Criterion Sunday 250: “John Cassavetes: Five Films”

I’m not entirely clear why these five films specifically were chosen for this box set, but I believe these were originally a touring programme of restored features that were re-released some years after Cassavetes death in 1989. (There have been subsequent restorations of some of his other films, and I can only hope that Husbands also eventually makes it to a Criterion edition.) Still, they represent the works that he is chiefly known for, defining a particular way of working that was at odds with much of American cinema and also became a touchstone for generations of subsequent filmmakers, intent on finding a certain truth through semi-improvisation and unflinching focus on varying states of mental and emotional distress. If Shadows (1959) is an initial dip into this territory (which seems more of a piece with other 50s independent filmmaking), then this is extended by Faces (1968) and probably his most recognised work, A Woman Under the Influence (1974). Later films like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977) use a broadly generic framework to tell deeper stories of artistic creativity in crisis. Cassavetes of course has a reputation as a big figure in American cinema, and a divisive one given his heavy-drinking ways, but he laid down a route that hadn’t much been seen at the time, and which often relied on a small group of dedicated actors who worked with him (primarily his wife Gena Rowlands, but also Seymour Cassel, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk), dating back in some cases to his early experimental acting workshop days in the 50s.

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