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April 11, 2009


A woman under the influenceIn his groundbreaking 1974 family drama, John Cassavetes’s actress wife Gena Rowlands plays Mabel, a quirky alcoholic and mentally challenged wife to Peter Falk’s gregarious construction foreman Nick. He’s a simple man doing the best with the cards he’s been dealt in life, but he’s got his faults too. Rowlands’s fearless tour de force performance is the stuff of legend. She doesn’t just own the role of a woman suffering from a gradual mental breakdown; she shatters it and comes up fighting. Mable Longhetti might have mental issues, but she’s a salt-of-the-earth woman who doesn’t give up easily.

The film finds Cassavetes working at the height of his emotional and intellectual powers. His writing explodes from the screen in the hands of phenomenally unpretentious characters, the likes of which have rarely been seen on a movie screen before or since.


Nothing in the story is predictable. The depth of tormented human emotion that Cassavetes mines is awe-inspiring. Working with a crew of untrained cameramen and assistants, Cassavetes creates a fertile organic-type of drama that comes directly from life — the lives of New Yorkers struggling with lives and jobs unimaginable to many 21st century audiences. The movie is readily influenced by Cassavetes’s stable of dedicated actors and crew. 

Nick’s and Mabel’s dysfunctional household, complete with their three young kids, serves as an emotional lightening rod for their families and for their working-class neighbors to rally around. Cassavetes own mother Katherine plays Nick’s mother Margaret.


No amount of communal goodwill on Nick’s part can help Mabel much, or enough. Nick loves Mabel dearly, but at what cost? His pained responses to Mabel’s neurotic condition speaks as much to early-‘70s American cultural mores as they do to Falk’s and Cassavetes’s generation of men (born in the late ‘20s) who grew up during the Great Depression.

John Cassavetes authored a process of independent cinema by financing, producing, publicizing, and distributing “A Woman Under the Influence” himself, without the aid of any traditional distribution channels. Hollywood tried to ignore the waves that Cassavetes made, but plenty of present and would-be filmmakers took notice and followed suit.

If you've never seen a John Cassavetes film, “A Woman Under the Influence” is a great one to start with. This movie is provokes philosophical questions regarding the nature of relationships between community, family, and the limitless possibilities of love. Watching it can be a life-altering experience. The cinema of the late, great, John Cassavetes is a welcoming one indeed, but it hurts when and where it should.


Rated R. 155 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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