Posted by martinteller on October 9, 2014
Ten years ago, I acquired Criterion’s “John Cassavetes: Five Films” DVD box set. At the time I had only seen A Woman Under the Influence, but since it was a huge favorite of mine I was eager to see more. Of the other films in the box, only Faces resonated with me and I ended up selling the set and just getting the individual releases of the two movies I cared about most. When Criterion upgraded the set to Blu-Ray, I started having second thoughts, especially since I had seen and enjoyed both Husbands and Love Streams in the interim. I took advantage of a recent sale and snatched up the set once again — this time in high-definition — hoping that I would appreciate his other films a bit more than I did a decade ago.
The gambit paid off at least a little bit, as I was far less troubled by the “amateurish” aspects of Cassavetes’s debut the second time around. Certainly the spotty acting is the film’s biggest hindrance. The actors never tap into the emotional purity that characterizes the best of Cassavetes’s work. But they have their moments, and they are likable. The three leads — Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldoni and Hugh Hurd — all get their moments to shine. It’s just sometimes they drop the ball with a reading that feels either flat or off the mark. The film ends with a title card stating that you have just watched an improvisation, but that’s not entirely true. Some scenes were improvised, but they were improvised in rehearsals and then refined. Other scenes were flat-out scripted. I’m not saying the performances would be better if they were improvised, but for whatever reason, they’re not transcendent.
Nonetheless, I like them and find them interesting to watch. The rambling, shambolic narrative gives us often fascinating snippets of their lives and there’s truth in how they interact with each other. The film has an undeniable energy, propelled by the jazz score. You do feel like you’re witnessing the birth of a new kind of filmmaking… a kind that would be often imitated, but only Cassavetes really feels like Cassavetes. He makes such a careful study of how people love each other, or try to love each other. The film may be rough around the edges (and really, aren’t most of his movies?) but there’s some insightful truth being laid bare.
1959 is also the year of Imitation of Life, another film that deals with race. Both utilize characters who are black but could pass for white. Both deal with racial issues in compelling ways, and while I love Imitation more, it must be said that Cassavetes has a subtler touch. He rarely points to the issue… only once is the word “race” uttered, and I don’t recall anyone using the word “black”. He lets the actors communicate it in gestures, tone of voice, personal space. He doesn’t make the movie entirely about race, and there are times when you’re not even sure it’s a factor in play.
While it isn’t one of my favorites, I’m glad I gave this a second chance. Despite some shortcomings that are hard to ignore, it’s a bold and engaging movie. Rating: Good (78)