitelli, a nightclub owner who gambles too much, is not nearly as charismatic or lively as the characters portrayed by Al Pacino. Gazzara apparently had a lot of trouble sympathizing with Cosmo, which Cassavetes used to his advantage while depicting a man who is unsatisfied and uncomfortable with his stake in life. Cosmo is not a bad person, he simply lacks an active role toward his place in the world.

When he finds himself in over his head with gambling debts, he is offered a way out through a hit job against the titular Chinese bookie. The film offers equal parts comedy and pathos. For example, when Cosmo is on the way to the hit, he stops at a pay phone to check in on his club. He finds himself talking to, then yelling at two incompetent employees who can not give him simple answers as to what is currently happening at the club. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a quiet character piece, offering both nuance and realistic behavior in its protagonist.

There is an authenticity built into the very fabric of Cassavetes' movies. That authenticity lingers with you, as if you were there in person seeing these characters, these people, with your own two eyes. It takes a true talent to make that possible, and you can see that talent through these four films.