John Cassavetes: Five Films (Blu-ray)

In Blu-Ray’s by Rebecca WrightLeave a Comment

John Cassavetes is considered by many the “father of American independent cinema.” Like any moniker, this can be debated, but Cassavetes was unquestionably nonconformist; an actor/writer/director that openly railed against set scripts, fancy crews and the Hollywood “star system.” His concern was exploring what people think and feel, through fierce introspection. Criterion has brought John Cassavetes: Five Films to Blu-ray, offering viewers the chance to decide for themselves whether Cassavetes deserves a place among the filmmaking greats. The set includes five of his most noteworthy efforts: Shadows (1959), Faces (1968), A Woman Under The Influence (1974), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976/1978, presented here in two versions—the original theatrical cut which lasted in theaters for less than one week and a shortened version with edits made to pacing), and Opening Night (1977).

While I admire Cassavetes efforts greatly, even after several viewings, I feel as though I haven’t digested everything he had to say. After Each film, I feel a sense of exhaustion, almost as though I’ve been put through the dryer for a spin. Strangely, I feel kike that’s how Cassavetes would have wanted it; his films weren’t supposed to be a walk on the park; you’re supposed to feel the struggle.

Shadows, Cassavetes 16mm debut, captures New York at a time of great social and political change. The central conflict is between Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) a light skinned black woman, who becomes romantically involved with Tony (Anthony Ray), a white man, unaware of her racial heritage. After realizing she is African-American, and meeting her two brothers (Hugh Hurd, Ben Carruthers) the story takes some interesting twists. Filmed in black and white, using mostly non-professional actors, and largely improvised, Shadows feels like you’re a fly on the wall watching a series of conversations, not a film. The jazz music that accompanies it, only contributes to the film’s free flowing feel.

In Faces, another black and white, 16mm production, Cassavetes takes an unrelenting look at a disintegrating marriage. John Marley plays Richard Forst a wealthy, aging executive, and Lynn Carlin (in an Oscar nominated performance) his long suffering wife Maria. After picking up a young, glamorous prostitute (Cassavetes wife, and frequent collaborator, Gena Rowlands) He comes home and announces he wants a divorce. Richard and Maria are both unprepared for the consequences. While Richard is convinced happiness can be found in the arms of the prostitute, and Maria takes up with Seymour Cassel’s Chet, which is all just noise. It’s really a story about two people completely unaware of each other, and what they really want in life. Yes, Richard and Maria have been married for fourteen years, but they stopped truly communicating years earlier.

If I had to pick a favorite from the set, A Woman Under the Influence wins the prize. Gena Rowlands gives one of the most fascinating and heartbreaking performances in film history. She plays Mabel, a mentally ill housewife whose tenuous grip on reality begins slipping away. Her blue collar husband Nick (Peter Falk) is supportive, protective and constantly worried about her. The first part of the film documents Mabel’s descent into illness. Eventually, Nick is forced to admit to himself that Mabel is a danger to herself and the kids, and has her committed.  The second half begins six months later, and Mabel has returned home. They’re no longer able to function as a unit. Rowlands and Falk take turns alternating between anger and various levels of depression. Sadly, it becomes clear that the relationship between husband and wife is extremely unstable and unhealthy for both of them.  Further, Nick has some deep seeded issues of his own that haven’t begun to be addressed.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is presented here in two versions: the original theatrical 1976 cut which was reportedly rushed in post-production, along with a 1978 re-release trimmed by a half hour by Cassavetes. The story revolves around a strip club owner named Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) who runs up a huge gambling debt that can only be repaid if he successfully murders the titular Chinese Bookie. Seymour Cassel stars as Mort Weil, the face of gang Cosmo owes debt. His laid-back personality masks just how dangerous he and his associates are. Though Cosmo eventually agrees to carry out the hit, not surprisingly, things go awry. Unfortunately, the Chinese Bookie is a far more dangerous target than Cosmo could have imagined…Yet another intriguing character study, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie features a great performance from Gazzara, especially in the shorter version, which tightens up the story a bit.

Opening Night is about the strange events that occur both on and off stage during rehearsals for Broadway star Myrtle Gordon’s (Gena Rowlands) latest play. Aging an and lacking confidence, she’s dealing with doubts about whether she’s good enough to do the part. After the death of a passionate young fan Myrtle sees after a show, she begins to unravel with the show, changing things dramatically. Myrtle begins seeing the girl everywhere. In time, it’s impossible not to question exactly what’s going on. What really happened to the fan? Is she real or imagined? Those around Myrtle don’t seem to care much about her concerns, urging her to simply move on. Clearly though, she is going through a major crisis; something that will affect her on stage performance, and in turn, those around her. While Opening Night is structurally weak, and not a particularly good film plot wise, it still offers yet another fascinating character study, while asking some intriguing questions about life and death.

While my opinions vary on each film in this set (and will likely change several more times), it’s impossible not to admire John Cassavetes, his filmmaking style and commitment to his vision. There’s a lot of great work here, and he refused to buy into the Hollywood system to accomplish any of it. Whatever you’re opinions turn out to be, fans/students of independent film owe it to themselves to check out this set; John Cassavetes: Five Films is one of the best learning tools available today.

Each film in the set received a digital restoration, utilizing the best source materials available. Each film was transferred from 35 mm masters (Faces was the exception as a 16 mm film—it was done from a duplicated negative that was enhanced to a blown-up 35 mm source). Each film is presented in their respective original aspect ratios. Shadows is 1.33:1, Faces is 1.66:1. A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night are 1.85:1.

Every transfer, done by Criterion and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, is very impressive stuff. Film grain is present, and the use of DNR isn’t apparent. Things such sa Edge enhancement, aliasing, haloing, etc. aren’t an issue either. Image quality is quite food, and color saturation is well above average in those presentations. Occasional print damage does crop up, particularly on Shadows, but it’s rather minimal, and shouldn’t interfere with the overall viewing experience.  Viewers should be very pleased.

Each film in the set is presented with a lossless mono audio presentation preserving the original sound designs. The clarity and crispness of the audio is superb with excellent dialogue reproduction. The music utilized in these films also sounds excellent and enhances the atmosphere of the films throughout.

English SDH subtitles are included.

The extras, ported over from the 2004 DVD release, are numerous and listed under the individual title:

Shadows:

  • A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (HD, 3:21:16) This superb 2000 documentary, directed by Charles Kiselyak covers Cassavetes life and legacy through archival interviews with actors, colleagues, and friends. An absolute must-see.
  •  Lelia Goldoni Interview (HD, 11:41) The actress shares her memories of working with Cassavetes and remembers how the film took shape over a two year production period.
  • Seymour Cassel Interview (HD, 4:29) In this 2004 interview, the actor who made a cameo appearance on the movie but helped behind-the-scenes as associate producer, discusses how he met Cassavetes and came to work on the movie.
  • Workshop Footage (HD, 4:17) Rare silent 16mm footage at Cassavetes and Burt Lane’s acting workshop as the film was beginning to take shape.
  • Restoration Demonstration (HD, 11:04) it’s actually a documentary on the restoration of the film at UCLA by Ross Lipman showing how the movie was rescued from deterioration.
  • Galleries: 67 snapshots of behind-the-scenes activity during filming and recording sessions for the music soundtrack to the picture. There is also a separate gallery for domestic and international posters for all of the films in this set.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:53)

Faces:

  • Alternate Opening (HD, 17:57) Features some juxtaposed scenes and some bar footage not in the finished film.
  • Cinéastes de notre temps Interviews (HD, 48:22) Two interviews with John Cassavetes filmed three years apart by a French television. Part I was filmed in Hollywood in 1965 after postproduction work had begun on Faces. Part II was filmed in France in 1968 after a screening of the finished film.
  • Making Faces (HD, 42:00) 2004 interviews with Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel, Lynn Carlin, and cinematographer Al Ruban discussing the lengthy production and editing of the film and their thrill over its success.
  • Lighting and Shooting (HD, 12:02) A series of text pages detailing the equipment used in the film’s production, followed by cinematographer Al Ruban text-narrating various scenes from the film, discussing the film stocks and lights used in the film shoot.

A Woman Under the Influence:

  • Audio Commentary: Cameraman Mke Ferris, and sound recordist and composer Bo Harwood discuss the production process and their experiences on-set.
  • Gena Rowlands/Peter Falk Interview (HD, 17:15) In this 2004 interview, the two friends discusses working on the film and its reception.
  • John Cassavetes Interview (1:14:47) In this 1975 audio only interview, film historian Michel Ciment interviews Cassavetes with praise surrounding the movie.
  • Production Galleries: Five step-through galleries of behind-the-scenes shots made during the film’s production.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:59)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie:

  • Ben Gazzara/Al Ruban Interview (HD, 18:21) In separate 2004 interviews, the two share memories of the film, and its themes.
  • John Cassavetes Interview (16:15) Film historians Michel Ciment and Michael Wilson conduct an audio-only 1978 interview in which the director discusses where the idea for the film came from and his notions about working in the film business.
  • Stills Gallery: Twenty-five behind-the-scenes photographs are offered in a ste-through format.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2:00)

Opening Night:

  • Gena Rowlands/Ben Gazzara Interview (HD, 22:39) The two discuss this film, heap praise on the other actors and reminisce about what it was like working with John Cassavetes on several occasions.
  • Al Ruban Interview (HD, 7:50) The producer and director of photography of the film shares memories of working on the project particularly the time when he quit the production and had to be lured back by Ben Gazzara.
  • John Cassavetes Interview (29:01) this 1978 audio only interview conducted with historian Michel Ciment touches on the film’s themes, the difficulties in getting it made, and its reception here and in Europe.
  • Theatrical Trailers (HD, 7:21) two theatrical trailers are presented in montage form.
  • Eighty-Page Booklet: contains the cast and crew lists for all five films, a number of tinted stills, introductions for all five films by their director, individual analytical essays on each film by, respectively, Gary Giddins, Stuart Klawans, Kent Jones, Phillip Lopate, and Dennis Lim, interviews with the director by Judith McNally, critics from Cahiers du cinema and Postif, and celebratory essays by Charles Kiselyak, Martin Scorsese, Elaine Kagan, and Jonathan Lethem.