Filmmaker Retrospective: The Independent Cinema Of John Cassavetes

6. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands were one of the most powerful married couples to work together in the history of cinema. Each with keen artistic insights, the two inspired and amazed each other likely more than any other people in their lives.

A Woman Under the Influence is their most well-known collaboration, an episodic narrative showcasing neurotic housewife, Mabel, (Rowlands) and her descent into madness. Peter Falk plays Nick, her patient yet concerned husband who lovingly stays by her side despite her increasingly disruptive behavior. Through tumultuous domestic battles and embarrassing moments among company, their love remains constant.

As with Shadows, Cassavetes utilized improvisation a great deal in this film. He knew in order to capture the needed raw emotion and searing mental pain of Mabel, a pre-written script would be useful, but certainly would not do in the film’s most intense moments.

Rowlands and Falk dedicated themselves to their characters, and brought incredible depth and emotion to them. With Cassavete’s subtly insightful filming technique, and the brilliant lead actors he directed, A Woman Under the Influence is an extraordinary accomplishment in film as well as a fascinating look at the underbelly of suburbia.


7. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Ben Gazarra, quite possibly the coolest person in recorded history, gives one of his most popular and highly acclaimed roles in this suspense-ridden crime drama. Cosmo Vitelli (Gazarra) plays a shady strip club owner who has amassed a large gambling debt during a single card game. This causes great upset for Vitelli, not just because of the large amount of the debt, but mostly because of the dangerous loan sharks he has become indebted to.

Realizing Vitelli couldn’t possibly pay back the $23,000 debt anytime soon, the loan sharks put a hit on their rival, who just happens to be the boss of the Chinese mafia, who Vitelli will kill in repayment to his tough benefactors.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, in true Cassavetes fashion, does not rely on stylized action and generic Hollywood scores to build tension and intrigue. What Cassavetes does so brilliantly with this film is dispense with common expectations of the crime genre. While Hollywood films focusing on the mob had mostly been showcased with the aforementioned common techniques to create action and excitement, Cassavetes did something completely different. He used character development and organic atmospheric sounds to build tension in the narrative, all to crescendo to the final, breathtaking scene.


8. Opening Night (1977)

Opening Night (1977)

Featuring yet another brilliant performance from Gena Rowlands, Opening Night could be said to pay homage to Francois Truffaut’s Day For Night, where what happens behind the scenes of a movie or play is far more compelling than the story being crafted. Rowlands plays Myrtle Gordon, a well-known actress in an upcoming new play. She is faced with incredible grief, guilt and confusion when one of her fans dies in an attempt to see her.

Myrtle is so disturbed by the person’s death that she begins to question her own existence and choice of career. She begins to feel like a sham, someone who has made a living and fan base built on her ability to become other people. But who exactly is she?

The subject of the play is of particular interest: she will be playing a vain middle-aged woman who refuses to admit to herself that she is no longer in her physical prime, and that it is finally time to develop her intellect and personality which she has yet to put much effort into. With this role, Myrtle can satirically and gently face her own shortcomings as a human instead of facing them head on, as her character would have to do.

Living in the floodlight of death, she is able to look at herself from a distance, as if she were a theater-goer at one of her own plays. It is a difficult and frightful journey for Myrtle, as she is venturing into the facets of life she so commonly avoided. Out of the many roles Rowlands played for Cassavetes, Myrtle is one of her finest.


9. Gloria (1980)

gloria movie

Perhaps Cassavetes’ most thrilling, action-packed film, Gloria once again stars the enigmatic and incredibly versatile Gena Rowlands as a woman on the run from the mob. She is accidentally implicated in a mob hit placed and carried out on her neighbors, and takes the only remaining member of the family, the young son, under her wing. The two run all over New York in an attempt to escape the dangerous hit men who will stop at nothing to ensure their silence.

In an incredibly dark fashion, Gloria is both exciting and humorous, offering a great deal of suspense and comedy between Gloria and the young boy. While at times it may seem slightly ridiculous and over the top for Cassavetes’ style, it is nonetheless an interesting and entertaining work, and a testament to his versatility as filmmaker and storyteller.


10. Love Streams (1984)

Love Streams (1984)

In this darkly humorous story of the familial relationships, John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands play a brother and sister for the first and only time in their cinematic partnership. Sarah (Rowlands) is reeling from a nasty divorce, and hopes to find comfort in her brother, Robert (Cassavetes). While attempting to escape the chaos of her broken marriage, she finds Robert to be in a much darker place than she is.

Robert is heavily involved in a hedonistic, careless lifestyle, dependent on alcohol and sexual pleasure to find any enjoyment in his life. Sarah is understandably overwhelmed and disturbed by Robert’s shallow and lonely existence, but hopes to find the comfort she was looking for in not just depending on him to supply her with it, but in saving him from this nihilistic tendencies. Love Streams beautifully shows the loyal bonds of the nuclear family, and is a testament to selfless love among family members.

Author Bio: Sarah McFarlane studies English and Philosophy at The University of North Texas. She has been studying film for most of her life, loves reading Confessional Poetry and raising her cat, Thorwald.