John Cassavetes: Five Films
- Street Date:
- October 22nd, 2013
- Reviewed by:
- Gordon S. Miller
- Review Date: 1
- December 5th, 2013
- Movie Release Year:
- 0 Minutes
- MPAA Rating:
- Release Country
- United States
The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take
For almost as long as there have been American movies, there have been Hollywood studios making them. While they have been responsible for many beloved and classic films over the years, audiences haven't been limited to their output. Independent producers and directors have helped expand what and how stories could be told, taking chances in ways studios have been unable. The history of independent cinema is populated with many notable figures, such as filmmakers Roger Corman and John Sayles. Although he worked as an actor and director within the studio system, John Cassavetes' also directed and financed films himself, which allowed him creative control. The Criterion Collection honors Cassavetes with this collection of 'Five Films'.
'Shadows' (1959) [4/5] was his first film. He shot it twice, and Criterion presents the second version. Rather than a traditional plot, it is a slice of life, presenting a very authentic version of the Beatnik lifestyle amongst the youth of 1950s New York City. An African-American family serves as the film's anchor. Older brother Hugh is a working musician, frustrated at having to introduce the club's dancing girls. Ben has similar aspirations, but loafs around with his friends. Their sister Leila is a virgin traversing the dating scene. When she dates a white man, the idea must have been somewhat shocking in its time considering some states still had laws against interracial marriage.
The end credits state, "The film you have just seen was an improvisation," a tool frequently used by Cassavetes in all five films, to varying degrees of success. The rawness of the performances works well, helped by the film's short runtime. The direction and cinematography are raw as well, and bring to mind some of the stylistic choices of the French New Wave in the following decade.
A year after the Summer of Love, 'Faces' (1968) [3.5/5] presents an uncomfortable exploration in the lives of unsatisfied people. Dicky (John Marley), Fred (Fred Draper), and Jeannie (Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands) are drunk at Jeannie's place. The laughs disappear quickly when Fred gets jealous of Dicky and Jeannie dancing. He demands to know how much she charges, how much it's going to cost him to be with her.
At home, neither Dicky nor his wife Maria (Lynn Carlin) are getting what they want from marriage. He returns to Jeannie's the next day. A different group of businessmen are being entertained with Jim (Val Avery) set to be Jeannie's date for the evening, but Dicky has other ideas. With Dicky out for the night, Maria and her friends go to nightclub and return with free-spirited Chet (Seymour Cassel), who is open to anything and everything. Florence (Dorothy Gulliver) is the oldest and seems the most in need of his affections.
Although the performances are believable and the actors brave, some scenes rambled on longer than needed. If the improv work ruled out a tighter script, then better editing needed to be employed to move on from a cut or a scene once the information presented was exhausted. Unfortunately, this is a common fault seen throughout Cassavetes' work.
'A Woman Under the Influence' (1974) [3.5/5] tells of another marriage, troubled for different reasons. Nick (Peter Falk) and Mabel (Rowlands) Longhetti are working-class parents working in Los Angeles. After sending the kids to stay with her mother, Mabel plans for an evening alone with her husband. But his job is going to keep him away. She runs off to a bar, has a guy buy her a drink, and he takes her home. At first, it appears the "influence" in the title is alcohol, but Mabel suffers from more than that.
In the morning, she mistakes the guy who brought her home for Nick, who he looks nothing like. Later that day, Nick brings his work buddies in for spaghetti and she acts bizarre toward them, asking odd questions and making weird noises. She alternates between moments of lucidity and what her mother-in-law calls "crazy," a catch-all for much misunderstood mental illness. While Cassavetes never makes clear what exactly is wrong with her, it's obviously something is as Nick struggles to deal with her.
Although Rowlands has moments where she comes across as acting crazy rather than being crazy, the entire cast, children included, do a very fine job of creating a family dealing with a difficult burden. For those that only know Falk from 'Columbo', he impresses with the range of emotions he displays of a husband having to deal with the sickness and worse that he agreed to in his vows. A small crack in his commitment is seen when he doesn’t respond to a question about whether he still loves her.
'The Killing of a Chinese Bookie' [3/5] (1976/1978) appears in two versions. "About the Versions" reveals the longer version bombed and was pulled from theaters in a week. After finishing 'Opening Night', he recut the film, creating a version 27 minutes shorter. Since editing is a weakness in Cassavetes' films, I chose the shorter version.
Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) runs a burlesque club in Los Angeles and acts like a big shot, spending a night on the town with three of his girls in two. He reveals poor judgment, celebrating having just paid off a loan shark with an all-night poker game that finds him $23k in the debt. The mobsters have little patience so to square his debts he must kill a Chinese bookie.
Naturally, things aren't what they appear and don't go as planned. The plot offers a good twist, but then the gangsters have their own plan, which makes little sense. If the film had stayed as modern noir, it would have been better served, but for some odd reason we get lengthy performances from Cosmo's club, which not only include the girls, but the needless ramblings of emcee Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) that brings the pacing to a screeching halt. Even this shorter version has problems, so I am not surprised the original bombed.
'Opening Night' (1977) [2.5/5] is another look at a woman under the influence. This time it is actress Myrtle Gordon (Rowlands) who begins to unravel while working on a play about an aging woman, a subject that strikes a chord with Myrtle. One night after rehearsal, she sees a fan hit by a car, and becomes haunted by the girl, who also represents her younger self. The film tries to play with the idea of whether there actually was a girl, but Myrtle goes to her funeral, which seems quite the dream/ hallucination and undercuts the ambiguity.
Myrtle becomes increasingly difficult to work with, so much so, it's hard to believe she wouldn't be replaced. She shows up to a performance late from a drinking binge and is so inebriated she can barely walk. Yet, she sobers up while on stage somehow to finish the play, which goes on for a long while in the film's final act. The audience goes wild for it, but it's hard to understand why. It comes across like Cassavetes and Rowland are just making up the play as they go, which they are, as revealed in the extras. Unfortunately, 'Opening Night' suffers more from the flaws of Cassavetes' work while offering little of the strengths.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'John Cassavetes: Five Films' (#251-255 in The Criterion Collection) collects five 50GB Region A Blu-ray discs, each housed within individual cardboard holders that are contained with a cardboard slipcase. The discs boot up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is an 80-page booklet containing articles about each film, with Cassavetes writing or interviewed about each one, and tributes.
The Video: Sizing Up the Picture
'Shadows' [3.5/5]: The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. The liner notes reveal, "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." A title card stated that film's “original elements are in extremely poor condition” so no surprise to find frames missing. Hairs and white specks appear. There's a lot of grain, which increases during night or dark shots. Blacks are adequate, shadow delineation is poor, and whites get blown out. Focus is frequently soft as the actors and cameraman move, but when sharp, the image reveals fine details and depth.
'Faces' [3.5/5]: The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.66:1. The liner notes reveal, "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 Criterion. The image appears very grainy at times. Blacks are strong. Bright white lights can get blown out and bleed across the frame. Dirt and hair appear, as do occasional vertical scratches running through the entire frame. Focus suffers from movement of the cast and camera.
'A Woman Under' [4/5]: The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. The liner notes reveal, "this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35mm color reversal internegative and restored by Criterion. The colors appear in strong hues. The film grain looks natural and the image is much cleaner. Bright light in the sky blows out the picture and from a lamp it can be seen bleeding onto a wall. There's brief, minimal banding in one shot as truck lights approach the camera in the rain. Focus goes soft at times, such as the scene with Maria running naked.
'Chinese Bookie' [4/5]: The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. The liner notes reveal, "this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 35mm color reversal internegative and restored by Criterion." The image offers solid blacks, accurate colors, and natural film grain. Shadow delineation is good in the dark club and on the Los Angeles streets at night. Banding occurs when the camera shoots direct into club's stage lights and the camera loses focus.
'Opening Night' [4.5/5]: The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.85:1. The liner notes reveal, "this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from the original 35mm camera negative and restored by Criterion." Colors are well rendered and blacks are solid. The image is sharp with fine textures on display seen in clothing and theater seats.
The Audio: Rating the Sound
'Shadows' [3/5]: The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and "Sonic Solutions' NoNOISE, Sonic Studio HD, and Pro Tools were used for pop and click removal, dropout repairs, hiss reduction, and EQ rebalancing. 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. The music during the opening party is muddled, making it difficult to hear the singing. Just hear people shouting over it. The jazz score has a limited dynamic range and the bass reverbs a bit. There's a lot of dubbing, which sound flat.
'Faces' [3/5]: The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and "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 rebalancing. The UCLA Film & Television Archive's restoration of the sound was funded by the Film Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association." Although understandable, the limitations of dubbing makes portions of the audio sound flat. The track has limited dynamics due to it being predominantly dialogue. Effects are limited.
'A Woman Under' [3.5/5]: The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and "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 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 rebalancing. The UCLA Film & Television Archive's restoration of the sound was funded by the Film Foundation and GUCCI. Dialogue is clear, although Nick's mom sounds so flat from the dubbing. The piano on the score reveals a wider dynamic range and blends well with the other elements.
'Chinese Bookie' [4/5]: The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and "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." Dialogue is clear throughout. Effects are overly accentuated. Cosmo's pistol sounds like a cannon, and doors boom aggressively, but the effects don't overwhelm other elements.
'Opening Night' [4/5]: The audio is available in English LPCM 1.0 and "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." A wide dynamic range is revealed through the loud car crash and soft sounds of rain. Dialogue is clear and all the elements blend well.
The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff
- A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (1080i, 200 min) – A thorough documentary by Charles Kiselyak that is well worth watching.
- Leila Goldoni (1080i, 12 min) – Recorded in 2004 for Criterion, the actress talks about working on the film and Cassavetes' acting workshop.
- Seymour Cassel (1080i, 4 min) – Recorded in 2004 for Criterion, frequent collaborator Cassel was an associate producer on 'Shadows' and talks about how they met.
- Workshop Footage (1080i, 5 min) – Silent footage shows actors from The Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop.
- Restoration Demonstration (1080i, 11 min) – a look at the UCLA Film & Television Archive's work, conducted between 2000 to 2002.
- Galleries (HD) – photos collected under the following headings: Workshop, Filming, and Premiere; Recording the Score; Posters.
- Trailer (1080i, 3 min) – The film earned an X from Britain.
- Alternate Opening (1080i, 18 min) – This material appeared on 183-minute edit that screened in Toronto.
- Cineastes de notre temps (1080i, 48 min) – This French TV show from 1968 features two interviews with Cassavetes, one in Hollywood 1965, during production; the other in Paris 1968, after a screening. He talks about Hollywood and 'Shadows'.
- Making 'Faces' (1080i, 42 min) – Made in 2004 for Criterion, the participants talk about Cassavetes shooting style. It was cool to learn that Haskell Wexler helped secure lights to shoot under.
- Lighting and Shooting the Film (1080i, 12 min) – Cinematographer/Producer/Editor Al Ruban discusses making the movie.
- Commentary – Cameraman Mike Ferris and sound recordist-composer Bo Harwood, interviewed together, provide an informative discussion, especially for those interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking.
- Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk (1080i, 17 min) – Recorded in 2004, the lead actors discuss working on the project which they have great affection towards. Interesting to note, they read the script a few times, but Falk says never rehearsed.
- Cassavetes Audio Interview (75 min) – From 1975, Michel Ciment asks Cassavetes about his approach and his thoughts about the character, though not sure how he thinks Mabel's not crazy. It’s funny to hear them interrupted.
- Production Galleries (HD) – Five different galleries look at the film's behind the scenes.
- Trailer (1080i, 3 min)
- Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban (1080i, 18 min) – Recorded in 2004, the actor and producer are interviewed separately as they talk about working on the film
- Cassavetes Audio Interview (16 min) – From 1978, Ciment returns and is joined by Michael Wilson to talk about 'Killing'.
- Stills Galleries (HD) – Twenty-five pictures from the shoot.
- Trailer (1080i, 2 min)
- Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara (1080i, 23 min) – Recorded in 2004, and just like her session with Falk, Rowlands and Gazzara have a lovefest over the film and Cassavetes.
- Cassavetes Audio Interview (29 min) – Also from 78, Ciment inquires about creating the play within the movie.
- Al Ruban (1080i, 8 min) – the producer/cinematographer talked about his work on this film.
- Trailer (1080i, 7 min) – Three trailers are available.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
There are no HD exclusives.
Regardless of my reactions to the films, 'John Cassavetes: Five Films' is a set worth exploring, although it may be of more interest to filmmakers than film-watchers. The HD A/V aspects are satisfying for these low-budget projects, and viewing all the extras should qualify as credit for an independent study course in film.
- 5 BD-50 Blu-ray Discs
- 1080p/AVC MPEG-4
- 1.37:1, 1.85:1
- English Uncompressed Mono
- English SDH
- A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (2000), a 200-minute documentary by Charles Kiselyak
- New interview with Ruban about Opening Night
- Audio interviews with Cassavetes from the 1970s about A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night
- Trailers for Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night
- Stills and poster galleries
- A 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
- New interviews with actor Lelia Goldoni and associate producer Seymour Cassel about Shadows
- Silent footage from the Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop, from which Shadows emerged
- Restoration demonstration for Shadows
- Alternate eighteen-minute opening sequence for Faces
- Episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps from 1968, dedicated to Cassavetes
- Making “Faces,” a new documentary featuring interviews with actors Cassel, Lynn Carlin, and Gena Rowlands and director of photography Al Ruban
- Audio commentary for A Woman Under the Influence by sound recordist and composer Bo Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris
- New conversation between Rowlands and actor Peter Falk about A Woman Under the Influence
- New interviews with actor Ben Gazzara and Ruban on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
- New conversation between Rowlands and Gazzara about Opening Night
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