At a time when the term “maverick” has become diluted by mis- and overuse, it’s thrilling to witness a true embodiment of the word in action. John Cassavetes, the long acknowledged “father of American independent filmmaking” was, by far, the most mavericky of all so-called ciné-mavericks.
Working miles outside the studio system, Cassavetes made the most personal kinds of films, utilizing as actors family (wife Gena Rowlands, mother Katherine) and friends (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassell), and often using his own homes as locations.
Like that other true film maverick, Orson Welles, Cassavetes financed his own close to home filmmaking endeavors with above-board acting jobs. Some of his earliest stints involved playing badass characters in The Night Holds Terror (1955) and Edge of the City (1957), and the title role on the short-lived television series Johnny Staccato (jazz pianist by night, private detective by day). Despite this work-for-hire approach, he always delivered the goods, whether in his Oscar-nominated performance as screwy convict Victor Franko in the The Dirty Dozen (1967) or soul-sellout actor Guy Woodhouse in director Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
The John Cassavetes: Five Films collection, newly released on Blu-ray by Criterion, showcases the filmmaker Cassavetes at his most intense, searching and experimental. His aesthetic, both in front of and behind the camera, was less Method immersion than mad (as in gleeful) exploration, skirting the emotional edge without tripping into or wallowing in cathartic excess.
That said, the films are tough, and oftentimes tough to watch. The earliest, Shadows (1959), is an urban race-riff that is a full-on experiment in acting, lighting and handheld camerawork. Shot in gritty black-and-white on actual urban locales, the film captures the seedy, meaty allure of New York City and the off-the-cuff thrills of acting class improvisations let loose. It also reflects, more than many or even any films of its era, the highwire energies inherent in ’50s modern jazz music and Beat Generation literature. Free and loose, without a safety net in sight, Shadows is thus the ideal indicator for Cassavetes entire subsequent filmmaking career.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
This safety net-less quality carries right through to the later films in the set. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) stars Cassavetes’ friend Ben Gazzara (it helps when your friends are actors of this quality) as a sleaze-ball nightclub owner tricked into killing the wrong man. Gazzara’s deep tenor growl, nice-guy eyes and Cheshire cat grin — now you see it, now you don’t — provide dubious cover for a confused inner killer who believes he’s velvety suave when he’s merely grease slick. With pints of blood that often look more like house paint, the film is violent, nervy and gruesome.
Opening Night (1977)
Opening Night (1977), also with Gazzara, Cassavetes himself and his real-life wife Gena Rowlands, is a kind of ghost-in-the-wings/aging actress story. Rowlands plays Myrtle Gordon, a famous actress who, after witnessing the death of a Number One fan, becomes emotionally haunted to the point where her entire life devolves into a performance whose authenticity she questions.
The film explores, in the most unflinching manner, how, in both theater and cinema, age is often indelibly, sometimes fatally linked with popularity. Also, in its treatment of reality versus theatricality, the film predates key themes from the more recent film Black Swan (2010), wherein Natalie Portman’s ballerina becomes consumed by frightening, even horrifying self-doubt. Here, it seems less and less clear whether the ghosts Myrtle encounters are actual or mere products of her prodigious talent and just as prodigious insecurity. The film also stars longtime Hollywood actress Joan Blondell in one of her final roles.
The standouts here are Cassavetes’ masterpieces Faces (1968) and A Woman Under the Influence (1974). The former is a study of marital dissolution and suburban ennui. A dissatisfied husband (played by the wonderfully crag-faced actor John Marley) falls for a prostitute (Gena Rowlands), while his wife (Lynn Carlin) has her own ill-fated night — stress on the “ill” — on the town, and in bed, with a young hipster, played with infectious grooviness by Cassavetes regular Seymour Cassell (a scene involving Cassell’s Chet attempting to rouse a clutch of uptight housewives into dancing is just one the film’s highlights).
Despite the completely improvisatory feel of the dialogue, the script itself was nominated for an Academy Award, and the film went on to quadruple its initial million dollar or so investment. Painful, moving, funny and frustrating, Faces captures the many hard facets of a free-falling marriage.
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Where Faces details, in close-up, a marriage on the rocks, A Woman Under the Influence depicts a marriage on the ropes. Delivering one of the most harrowing performances ever committed to film, Gena Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, a housewife and mother losing her marbles under the apish “influence” of Peter Falk’s completely oblivious husband. As with Faces, and really most Cassavetes films, scenes seem to meander on the brink of nothing only to reveal everything; just as you think, “What’s the point”, you’re jolted into “Why aren’t all movies this honest?”
Rowlands submerges herself so deeply into the role of Mabel that one begins to worry about the actress’s own sanity. She develops for Mabel a kind of dismissive thumb gesture and sound — pfft! — a clear outer signal for an inner short-circuiting.
The transfers of these originally intentionally gritty films are outstanding, while the extras for the collection are beyond copious: Alternate and restored versions, actors workshop footage, a French television special devoted entirely to Cassavetes, audio commentaries, documentaries (including the important A Constant Forge), as well as filmed interviews with Cassavetes himself, and the actors, technicians and friends who worked with and loved him best; and a dense 60-plus page booklet filled with interviews and essays by the likes of critics Gary Giddins, Stuart Klawans, Kent Jones and Phillip Lopate, novelist Jonathan Lethem, and self-professed Cassavetes student Martin Scorsese.
John Cassavetes: Five Films is essential not only for Cassavetes fans, or cinema fans in general, but anyone interested in experiencing the work of a true maverick, rather than just someone claiming to be one.