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The Criterion Collection presents
John Cassavetes: Five Films (Shadows / Faces / A Woman Under the Influence / The Killing of a Chinese Bookie / Opening Night) (1959-1977)

"He was indomitable. This guy just burrowed ahead. Nobody could conquer him."
- Ben Gazzara

Review By: Matt Peterson  
Published: September 19, 2004

Stars: Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldoni, Hugh Hurd, Anthony Ray, Rupert Crosse, John Marley, Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Fred Draper, Seymour Cassel, Val Avery, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes
Other Stars: Timothy Agoglia Carey, Seymour Cassel, Robert Phillips, Morgan Woodward, John red Kullers, Al Ruban, Joan Blondell, Paul Steward, Zohra Lampert
Director: John Cassavetes

MPAA Rating: R for (language, adult themes, some violence, brief nudity, see below for individual ratings)
Run Time: see below
Release Date: September 21, 2004
UPC: 037429199220
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A AA-B- A+

DVD Review

John Cassavetes is considered the father of independent film—a bold statement, but a fitting one. His spirit was one of pioneering freedom, where acting and character are front and center. This approach certainly stemmed from his extensive acting experience, a background that spurred a desire to create outside of the studio system. His camera is a free-navigating tool for revealing the truth of the performances. His material of choice has common threads, frequently detailing the agonizing details of interpersonal relationships. At the same time, he is fascinated with the idea of reality vs. illusion—the façades we wear in public settings vs. the underlying conflicts and realities that emerge when the doors and closed, and the guests have left.

Cassavetes' important work has been sadly neglected on DVD, represented by a pitiful trickle of less than stellar releases. In steps the juggernaut that is Criterion, pulling out all the stops to assemble a collection that captures the essence of the late director and his work; it's an achievement that demands one's full attention to even begin absorbing its dense contents. Criterion conquered an important chapter of the French nouvelle vague with their Adventures of Antoine Doinel collection; here is their exhaustive tribute to the new wave of American independent film.

Shadows (1959) PG

"I am what I am, and nobody tells me what to do." - Lelia

Ben (Ben Carruthers) and his friends are on the prowl for girls and booze. Like a group of offbeat Fonzies, they walk the damp, nighttime streets of the city, looking hip in their sunglasses and leather coats. They see some success, navigating the loud, lively dance venues of the late '50s, though they always seem a bit out of place; indeed this clique is not quite in with the cool crowds. They seem frustrated and consistently underwhelmed. There is a kind of depression that permeates their outings, but the reasons remain foggy.

Lelia (Lelia Goldoni) is Ben's confident kid sister. Not quite a kid anymore, the young, attractive 20-year-old in just getting her bearings as an adult in the big city. Though she has lived there all her life, her recent maturation has created new dangers and possibilities in her life, the first of which are explored with Tony (Anthony Ray). He is her first true love, and his commitment to her seems secure, until the rest of her family comes home: her other brother is Hugh (Hugh Hurd), an African-American jazz singer hard up for work in a city that favors white men. Tony is flabbergasted that the light-skinned Lelia is related to such a man, and his racist tendencies destroy the relationship in a matter of seconds.

John Cassavetes' directorial debut is one of the rare improvisational films that holds together. It has a jazzy, youthful energy throughout that captures the kind of filmmaking spirit undertaken by the director. Clearly, these were hot button issues at the time, and are still fresh in the minds of many today. It's a frank yet tasteful look at race relations and the barriers that are created by our own devices. It doesn't shove its messages down our throats, nor does it preach. However, the depression and frustration carried on the backs of these characters of various colors is a clear and powerful statement.

Consisting of students from Cassavetes' acting workshop, most of the characters here retain the actors' real names. Clearly, these individuals have been working together for some time, creating a real sense of connection on screen, despite the occasional awkward delivery. Cassavetes' camera is a bit more traditional, opting for more free flowing moves on rare occasions. The extreme, subjective close-ups that populate Faces trickle in from time to time, but he is clearly still finding his cinematic voice, which is less mature here. Still, this feels far removed from the glossy studio fare of the time, addressing controversial issues with a sense of character, honesty and brazen independence.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974) R

"Mabel's not crazy. She's unusual. She's not crazy, so don't say she's crazy." - Nick

Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is a tortured soul, imprisoned within the confines of her unstable mind. She clearly suffers from a volatile mental condition. Though her loving and committed husband Nick (Peter Falk) swears publicly she is sane, he knows better. Mabel's condition varies from day to day. She is at times pleasant and welcoming, but when the tide turns, her demeanor is one of destructive chaos. Nick wants desperately to lead a normal life, providing a stable household environment for his young children. He is not ashamed of his wife, but instead cherishes her with a sense of caution and occasionally, harsh control.

Things begin to deteriorate. At an impromptu dinner party with Nick and his construction crew, Mabel consistently crosses the line of etiquette, coming off as flirtatious when her only desire is to entertain. It's a downward spiral, ending in a vicious confrontation between a doctor, Nick, his controlling mother, and their impressionable children. Nick, too, is on the verge, losing patience with the situation and the random unpredictability of his wife's behavior. How does one cope with such a debilitating condition with sensitivity and care? Hospitalization? Hope? Family? Ganing freedom from the chains of illness has no clear path.

In the Cassavetes tradition, performances are front and center here, creating a palpably tense film that drips with dramatic tension in nearly every frame. Gena Rowland's performance is rightfully considered to be a landmark of the '70s; she is Mabel in this film, capturing the nuances and details of one suffering from mental illness so precisely, it's simply unsettling. Peter Falk is the ideal counterpoint, exuding a love and commitment that is strained to the breaking point. With these two in a room in top form, all the camera has to do is shoot in their general direction, and dramatic suspense is captured.

The action here is composed of the combat of biting words, delivered in a geographically limited space; the individuals depicted are the heart and soul, their raw humanity on display for all to experience. At times, the narrative ends abruptly, providing no closure to a scene that seemed to be building to a climax, but the momentum of the material manages to compensate. Frankly, I found this film to be so effective in its emotional taxation, I had to get outside and breathe the fresh air, liberating myself from the confines of Mabel and Nick's house.

Faces (1968) R

"Your sense of humor is going to destroy our marriage someday." - Maria Forst

Richard Forst (John Marley) is a reputable insurance executive, confident in his professional position. He enters his office with a bold swaggar, barking at and putting down his reception staff before an important meeting. This is one face of his life. At home, his relationship with his wife seems quite positive and building; despite a level of petty bickering, Richard and Maria (Lynn Carlin) have stability and the comforts of life. The pair joke, smoke and drink, gossiping about adulterous friends and their extramarital exploits. A sudden, harmless comment in bed becomes the catalyst for a stunning turn of events: Richard wants a divorce.

He was merely looking for an excuse, no doubt. Yet another face of Richard's despicably deceptive life appears in an unnamed brothel, where he meets his supposed true love, the stunning Jeannie Rapp (Gena Rowlands). Her attraction to the older businessman is puzzling on the surface. However, among her harsh and lewd clientele, Richard's palpable sense of suave refinement exudes a level of care and respect clearly alien to Jeanne, though his true feelings toward her are ultimately no different than any married man who walks through her door—she is yet another object for him to posses, and her discarding is only a matter of time. But who is seducing who?

Meanwhile, Maria is coping with this sudden amputation of love in her own way, rekindling the innocence of youthful love in dance clubs, meeting with a young predator of sorts in the form of Chet (Seymour Cassel). His targets are the emotionally vulnerable, namely long-married women. Even though his "wham-bam" motives are clear, there is a minute level of compassion and humanity he embodies that was missing in her former companion. Will a fling heal the wounds of a dissolved marriage? Relationships can be treated like refuse, or like gold; these couples are unsure what approach to take.

Cassavetes' style in Faces is legendary, utilizing handheld 16mm cameras to capture extremely tight closeups of the flawed faces throughout. Long lenses are frequently used to give the expressive, amazingly natural cast of actors space to work, though the images they produce are claustrophobic, subjective and appropriately intense. There is a kind of heat that permeates the screen, one of sharp conflict contrasted with giddy humanity frequently embodied in the drunken hysteria of these disillusioned, middle-aged men and women. At times, these sequences meander to the point of tedium, but Cassavetes has found an emotional stronghold in this visual style, effectively revealing the decay of modern marriage, and the wandering desires that result

.The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976/1978) R

"I got a golden life. Got the world by the balls." -Cosmo Vitelli

Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara) is the picture of masculine bravado. A war veteran turned lucrative nightclub owner, the lounge lizard is at the top of his game, enjoying life with a constant entourage of his female employees. He is a creative man, organizing unique but ultimately gaudy stage shows for his "gentlemen's" club, built from the ground up. He is supremely secure in his domain; nothing can touch him. "That's right, I'm great," he proclaims to a young stranger in an unknown bar. "I am amazing."

The honeymoon is over. When Vitelli racks up a gambling debt of $23,000 in the establishment of a small-time gangster, he suddenly finds himself in over his head. The gangsters begin to come around the club with more frequency, patting him on the back, treating him like their best friend, only to bring him to a nearby alley for a quick dust up. Bruised, but not yet defeated, Cosmo is forced into committing a crime: murder a local Chinese bookie, and the debt will be cleared. With his reputation, his pocketbook and his life on the line, time is short, and decisions are few. Vitelli's arrogance is seemingly rewarded by suffering; a lesson to be learned, or is Cosmo a mere victim?

Cassavetes creates powerful suspense and character-driven intensity in this dark, moody, yet somehow sunny noir. The neon-hued California nights are starkly contrasted with the bleached sun of daytime, providing a kind of daylight horror in the vein of Chinatown. Such a comparison is fitting, for Vitelli's violent venture into the dark underworld mirrors elements in the noir tradition. Ben Gazzara's performance is stellar here, capturing the internal struggle between composure and desperation. The plot is moving the character inexorably forward, and the fear in his eyes becomes riveting.

The environment in this film is truly remarkable. Once again, Cassavetes' camera is more subjective, unafraid to bounce in and out of focus during its burning telephoto shots. Images can seem rough around the edges at times, but remain effectively gripping. Despite a methodical pace, there is a kind of mesmerizing sense of momentum throughout this picture; it's a relatively simple plot, but there are themes and layers added by the natural ensemble performances that create a very real world that doesn't talk down to us, or take the time to explain every detail.

Two cuts of this little-seen film are presented in this set. The initial 1976 cut was the result of some rushed editing. The tighter 1978 version is missing about a half-hour of material, recut by Cassavetes after the completion of Opening Night. Some may find bloated, slow sequences in either version, but if you can find some patience, both offer layered takes on a man's decent into desperate measures.

Opening Night (1977) PG-13

"At some time in life, youth dies, and the second woman in us takes over." -Myrtle Gordon

Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) is a superstar. An actress made famous by the stage and screen, her career has seen great success and loyal admiration. After a performance of her new play, "The Second Woman", she meets with throngs of autograph-hungry fans, and is particularly taken by a young girl who can barely stand in her presence. She worships the star, pressing her hand against the foggy glass of Myrtle's limousine as it pulls away. Suddenly, the girl is struck by another car, dying on a wet road. This event sends shockwaves through the actress' fragile persona, forcing into the spotlight deep personal and professional issues. Her second woman has emerged.

The years are taking their toll on Myrtle, and the tragic, horrific death of the fan is like the final nail in the coffin of her youth. When she was young, her feelings were near the surface, easily deciphered and dealt with. Now, remnants of countless roles, alcohol and the denial of growing old have combined to create a wealth of uncontrollable emotions and an irreconcilably distorted reality. When she is plagued by violent hallucinations of the dead girl, her decay into insanity seems assured and the future of her Broadway show in question. This downward spiral is witnessed and endured by the play's director, Manny (Ben Gazzara), whose admiration, patience, and love for Myrtle are reaching their limits. Opening night in New York is approaching, and Myrtle teeters on the brink of oblivion.

Essentially a filmed stage play with a dramatic story built around it, this is one of Cassavetes' weaker outings. Gena Rowlands is superb, giving an appropriately intense and operatic performance in the tradition of her past roles, but even she seems to become strained at certain points. Despite some solid character moments, this ultimately feels bloated and drawn out. The same aspects of Myrtle's shattered personality are hashed and rehashed, with little forward momentum or closure from the obligatory stagebound climax. The inclusion of hallucinatory assaults brings an odd quality of horrorto a few scenes that feels out of place.

Gripes aside, there are some fine interactions between members of the Cassavetes' players (look for cameos by Peter Falk and a young Peter Bogdanovich in the final scene). Ben Gazzara's connection with Gena Rowlands comes through beautifully, creating a fine sense of history that enhances the on-screen tension. The stage bits between Rowlands and a vibrant Cassavetes are a joy to behold, as are the backstage tensions that frequently arise. Nevertheless, this film feels a bit too aimless, hoping for a complete dramatic arc. The end result is less fulfilling, but still worth taking in.

These films, albeit an incomplete collection of Cassavetes' work, provide a beautifully comprehensive look at a bold director's vision and maturation. Viewing these works in a compressed period of time reveals their common thematic threads and remarkably consistent quality. A historic chapter of American film has been preserved; revel in its humanity.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes

Image Transfer Review: The grid above represents the range of aspect ratios presented.

The black-and-white transfers for Shadows (1.33:1) and Faces (1.66:1) have been remarkably restored, more drastically in the case of Shadows, proved by a restoration demonstration included on the disc. Contrast is rather harsh throughout; both films were shot on 16mm. However, this look preserves the original visuals, thankfully maintaining a level of softness and roughness in lieu of harsh digital overenhancement. Both films contain quite a bit of fine grain and detail levels that vary drastically in sharpness. Still, these are beautiful images that capture the consequences of low budget, off-the-cuff shooting within drastically different environments.

The color transfers for A Woman Under the Influence (1.85:1), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1.85:1) and Opening Night (1.85:1) exhibit pretty consistent quality, showcasing solid colors, good contrast and fine detail. An almost glossy contrast to Cassavetes' earlier works, these are very film-like images that do maintain a level of fine grain throughout, but none of this is distracting. A Woman Under the Influence does have some vertical print discolorations that briefly run along the right side of the frame toward the end. Overall, major blemishes have been eliminated, creating a crisp, vibrant image that maximizes the potential of the prints provided. Opening Night certainly looks the best, but these are all superb transfers. Films are presented in anamorphic widescreen, where applicable.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: All the films are presented in their original English monaural tracks, and vary somewhat in quality as the years go by, with earlier entries being the worst. All exhibit some level of audible hiss, but dialogue is clear and bright throughout. Opening Night is the cleanest. I'm not sure if these soundtracks could have been restored any more than they are, but the presentation is perfectly acceptable, considering the low-budget sound recording equipment Cassevetes was frequently forced to utilize.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 152 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
4 Original Trailer(s)
6 Documentaries
5 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by camera operator Mike Ferris and sound recordist/composer Bo Harwood on A Woman Under the Influence
Packaging: Box Set
Picture Disc
8 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Rare silent 16mm footage of John Cassavetes and Burt Lane's acting workshop on Shadows
  2. Faces alternate opening
  3. Text/video feature Lighting and Shooting the Film on Faces and a text/photo feature on the Cassavetes players on A Constant Forge
  4. Audio interviews with Cassavetes and film historian Michael Ciment on A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night
  5. Stills galleries on Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie; poster gallery on A Constant Forge; 68-page booklet with essays, interviews and articles
Extras Review: Criterion's comprehensive bonus material is spread throughout the set. Let's begin with the packaging, which is covered in stylized text listing the films included. Each film is presented in a cardboard thinpak, all of which fit into a slipcase that slides into yet another slipcase, which is the exterior of the box. Artwork and menu design are in perfect, stylized tandem as is usual for Criterion; this is a great-looking collection, no doubt. Each title has its own spine number in chronological order (#251-#255), including the documentary A Constant Forge (#256) and the box set itself (#250).

Here's a look at the extra material, film by film (Note: 16:9 indicates features presented in anamorphic widescreen):

Shadows contains video interviews with actress Lelia Goldoni (11m:40s) and associate producer Seymour Cassel (4m:28s, 16:9). Both were just starting out when they met Cassavetes, a man who clearly changed their careers. They attended acting workshops under him; we are treated to a rare glimpse inside one of these sessions via a silent reel of 16mm footage (04m:15s) taken from Cassavetes' and Burt Lane's acting workshop. This is where Shadows was conceived. A restoration demonstration (11m:03s) goes beyond the usual A/B comparisons, and is actually a featurette on UCLA Film Restorationist Ross Lipman's efforts to restore the film. Critical reaction to the film and info on UCLA's technical restoration process are discussed. The disc closes with a stills gallery and trailer.

Faces is presented as a double-disc set. The supplemental material, found on Disc 2, begins with an alternate opening to the film (17m:55s) originally screened in Toronto. The major changes here are in the chronology of events. Next is a complete episode devoted to the director from the French television series Cinèastes de notre temps (1968, 48m:19s), presented in two parts; Cassavetes is interviewed during production of Faces in Hollywood (1965) and later in Paris after the film has screened (1968). This is a great, candid piece that starts with some fun camaraderie between John and his camera operator, who discuss the creative energy required to shoot a film handheld. Making Faces (41m:57s, 16:9) is a newly created documentary with reflective interviews from Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel, Gena Rowlands, and director of photography Al Ruban. Ruban's expertise is further explored in Lighting and Shooting the Film, in which the D.P. covers the distinctly subjective look of Faces. This is separated into two sections of text pages (Intro and Equipment) and a video segment of examples from the film, narrated by on-screen text (Sequence Explanations, 11m:18s, 16:9).

A Woman Under the Influence features an audio commentary by camera operator Mike Ferris and sound recordist/composer Bo Harwood. Naturally, their comments are technically oriented, but they have plenty to reflect on over their long collaboration with Cassavetes. Next is a new video conversation between Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk (17m:13s, 16:9), recorded in 2004. The pair still has a kind of on-screen chemistry, conversing and reflecting on the film. Peter Falk is especially frank about the ups and downs of his friendship with Cassavetes. An audio interview with Cassavetes and film historian Michael Ciment, conducted in 1975, is divided into seven sections (Philosophies and Finances, Emotion and Improv, Character Background, Not Crazy, Directing, Casting, A Rough Film/Glass of Water); this is an enlightening talk. Finally, a trailer (16:9) and stills gallery is included, containing many candid photos never released to the public.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is another double-disc set. Disc 1 contains the original 135-minute edit, while Disc 2 contains the subsequent 108 minute recut for theatrical re-release, and the supplemental material, which begins with text explaining the story behind the two different versions. New video interviews with Ben Gazzara and producer Al Ruban (18m:18s, 16:9) continues this tale, discussing the initial failure of the film, and more. Another audio interview with Michael Ciment conducted in the late '70s is divided into three sections (Young Filmmakers, Revolutionary, "Better Than Living"). A stills gallery is also included.

Opening Night begins with a new video conversation between Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara (22m:37s, 16:9). Though the two had appeared in several Cassavetes films, this is the first outing in which they appeared together. Topics include on set anecdotes, the fallout from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and the director's indomitable spirit. The versatile Al Ruban appears again in a new video interview (7m:49s, 16:9) discussing his roles as producer and director of photography. Michael Ciment also returns with another audio interview with Cassavetes, divided into five sections (The Play Within the Film, Cinema vs. Theater, A Very Difficult Role, A New Departure/The Actress, The Last Scene). Two trailers (16:9) end the disc.

The final disc in the set is Charles Kiselyak's 2000 documentary A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (03h:20m:55s). This epic piece delves deep into the mind and films of the late director, but has seen some criticism regarding its somewhat sterile view of the man, refusing to pry into his personal life. Whether or not you share the sentiment is your right, though the importance of this film's inclusion should be obvious. We're not done yet. Cassavetes Players is a text/photo feature that profiles the company of actors that frequented his work, written by Tom Charity. Next is comprehensive poster gallery with posters from all of Cassavetes' films, including some international incarnations.

Squeezed in with the DVDs is a 68-page booklet with essays, interviews, and articles on each film. Here is the table of contents: "Introduction: What's Wrong with Hollywood" by John Cassavetes; "Shadows: ...and the Pursuit of Happiness" by John Cassavetes, "Eternal Times Square" by Gary Giddens; "Faces: "Introduction to Faces" by John Cassavetes, "John Cassavetes: Masks and Faces" by Stuart Klawans; "A Woman Under the Influence: An Interview with John Cassavetes", "The War at Home" by Kent Jones; "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie: Cassavetes on Cassavetes", "An Interview with John Cassavetes", "The Raw and the Cooked" by Philip Lopate; "Opening Night: Cassavetes on Cassavetes", "An Interview with John Cassavetes", "The Play's the Thing" by Dennis Lim; "A Constant Forge: An Ideal Combustion" by Charles Kiselyak; "Tributes: John Cassavetes, My Mentor" by Martin Scorsese, "No Rules" by Elaine Kagan, and "On Cassavetes" by Jonathan Lethern.

Before recognizing with finality the superiority of this release, I should address the controversy surrounding the involvement of Ray Carney. Widely considered to be the expert on Cassavetes (or most obsessed, depending on who you ask), Carney was initially slated to be involved in this set. He is in possession of a rare, early cut of Shadows that has never been seen outside of his film class. Was it to be included? This is unclear, but at the request of the director's widow Gena Rowlands, he was not involved with the creation of the final product reviewed here. Rowlands no doubt believes she is protecting the legacy of the late Cassavetes, and if this set preserves the director's wishes, I'm in support of the decision. However, the facts of this controversy remain muddled, and I cannot help wondering what Carney had in store for us to discover.

Regardless, rest assured that Criterion's effort is simply stellar, and is a fine tribute to a legend of American film.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

At times pretentious, but always pioneering, John Cassavetes' independent spirit and affinity for very human stories is wonderfully captured in Criterion's stellar effort. The meticulous restorations and comprehensive content do not disappoint. These forces of American cinema have taken shape as one of the best and most important DVD releases of the year.


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