Off The Grid: Our Top 5 John Cassavetes Films

Known as the Godfather of American independent cinema, John Cassavetes had a prolific career in film. Besides being an accomplished and seasoned actor, he is perhaps even more renowned for his output as a filmmaker. Both writer and director, Cassavetes falls into the auteur conversation to a certain degree and is rightly heralded as one of the most important (although still somewhat overlooked) artists of modern American cinema. With zero compromises and a head-strong will to create work of substance and realism, Cassavetes is one of the most recognisable artistic voices and also one of the most arresting, that you could hope to experience in all of cinema.

Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes in the editing room.
John Cassavetes and his wife Gena Rowlands reviewing dailies in the editing room.

Synonymous with his wife Gena Rowlands who he cast several times to great effect, as well as actors such as Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel and Timothy Carey, Cassavetes enjoyed working with those whom he was close to. Actors he could trust to take on the role and become part of the production in more ways than just turning up and delivering lines. He enjoyed the organic process and liked to develop his scripts after improvising in rehearsals. This would ensure a more collaborative process where all of the cast and crew would inform the film by investing themselves completely.

We love all of John Cassavetes films, so our shortlist here is just a guide for anyone wanting to know where to start with this prolific filmmaker. Our choices are listed chronologically…

1. Faces (1968)

Shot documentary style (cinema verité) and an inspiration to the forthcoming generation of American filmmakers at that time, Faces (1968) is a classic example of an early Cassavetes film. If the sound was turned down so you could not hear the actors talking, you may be convinced that you are watching a French New Wave film. The hand-held camera style, close-up shots and jump-cut editing techniques, all evoke Jean-Luc Godard or Francois Truffaut. This amazing film is a character study of a soon-to-be divorced couple as they socialise with various groups of friends over the course of an evening.

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands
Cassavetes and Rowlands review some material from Faces.

Steven Spielberg worked as an unpaid runner on the crew and as with many of Cassavetes works there are several versions of the film, each of varying lengths. Due to the independent nature of each project, the post-production process employed by Cassavetes would often involve a creative process that would sometimes result in various different final cuts, making it harder to identify a definitive version. This is a film about people, about relationships. The style can be quite jarring if you don’t know what you are in for, but the gritty and realistic material shines through and by the time the final scene has played, you know you have just witnessed a memorable and unique movie.

2. Husbands (1970)

A divisive film at the time, and perhaps still now, fifty years after its release, Husbands (1970) is the story of three middle-aged guys who go to the funeral of a close friend and spend a couple of days reeling in shock and grief, getting drunk and living it up to numb out the reality. They then decide to fly to London in a pathetic attempt to deny their advancing years and attempt sexual conquests with some girls that they meet at a casino. It does not end well and reality is waiting for each of them at the conclusion of the picture. This film was criticised by several notables (Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert) as being a bore, tiresome, incoherent, misogynistic… the list goes on.

Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes during the filming of Husbands
Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes and Peter Falk on the set of Husbands (1970)

It is my humble estimation that the film’s detractors seem to have missed the point. The personal emotion and realism that was poured into the film by the principle actors (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and Cassavetes) produces a completely engrossing and verisimilar study of three men facing mortality, confronting grief and wrestling with regret. The scenes are sometimes drawn out and awkward, the dialogue is broken and painfully naturalistic, the energy between the players is both loving and combative and this is the point. This film is an exposé on failure, shortcomings, averageness, self-pity, self-indulgence, friendship, masculinity et al. It has had a lasting influence on many of today’s notable filmmakers and should be on the watch list of any aspiring Cassavetes aficionado.

3. A Woman Under The Influence (1974)

Starring Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is an emotional story about a family that is torn in two when the eccentric behaviour of wife and mother Mabel (Gena Rowlands) causes her husband Nick (Peter Falk) to send her away to a mental institute for treatment of psychosis. The drama is intense and the scenes are gripping and often larger than life. There is a good dose of warm-hearted humour in there too as we see some extremely tender and honestly beautiful scenes between a mother and her children.

John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands filming A Woman Under the Influence
Cassavetes shooting Rowlands during the making of A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

Ultimately tragic and often difficult to witness, this film is carried by an amazing central performance from Rowlands who pours everything into her character and portrays a range of emotion that is not only a convincing representation of mental illness, but an incredibly human performance, rendered as if no one was watching at all. Falk is also on top form as the flawed and over-bearing blue-collar husband who becomes confounded by the mistakes he makes and his inability to do right from inadvertently doing wrong. One of Cassavetes’ greatest triumphs and certainly essential viewing for all fans of cinema.

4. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Ben Gazzara once again plays the lead role, this time in a story about a strip-club owner who gets into trouble with the mob via a series of gambling debts. After making the final payment on a long-running debt, Cosmo (Gazzara) goes out with a few of the strippers that work at his club and ratchets up another $23,000 debt overnight, putting him right back in the pockets of the wrong people. His contact Mort (played by Seymour Cassel) orders Cosmo to hit a mark for them in order to cancel his bill. The mark is the eponymous chinese bookie, who turns out to be a Triad gang boss. Cosmo is not expected to survive the hit attempt, but when he turns up having completed the task, the walls start to close in.

John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara
Cassavetes and Gazzara on the set of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976).

This neo-noir drama is a change of scene for Cassavetes, covering a more clichéd and familiar territory in the form of a gangster movie. The original cut was criticised as being too long and a subsequent cut reduced the running time considerably and also caused Cassavetes to re-edit scenes adding in previously unused footage and re-ordering the assembly somewhat. Such was Cassavetes’ style, which is something that is plainly recognisable when you watch this gripping and fascinating film. The performances are strong and Gazzara is on peak form as the corrupted hero. As with a lot of Cassavetes’ films, it was heavily panned at the time, but has since gone on to find a cult appreciation in terms of contemporary viewing.

5. Gloria (1980)

Gloria (1980) is perhaps Cassavetes’ most commercial film. He originally wrote the screenplay with the intention of simply selling it to Columbia Pictures. However, his wife Gena Rowlands fell in love with the script and wanted to play the central character with Cassavetes directing. This whirlwind story about a former gangster’s moll who rescues a young boy from the clutches of the mob is a wild ride of feminine power. Serving as an answer to the macho gun-toting heroes of the day, Rowlands steps up to the plate and delivers a memorable and highly entertaining turn as a hard-ass mother-figure who goes against the grain (and her own self-interest) to rescue a little man whose family has been assassinated.

John Cassavetes on set filming Gloria (1981)
Cassavetes and actor John Adames on the set of Gloria (1980).

There is still evidence of the classic Cassavetes quirk at play throughout, but this film is much tighter than his usual free-wheeling offerings. That’s exactly what a film like this needs as it is less dense and intended for a wider consumption. Fans of action thrillers with strong women in the lead roles take note, before there was Sigourney in Alien or Charlize in Fury Road, there was Gena in Gloria. Fans of Luc Besson’s Leon (1994) will recognise the influence that Gloria must have had on the narrative and themes of that movie. The urban New York city streets serve as the backdrop to this enjoyable thriller with a heart. You can read our further thoughts on this excellent film in our retrospective review here.

And that’s our Top 5 John Cassavetes films!

Think we’ve missed any out, or not included your favourite Cassavetes movie? Then let us know in the comments below.

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Greg Fisher
Greg is a digital content creator, photographer, filmmaker and writer. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram @theflyingartist