John Cassavetes: Five Films Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
SHADOWS (1959) – 10/10
With his 1959 debut, SHADOWS, New York native John Cassavetes established himself as one of the key figures in independent cinema.
Funded entirely by friends, family and anyone else he could pin down, SHADOWS was birthed from Cassavetes’ early days in drama workshops. It tells the taboo story of a lighter-skinned black woman (Lelia Goldoni) and her relationship with a white man (Anthony Ray), and the latter’s reaction when she discovers Lelia’s race—this at a time when movies like BEN-HUR and PILLOW TALK were winning Oscars.
Like many of Cassavetes’ works, SHADOWS is shot in the cinéma vérité style, which heightens the realism and makes the film seem like a documentary. It is undoubtedly rough around the edges (and even within them), but there is a coherence and a method on how to get from A to B. It’s like someone figured out how to photograph jazz music.
SHADOWS is to the United States what BREATHLESS was to France—an unconventional and chaotic work that ushered in not just a new way to make films, but a new way to think about them.
FACES (1968) – 8/10
FACES was Cassavetes’ fourth film (TOO LATE BLUES and A CHILD IS WAITING came after SHADOWS) and the only to earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. (Yes, despite the improvisational feel, FACES, like all of Cassavetes’ films except SHADOWS, utilized a developed script.)
Richard (John Marley) and wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) are in a marriage that has failed and turned them to new lovers, a prostitute named Jeannie (Gena Rowlands) and a groomed blonde named Chet (Seymour Cassel), respectively. There are new laughs shared and music clubs visited, but is this where these people belong? If not, then where do they belong? (That the film closes on an empty staircase may offer a hint.)
The purpose of FACES is summed up in one moment that stands as one of the finest scenes of any Cassavetes film: Richard says in full bluntness, “I want a divorce.” Maria, unsure how to react, laughs her head off until her husband demands, “Did you hear me?” Then there is a bout of quiet, broken only by Richard’s insistence that his wife give an answer then and there. I think Cassavetes was showing that silence and unhappiness ruled the American household and there was an urgent need to address it (in cinema, at least).
FACES premiered with a 3+-hour cut, which was eventually chopped to 130 minutes. Even still, it is unnecessarily long (as some other Cassavetes films tend to be), which highlights the only flaw in the director’s insistence on creative control.
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974) – 10/10
Mabel (Gena Rowlands, earning the first of two career Oscar nods—the other was for 1980’s GLORIA, also helmed by her husband) is a woman under the influence. Not of drugs or alcohol, but of society. But she’s not crazy, as her husband Nick (Peter Falk) points out. She’s unusual.
That might be so, but it gets to the crippling point for Nick where he decides to send her away and…then what? Make her something she isn’t? Tone her down a notch? Put himself in a place he can’t handle? Whatever comes of it will reveal more about Mabel and Nick than maybe some can handle.
While Falk develops Nick and refuses to let the character be one-dimensional, A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is unquestionably Rowlands’ film. Watch the scene where Mabel tries to find out the time from strangers on the sidewalk. She’s so loud and distraught-looking that they think she’s a loon. After a minute, her behavior becomes erratic. The next scene has her desperately asking her children, “Do you ever see me as dopey?”
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is one of Cassavetes’ best-written and -directed works in his oeuvre (the Academy recognized him with his only Best Director nod). It also shows an underrated actress giving one of the bravest performances ever captured.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE (1976/78) – 7/10
Cassavetes’ visit to the world of crime tells of club owner Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara), back in deep debt and tasked by the mob to perform a hit on what he’s told is, yes, a Chinese bookie.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE is a noticeable departure from Cassavetes’ dissections of romance, marriage and social norms. And while he should be commended for taking a bit of a risk and the film can’t be described as dreadful (like some of his studio projects), the attempt—more about plot than people, unlike FACES and HUSBANDS, for example—is a bit of a disappointment.
CHINESE BOOKIE is undoubtedly a Cassavetes film (who else would shoot a mob movie like this? Who else would think to cast Gazzara as a hitman?), but, then, it also feels like he’s trying to combine Hollywood and indie. It maintains grit and distinction, but feels far too on-point and less free than the director’s better works.
OPENING NIGHT (1977) – 9/10
OPENING NIGHT is set in the world of theater, as the title might give away. It follows an aging, alcoholic Broadway actress (Rowlands), who we wonder if is drunk because of her age or old because of the booze. One night, she witnesses the death of a fan, causing visions and a spiral that doesn’t bode well for her new play.
OPENING NIGHT isn’t the best Cassavetes film, but it might be the quintessential one and the one to best represent his entire career. There are deeply troubled characters coping with and being challenged by their surroundings, something of a dream cast (Rowlands and Ben Gazzara star; regulars Peter Falk and Seymour Cassel make cameos, while Cassavetes himself has a small role) and a scene of improv that winks at SHADOWS and those that have followed his works. (It is also incredibly long, but somehow justifies its length in the end.)
Although Cassavetes would make three more films in the 1980s (GLORIA, LOVE STREAMS and BIG TROUBLE), OPENING NIGHT is the last great one in his filmography. Consider it not a finale, but a celebration of a short but impactful career.
JOHN CASSAVETES FIVE FILMS CRITERION COLLECTION BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: 1.33:1 on SHADOWS; 1.66:1 on FACES; 1.85:1 on A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE and OPENING NIGHT. All are in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec.
SHADOWS: “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35mm fine-grain master struck from the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s restoration duplicate negative and restored by Criterion.”
FACES: “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35mm duplicate negative blown up from the original 16mm A/B reels and restored by Criteiron.”
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE: “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35mm color reversal internegative and restored by Criterion.”
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE: “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35mm color reversal internegative and restored by Criterion.”
OPENING NIGHT: “This high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from the original 35mm camera negative and restored by Criterion.”
John Cassavetes’ works wouldn’t be the same without their gritty and grainy looks, so picturing SHADOWS, FACES and the rest in high-definition may make some cautious; fortunately, film purists will be happy that the essence is maintained. While the overall video has certainly been improved upon (and these Blu-rays are much more pristine than the DVDs) and the clarity is very steady throughout, the filmic quality remains in all five works. These transfers are top-notch and serve as a perfect demonstration on how low-budget (and some might say “homemade-feeling”) films can have a place on Blu-ray when approached properly.
Audio: English Mono on all five films.
SHADOWS: “The original monaural soundtrack was restored by Audio Mechanics in collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm print. Sonic Solutions’ NoNOISE, Sonic Studio HD, and Pro Tools were used for pop and click removal, dropout repairs, hiss reduction, and EQ rebalancing.”
FACES: “The original monaural soundtrack was restored by Audio Mechanics in collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm full-coat magnetic recordings and a 35mm acetate track negative. Sonic Solutions’ NoNOISE, Sonic Studio HD, and Pro Tools were used for pop and click removal, dropout repairs, hiss reduction, and EQ balancing.”
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE: “The original monaural soundtrack was restored by Audio Mechanics in collaboration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm full-coat magnetic recording. Sonic Solutions’ NoNOISE, Sonic Studio HD, and Pro Tools were used for pop and click removal, dropout repairs, hiss reduction, and EQ balancing.”
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE: “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic audio track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
OPENING NIGHT: “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic audio track. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
As with the video transfers, the audio has been given special attention by those who seek to preserve the films of John Cassavetes with today’s technology. Every line of dialogue, music cue and sound effect (especially those stemming from jazz clubs and on New York City’s streets) comes through in an authentic manner, adding so much to the atmospheres of the films.
A CONSTANT FORGE (3:21:16): This epic 2000 documentary, directed by Charles Kiselyak, offers a wonderfully thorough look at the life and times of John Cassavetes. Interviewees (including Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassel, Peter Bogdanovich, and more) dissect the director’s filmography, his style and career, while sharing personal stories about Cassavetes. This is one of the finest documentaries about an individual in the entertainment industry ever made.
Lelia Goldoni (11:41): Star Goldoni discusses meeting Cassavetes and working on the director’s debut.
Seymour Cassel (4:29): Actor Cassel shares his thoughts on his relationship with Cassavetes.
Workshop Footage (4:17): Compiled here is silent footage from the Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop in New York.
Restoration Demonstration (11:04): This featurette looks at the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s efforts to preserve SHADOWS.
Alternate Opening (17:57): This opening sequence is from the original 183-minute cut of FACES.
CINEASTES DE NOTRE TEMPS (48:22): This episode of the French television series, which aired 1968, features two interviews with Cassavetes, who discusses independent cinema and the production of his fourth film.
Making FACES (42:00): Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, and Al Ruban reminisce about FACES and how the film came about.
Lighting and Shooting the Film (12:02): Here, director of photography Ruban (who worked with Cassavetes on eight films) discusses the techniques used during the making of FACES.
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Audio commentary by sound recordist and composer Bo Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris: The duo offers a solid commentary in which they discuss working on A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, collaborating with Cassavetes and some technical details.
Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk (17:15): The stars of the film sit to converse about their experiences shooting the film.
Cassavetes Audio Interview (1:14:47): In this lengthy 1975 interview conducted by film scholar Michel Ciment, Cassavetes shares his thoughts on directing, improvisation and more.
THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE
Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban (18:21): Gazzara and Ruban reflect on THE KILLING OF A CHINESE BOOKIE, its director and the different cuts of the film.
Cassavetes Audio Interview (16:15): In this 1978 interview conducted by film scholars Michael Ciment and Michael Wilson, Cassavetes discusses his motivations for making CHINESE BOOKIE, young filmmakers and more.
Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara (22:39): The stars of OPENING NIGHT discuss making OPENING NIGHT, the only Cassavetes film they appeared in together.
Al Ruban (7:50): Here, Ruban chats about his work as producer and cinematographer on OPENING NIGHT.
Cassavetes Audio Interview (29:01): In this 1978 interview conducted by film scholar Michael Ciment, Cassavetes touches on a number of scenes in the film, theater and more.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray box set is an 80-page booklet featuring essays by Gary Giddins, Kent Jones, Charles Kiselyak, Stuart Klawans, Dennis Lim, and Phillip Lopate; writings by and interviews with Cassavetes; and tributes to the filmmaker by director Martin Scorsese; actor and writer Elaine Kagan, Cassavetes’s former secretary; and novelist Jonathan Lethem.