Study Guide

John Cassavetes

John Cassavetes Essay - Critical Essays

Cassavetes, John

Introduction

John Cassavetes 1929–

American director, actor, screenwriter, and producer.

Cassavetes dramatizes an intimate view of reality in sensitive, experimental films. While not always popular successes, they bear the mark of a director intensely involved with his material.

Cassavetes's outstanding acting ability led to a teaching position at an actors's workshop. The exercises he did with his students developed the style of his first film, Shadows. It brought Cassavetes recognition as a director, and was hailed as a breakthrough in underground film technique.

Under contract with Paramount, he produced two films, Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting, the latter completed by Stanley Kramer. Neither film was particularly well received, and Cassavetes opted for an independent filmmaking career. Both Faces and Husbands, his next films, focused on the unhappy, insular people of middle-class America. In Faces, Cassavetes analyzes "the millions of marriages that just sort of glide along." A biting study of communication breakdown, it was regarded as a highly personal depiction of marital strife. Continuing the theme of marital dissension, A Woman Under the Influence is seen by some critics to be strongly influenced by the writings of R. D. Laing. It seems to be the culmination of concepts hinted at in the two previous films.

Cassavetes's best work effectively studies the depths of emotion that people find inexpressible. However, in less successful films, such as The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, his techniques are considered merely actors's exercises rather than intimate, controlled directorial works. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88.)

Albert Johnson

American films have become so glossy in their technical mastery and box-office attitudes that one greets with surprise and a sort of awe an independent group of film artists, not particularly interested in financial gain, who have created a celluloid diamond of neorealism and called it Shadows.

It is, first of all, the best American film about racial relations yet made. Secondly, one hopes it heralds the beginning of a tradition of cinematic vitality and honesty dealing with the experiences of ordinary human beings in the United States…. [The] entire film is an improvisation on life and emotional disturbances among a certain milieu of city strugglers—unknown singers, artists, dancers, and actors who comprise part of the so-called "bohemian" strata of society. Its theme is loneliness, the chief cause of frustration among the young, but strengthened by counter-themes of color prejudice, the lack of artistic values in this country, and the casual cheapening of ideals. (p. 32)

[In] Shadows, the imagery is the really eloquent force. Cassavetes aims for the unobtrusive observation of truth—the suddenly dramatic revelation of character in a commonplace environment. His insight into the complexities of white and Negro relationships in an urban environment, and his belief in capturing the looks, tones, and movements of people off-guard, brings him close to a kind of stylized documentary. (p. 33)

Despite the crudities of lens and the occasionally discordant soundtrack,… the truthfulness is inescapable, making Shadows a notably dynamic film gesture toward total reality. (p. 34)

Albert Johnson, "'Shadows'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1960 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XIII, No. 3, Spring, 1960, pp. 32-4.

R. E. Durgnat

[The characters in Shadows] are shadows because they are classless, rootless, virtually raceless, and hemmed in by an ideology of competitiveness which forces on the individual an individualism run mad and, faced with the "simple" things, can only despise or (which comes to the same thing) sentimentalise them.

The film is sometimes agonising (Lelia's disappointment after her first sexual experience: "I never knew love could be so awful!") but taken all in all its humour is too scathing, it has too much warmth, vitality and sense of friendship to be downbeat. On the contrary, its frankness has a truly liberating effect….

For here is a film with neither false aesthetic "distance" nor a forced lyricism; no formal "style" is allowed to impose an unreal dignity or coldness on the characters; even the comic relief is derived, realistically, from the story's emotional situations and not derived from them…. The improvisational form frees the narrative from the conventional dramatic "emphases" and the excessive psychological clarity of constructed plots. Its study of everyday conversation—the nuances, the sudden spurts and withdrawals of feeling—is as entertaining as it is full of insights.

Shadows isn't the first film to be improvised, it's not the first good film about contemporary youth, it's not the first good film about Negroes. But it is all these things with such thoroughness that its example is going to be very influential indeed. And it's chock full of truth. (p. 30)

R. E. Durgnat, "New Films: "Shadows'" (© copyright R. E. Durgnat 1960; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 7, No. 2, November, 1960, pp. 29-30.

Raymond Durgnat

[Too Late Blues] plunges us again into the harsh and blistering world of Shadows. (p. 29)

If the focus of Shadows was rootlessness that of Too Late Blues is cruelty. The characters constantly turn on each other with a nagging, ranging spite. (pp. 29-30)

The story is neatly constructed, the dialogue so sharp and biting as to be naturalistic rather than natural, the images are less blemished, gritty and eloquent than those of Shadows. Still, many scenes seem improvised, the compositions and staging informal, even haphazard. The film sweeps from a casually discursive style to banging emotional scenes which combine a convincing notation of detail with almost grossly effective situations … and reach a quite exceptional intensity….

The film generally has many errors of continuity, tone, and nuance. Often the crescendo of feelings seem disrupted…. The network of friendships arising in the band as a community, and the creative theme, are assumed rather than explored….

The band's final reconciliation … is phoney in conception and weakened by the director's attempt to restore authenticity by a laconic, sombre style. The "shaped" story and the discursive scenes sometimes gell dissatisfyingly. (p. 30)

Too Late Blues supplements, rather than repeating, Shadows, although I would like to see Cassavetes next time move further from his Shadows stamping ground of bars, parties, quick lays and slogging matches. I think he could learn something from the emotional subtlety of Chayefsky's underestimated The Middle of the Night and from Renoir's ability to combine improvisational freshness with a mellower variegation of moods. This film deserves very severe criticism by the highest standards, and one can't criticise away its power and drive. (pp. 30-1)

Raymond Durgnat, "New Films: 'Too Late Blues'" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1961; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 8, No. 3, December, 1961, pp. 29-31.

Albert Johnson

It is … quite interesting to discover in John Cassavetes' new film, Too Late Blues, a truly challenging Hollywood film, giving an unusual interpretation of a group of white jazz musicians in Los Angeles. It is still not the jazz film for which we have all been waiting, but more than its predecessors it reveals with authenticity the awkward, nonintellectual passions and weaknesses of people who make a living out of playing jazz music. It explores character with [depth and sincerity], and in the screenplay Cassavetes and his collaborator, Richard Carr, have managed to capture the argot—swift, hardboiled, and sometimes poetic—of music-making hipsters without a cause. It is a very strange and exciting film to come from a major Hollywood studio. (pp. 49-50)

[Despite] the early perplexities of the film (one is not really certain about Ghost's motivations or personality from the outset, yet this is deliberately part of the scriptwriters' intentions), Too Late Blues holds one with its contrasting atmospheres of footloose jazz characters…. (p. 50)

Cassavetes succeeds in presenting a moving love-story of life among the jazz people, full of crowded, interracial parties and artistic insecurity. Perhaps, too, here and there throughout the film, the director, seeking to uncover the hearts of his characters, has partially exposed their agonized souls. (p. 51)

Albert Johnson, "Film Reviews: 'Too Late Blues'," in Film Quarterly (copyright 1962 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XV, No. 2, Winter, 1961–62, pp. 49-51.

Gordon Gow

Infinitely more calculated than Shadows, [Faces] still holds the feeling of spontaneity, of life going on unpredictably, movements unplanned, conversations disjointed and overlapping, remarks half-heard….

The characters are 'types', well-heeled Americans for whom life has gone stale with the onset of middle-age. Indigenous, perhaps: yet universal in their emotions and frustrations….

Long-winded the film may be (indeed is) but its truth is undeniable, even when it arrives at something akin to romanticism: a germ of hope to buffer the stark emptiness of the coda. [The suicide] sequence that inclines toward the romantic is still expressed in realistic terms, more stark than anything else in the movie…. (p. 35)

Faces is a work of great talent. Its flaw is merely the familiar one of the artist too close to his own work to judge best where a sequence might be curtailed to advantage: thus, in portraying boredom for example, Cassavetes is now and then in danger of being just a bit of a bore. A small flaw, in the circumstances. Preferable by far to the committee-planned movie that blinkers reality in its anxiety to hold our attention. One feels bound to note the flaw because it's there, but one forgives it whole-heartedly in a film which merges art and life to near-perfection, and which manages at one and the same time to be both critical and compassionate. (pp. 35-6)

Gordon Gow, "'Faces'" (© copyright Gordon Gow 1968; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 15, No. 3, December, 1968, pp. 35-6.

Claire Clouzot

In Faces, John Cassavetes stigmatizes the American middle-aged upper-middle-class couple: in the midst of the Youth Era, someone has touched the untouchable, the unfashionable, the unsellable. Until now the fatigued adults of Faces had served as background character parts, as caricatures to be made fun of. They were, to pronounce the horrible word, parents. But Cassavetes has brought these neglected elements of society into the limelight…. (p. 31)

What matters in Faces is gestures, looks, attitudes, and small reactions in the small events of life. Richard and Maria are not particularly attractive, not particularly outstanding, not particularly picturesque. They are well-to-do...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Pauline Kael

Husbands, directed by Cassavetes, extends the faults of his last film, Faces; one might even say that Husbands takes those faults into a new dimension. It is, as Faces was, semi-written by Cassavetes and semi-improvised by the actors. This time, the film is about three suburban husbands—Cassavetes (a dentist), Gazzara (a Peter Max sort of commercial artist), and Peter Falk (profession unspecified)—who go on a bender after attending the funeral of a fourth…. One assumes they are meant to be searching for themselves, their lost freedom, and their lost potentialities—and one can guess that Cassavetes believes that their boyishness is creative. But the boyishness he shows us isn't...

(The entire section is 802 words.)

Nigel Andrews

Shadows, Faces, Husbands: John Cassavetes' titles serve both to define and to impersonalise his films' subject area. The announced theme provides a broad orientation, but the audience is finally left to interpret the raw material—fragmented narrative, improvised dialogue and action, long sequences apparently incidental to the main characters—at will. Thus, Husbands … is both a 'universal' male's-eye-view of marital restlessness and a haphazard idiosyncratic 48 hours out of the lives of three fugitives from New York suburbia. The titles of Cassavetes' trilogy have become more tangible, as the focus shifts from the rootless youth of Shadows to the grounded suburbanites of Faces...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

[Minnie and Moskowitz] is by far John Cassavetes' worst film, with none of the good touches of Faces, without even any of the pseudo inquiry of Husbands. Guess what the theme is. Two lonely people! Misfits! Who find each other!! Even Chayefsky gave up this facile honesty twenty years ago.

He's a Very Human car-park in New York. But not just a carpark, of course; he's really searching. He searches on out to L.A. where he meets this Very Human girl. She, too, is searching, can't communicate, is a sexual object to men who merely use her, and is battered by life but is still golden, deep down inside. (p. 24)

Cassavetes boasts that his film is an "upper." What's...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Richard Schickel

[Faces] is, I think, a great and courageous film in which Cassavetes has dared more than any American director in recent memory, and it is important to understand the nature of what he has done. (p. 217)

[Several] qualities have led to a few dissenting dismissals of Faces as "a home movie." But this charge confuses style with substance and misses entirely the compassionate intelligence which Cassavetes—who also wrote the script—brings to his subject. He has a shrewd and highly moral vision of the special quality of affluent middle-class life in America, circa now, baby. And for all the superficial looseness of the film, he never once loses track of his point. On the contrary,...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Richard Combs

Minnie and Moskowitz is a particularly frenetic switchback ride; a continual rebounding from Moskowitz' complaint (among many): 'It's mainly just being alone that irritates me,' to Minnie's multiple anxieties about involvement: 'Somebody light bores me, somebody heavy depresses me.' The journey turns up some rewarding perceptions, but is ultimately and unexpectedly disappointing, with the film attempting to combine wholehearted indulgence of its characters with some sly, philosophic definition, extracting from rambling duologues pointed turns of phrase placed in audible quotes (the director tempted to turn advocate and sum up for the jury), and allowing much obscure contrivance to loom behind moments that...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Pauline Kael

The theories of R. D. Laing the poet of schizophrenic despair, have such theatrical flash that they must have hit John Cassavetes smack in the eye. His new film, A Woman Under the Influence, is the work of a disciple: it's a didactic illustration of Laing's vision of insanity, with … Mabel Longhetti [as] the scapegoat of a repressive society that defines itself as normal. The core of the film is a romanticized conception of insanity, allied with the ancient sentimental mythology of madness centering on the holy fool and with the mythology about why Christ was crucified. The picture is based on the idea that the crazy person is endowed with a clarity of vision that the warped society can't tolerate, and so is...

(The entire section is 860 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann

The curse of filmmaking, as John Cassavetes shows us [in A Woman under the Influence], is that it's too easy. No, of course not the financing and so on, but the basic process of making a film….

Cassavetes is enraptured. He puts his camera in real houses and he gives his actors things to say as lifelike as he can make them and he even puts some non-actors in the cast and he lets the camera run and run, lets the people improvise on their lines, and the camera keeps running and running and the people keep on doing and saying and quarreling and crying and making up, and after it's all done he takes the film out of the camera and shows it to us. For goodness' sake, there it is. What more can we...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

William S. Pechter

It seems I waited too long to write my obligatory piece on "The Vanishing Heroine in American Movies," and events have now passed me by….

Mabel Longhetti, in John Cassavetes's A Woman under the Influence, is neither strong-willed nor independent, but she's assertive beyond ignoring and to the point of stridency. What she wants, or believes she wants, is just to be otherwise—not to break out of the housewifely mold, but to fit in—yet she can't. "Tell me what you want me to be. I can be any way you want me," she implores her lumpish, blue-collar husband, Nick, who only replies rather gallantly that he wants her to be just who she is. In some time less enlightened than our own, Mabel's...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

MARSHA KINDER and BEVERLE HOUSTON

Woman Under the Influence draws on all three traditional visions of female madness, combining elements of each with great subtlety and perceptiveness. From one perspective, Mabel is an Eve who is weak, passive, and childlike. Thus it is difficult for her to resist husband, parents, friends—all those who are trying to make her conform to their expectations. Yet her childlike nature has its positive side; she is vital and creative in contrast to the conventional adults who condemn her…. Although she is presented as having an artistic temperament, Mabel's creativity is restricted to the invention of games and she never considers other outlets for her talents. (p. 11)

Mabel's touch of Lilith...

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Jonathan Rosenbaum

Beginning with Shadows, the films of John Cassavetes have been at once limited and defined by their anti-intellectual form of humanism, an unconditional acceptance of the social norms of his characters that exalts emotion and intuition over analysis and, in narrative terms, looseness and approximation over precision. Used as an instrument for delivering a thesis (as in Faces) and/or allowing actors to indulge themselves in fun and games (as in Husbands), it is a style which characteristically operates like a bludgeon, obscuring at least as much as it illuminates while confidently hammering home its proud discoveries. But when it serves as a means for exploration, as in Shadows or A Woman...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

John Simon

The films of John Cassavetes are, by and large, sterile actors' exercises. They are not even for all kinds of actors, but mostly for the friends of Cassavetes and amateurs like his family or his wife's family. They are doggedly pretentious and often of enormous duration; unless you are an actor, or a friend or relative of the director, you should find them quintessentially trivial and boring. Cassavetes, who is quite a good actor but a bad director and worse writer, has insisted ever more emphatically over the years that his films are "scripted," though they seem to be taped and transcribed improvisations, possibly re-enacted from such "scripts." At least I hope that this is how it is done; if Cassavetes is...

(The entire section is 702 words.)

Judith Crist

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a mess, as sloppy in concept as it is in execution, as pointless in thesis as it is in concept. Ironically, it is as if an artsy-smartsy amateur had attempted a remake of one of those taut little low-budget crime thrillers in which Cassavetes established himself as an actor of noteworthy intensity in the Fifties. Though even an amateur would opt for a bit more credibility in plot, a bit more intelligence in the endless improvised chitchat, a bit more stability in the camerawork, a modicum of coherence in the characterizations. (p. 50)

All of this takes 135 minutes packed with inaction, much inane conversation in the strippers' dressing room, dreary glimpses...

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Robert E. Lauder

Even though his latest film, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, is a disaster, John Cassavetes, among presently working American directors, comes closest to being a genius….

Hopelessly in love with people, John Cassavetes is hung up on the mysterious meaning of man. Neither a lack of depth nor commercialism is evident in Cassavetes' work….

More than any other contemporary director, Cassavetes can pack a scene with emotional content. Both Husbands and A Woman Under the Influence border on being great films because of Cassavetes' capacity for capturing the struggles and strains of everyday living, for photographing what someone has called "the texture of...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Marsha Kinder

[Opening Night] is highly ambitious in its basic conception, yet terribly disappointing in its realization. This is particularly devastating since the main conflict in the film is between the writer's static vision recorded in the script and the players' improvisation embodied in a living performance….

Opening Night immediately plunges us into a double reality of stage and screen and a double perspective on the performance. At first we identify with the actress [Gena Rowlands]: we share her nervous anticipation and see the audience from her point of view. But as soon as she begins to interact with Cassavetes [who portrays a photographer], we resume our more familiar role as audience...

(The entire section is 1107 words.)

Richard Combs

[Opening Night] is in many ways the logical extension and distillation of John Cassavetes' treatment of the actor as prime subject and co-creator of his films: a play-within-a-film story that never bothers to make too close a distinction between actress Myrtle Gordon's working out of her problems with a distasteful role on stage and Gena Rowlands' own experimentation with the part of Myrtle. As usual with Cassavetes' films, there is a lack of self-consciousness about the layering of ironies on art imitating life, and vice versa…. Since film-making is treated not as a form that mediates in life, but as 'life' itself, both the on- and off-stage events become equally raw material, each a possible permutation of...

(The entire section is 574 words.)

James Monaco

[Acting], its art and craft, is the key to John Cassavetes's cinema. He started as an actor (he's a good one) and he still acts to make money to finance his own films. He seems to be more interested in the process of shooting a film than he is in the end result, and he designs his movies more often than not as attractive exercises for himself and his actor friends and relations. (p. 299)

Cassavetes's movies are family affairs; in fact they're like nothing so much as home movies, with all the problems and advantages thereof.

They go on too long, they're often too private and self-indulgent, they never seem to come to the point, they're loosely plotted—certainly leagues away from...

(The entire section is 1524 words.)

Morris Dickstein

Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and even Taxi Driver used a good deal of loose, inconsequential action (or inaction) to work up a feeling of the New York streets…. When the action of these films finally blows, unravels, they're all the more effective for having seemed so plotless.

The lonely prophet of this kind of script and visual style—so carefully designed to look like cinéma vérité—was John Cassavetes. Particularly in films like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, Cassavetes is a master of the hidden poetry of ungainly people, the heartrending psychopathology of everyday life. His roots are with the independent filmmakers of an earlier period, when all...

(The entire section is 190 words.)

Bob Edelman

[Gloria] is typical of its director, John Cassavetes: sometimes irritating and confusing but always original and thought-provoking, with moments of undeniable brilliance. In a quick shot, or camera angle or movement, Cassavetes eloquently captures the anguish, fear, paranoia, intimacy and hope of his characters…. [When Gloria tugs at Phil, this simple gesture] hints at Gloria's basic humanity, and the potential of caring between two different human beings. Also, he effectively displays the reality behind the picture-postcard glitter of New York….

But the film is also maddeningly illogical. Police inexplicably allow Gloria and Phil to leave the murder scene. Cabs appear out of nowhere when...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

David Denby

[The] subway-poster ads [for Gloria] with Gena Rowlands brandishing a snub-nosed .38, as if she were a taller, skirted version of George Raft, give a very accurate notion of the movie—a crime genre film with plenty of action and lots of moody underbelly-of-the-city flourishes. Gloria is a great deal of fun. It is also something of a stunt. There have been tough and even violent women in past American movies (Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sheridan, et al.), but few women have killed quite so easily and with so little remorse as Rowlands's Gloria Swensen. Gloria is hardly a profound study in the psychology of violence, nor is it always credible; it's an exciting movie designed to evoke "Clint Eastwood,...

(The entire section is 412 words.)