Shadows, John Cassavetes’s rousing debut, focuses on Hugh (Hugh Hurd), a singer and fumbling lounge act, and his siblings, puckish Ben (Ben Carruthers) and pretentious Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), as they scrape together a living off the late 1950s NYC arts scene. What Hugh has over his kid sister and brother is wisdom, experience that he carries and imparts modestly, but he’s far from infallible and acts the fool freely, often with relish; he’s stubborn and drinks excessively. Not long into this rambunctious “improvisation,” Hurd’s soulful crooner appears on a small stage in Philadelphia, working for beleaguering pay only to be given the hook and replaced by a scantily clad chorus line.
Hugh is a gifted artist, but a lousy star, and the gap between the two is where the lacerating drama and comedy of Cassavetes’s five independent features lies. The jagged emotions that clatter around in Hugh’s heart are, for him, only relatable through song, but his style isn’t quite what you would call accessible. His voice is deep and aching, his melodies slow and sticky. It’s not for everyone, which in business terms means it’s not for anyone, and his predilections parallel Cassavetes’s aesthetic style. The director hangs harrowingly on moments of emotional fragility, allowing carapaces to wear away or get shredded by an anxious need for rebellion against any number of things: a troubled marriage, debts and death, social complacency, cruelty in all its forms. On top of this, he’s often strangely economical in his ability to push beyond story and get to his own behavioral obsessions. In The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, there’s a great cut between Cosmo (Ben Gazzara) being approached by gangsters and the planning of the titular crime in a corner booth. We don’t see the criminals him-haw around their demands, because the director skips over the oft-obligatory lead-ins to discussions of murder. What we get is a clear sense of Cassavetes’s distaste for killers who play coy to mask their monstrous intentions, but also a keen avoidance of reiterating what has led Cosmo to this fate. The filmmaker respects these criminals as characters, but he doesn’t wish to luxuriate in their company any more than he has to.
Hurd also appears in A Woman Under the Influence as a co-worker of Nick’s (Peter Falk) who breaks into song during a big spaghetti breakfast. It’s in fact his singing that allures Gena Rowlands’s volcanic Mabel, leading to Nick’s isolating uproar that effectively clears the room. As he sings, Mabel creeps up and begins to awkwardly investigate his mouth, as if trying to figure out where all the beautiful noise was hiding. Singing for Cassavetes is a primal, infectious form of communication, allowing tremendous sorrow and joy to take operatic form. (Seymour Cassel’s groovy dancing in Faces serves a similar purpose.) Everyone remembers the talking in Cassavetes films, but really, a great deal of what’s said in these arguments, confessions, blow-ups, and apologies is secondary to the long stares and the nervous laughter. Few artists have explored so clearly the noise of human life, but even less have been able to so strongly evoke what the distortion is hiding: the unbearable pain, shame, and joy that are unsuited to plain conversation and demand more flamboyant expressions.
Cassavetes could be seen as something of an avant-garde song-and-dance man. He certainly favors showmen in his narratives, each one of which is cut from his own professional and deeply personal struggles, including those with Rowlands, his wife. Cosmo, in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, runs a quixotic burlesque, fronted by Meade Roberts’s Mr. Sophistication, a pudgy sad clown singing warbled pop and jazz numbers. Gazzara continued his working relationship with Cassavetes in the skeletal stage drama Opening Night, the last independent film the writer-director would complete. In it he plays an increasingly frustrated director who attempts to reign in Rowlands’s death-obsessed master thespian. These men literally manage stage shows, but they’re just as similar to Falk’s Nick as they are to each other.
At his construction job, Nick is the boss, and at the spaghetti breakfast, he attempts to reinforce the feeling of his easy control over all at home, but proves incapable of handling Mabel. The show doesn’t go on, and Nick’s embarrassment over what he perceives as his failure are explosive, even frightening in their intensity. Cassavetes captures this wild distress in a similar fashion as he depicts the respective panics of Gazzara’s management types, with a disarmingly untethered aesthetic that captures the fearless actors lost in the varied semiotics of performance. The director sets his cast members to search the valley between two roles, usually delineated between work and home life (or leisure time), and the performers react with startling levels of intimacy and a stinging, subtle taste for excoriation. Opening Night hits closest to home in its long, haunting, tension-fueled riffs between Cassavetes and Rowlands, playing lovers on stage and former lovers off stage.
The ever-widening moral and societal implications of the seemingly simple conceits that these narratives rotate on are hardwired into the physical and conversational liberation of the performers. The tremendous emotions summoned are rarely confronted directly, but are elicited through the wild-eyed, strikingly instinctive imagery. It’s Mabel’s “get outta here” gesticulations; the busy backstage conversations in Cosmo’s club; the bracingly physical salvation that more or less caps Faces. Cassavetes’s sublimely visceral style yields the essence of imperfect existence, which is to say that he’s only the most astonishingly honest filmmaker to ever take the job. It comes back to that image of Hugh standing on the stage as the showgirls come on to replace him: a twisted but buoyant celebration of failure without embellishment or direct cause. And like Hugh, Cassavetes always sang his blues at his own pace, backed by the wild, reflexive rhythms of a workingman’s life.
With each film included here, the level of clarity and saturation has been noticeably upgraded from Criterion’s original DVD set. This goes specifically with the black levels, which boast a much more detailed sense of delineation. This proves distinctly revelatory in the club scenes from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the inner atmosphere of which seems to be all the more excited and paranoid on this disc. Delineation has also improved dramatically in Shadows and Faces, the blacks, whites, and grays looking crisp and clean for the most part. The use of color and wardrobe stands out in A Woman Under the Influence, though there’s something palpably ghostly about Opening Night’s stark color schemes. The sound is, on the whole, just as impressive, with all the riotous singing and jazz mixing sensationally with the dense wild noise. Even in mono, these discs give a sense of total immersion in the teeming auditory and visual landscapes John Cassavetes brought to crazed life.
At 200 minutes, "A Constant Forge" takes its oh-so-sweet time reflecting on Cassavetes’s career on the whole, adorned with interviews with Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, Seymour Cassell, and dozens of other collaborators. It’s particularly memorable for the clarity of its treatment of Cassavetes’s transition from stage to screen in his early years leading up to Shadows. One would think that would be enough, but Criterion rolls out another dozen or so video interviews and conversations between Cassavetes’s collaborators, footage from the Cassavetes-Lane acting workshop, the shorter, re-release cut of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and audio interviews with Cassavetes about the production of each of the films. The insights are manifold, but what comes to the forefront is the process of writing the scripts through improvisation techniques, and how the improvisations grew to be the rushing performances he captured. The booklet is a totem to Cassavetes’s resounding influence: personal tributes from Jonathan Lethem, Martin Scorsese, and Elaine Kagan, critical appreciations from Kent Jones, Gary Dennis Lim, Stuart Klawans, and more, and various writings by Cassavetes, along with interviews with the master. As a whole, the package offers a startling education on the definition and nature of independent film.
In an efficiently run universe, Criterion’s beyond crucial set of Cassavetes best films, packaged with informative, alluring extras and lovely A/V transfers, would come with any film-school acceptance letter.