Blu-ray Release: John Cassavetes: Five Films

Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 22, 2013
Price: Blu-ray $124.95
Studio: Criterion

John Cassavetes—genius, visionary, and the progenitor of American independent film—receives some high-definition respect from Criterion in the John Cassavetes: Five Films collection.

A former theater actor fascinated by the power of improvisation, Cassavetes brought his search for truth in performance to the screen. The five films in this anthology of dramas—all of which the director maintained total control over by financing them himself and making them outside the studio system—are electrifying and compassionate creations, populated by all manner of humanity: beatniks, hippies, businessmen, actors, housewives, strippers, club owners, gangsters, children.

Cassavetes has often been called an actor’s director, but this body of work—even greater than the sum of its extraordinary parts—shows him to be an audience’s director.

Here’s a breakdown of the movies:

Shadows scene

Lelia Goldoni and Anthony Ray star in John Cassavetes' 1959 directorial debut Shadows.

Shadows (1959)
Cassavetes’s directorial debut revolves around a romance in New York City between Lelia (Lelia Goldoni), a light-skinned black woman, and Tony (Anthony Ray), a white man. Shot on location in Manhattan with a mostly nonprofessional cast and crew, Shadows is a penetrating work that is widely considered the forerunner of the American independent film movement.

Faces (1968)
Cassavetes puts a disintegrating marriage under the microscope in the searing Faces. Shot in high-contrast 16 mm black and white, the film follows the futile attempts of the captain of industry Richard (John Marley) and his wife, Maria (Lynn Carlin), to escape the anguish of their empty relationship in the arms of others. Featuring astonishingly nervy performances from Marley, Carlin, and Cassavetes regulars Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel, Faces confronts modern alienation and the battle of the sexes with brutal honesty and compassion.

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
This uncompromising portrait of domestic turmoil details the emotional breakdown of a suburban housewife and her family’s struggle to save her from herself. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk give unforgettably harrowing performances as a married couple deeply in love but unable to express their ardor in terms the other can understand.

A Woman Under the Influence scene

Gena Rowlands is A Woman Under the Influence in Cassavetes' 1974 film.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)
In his own inimitable take on the film noir genre, Ben Gazzara portrays a gentleman’s club owner, Cosmo Vitelli, desperately committed to maintaining a facade of suave gentility despite the seediness of his environment and his own unhealthy appetites. When he runs afoul of loan sharks, Cosmo must carry out a terrible crime or lose his way of life. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is presented here in two versions: Cassavetes’s original 1976 edit and his 1978 one, nearly thirty minutes shorter.

Opening Night (1977)
While in the midst of rehearsals for her latest play, Broadway actor Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) witnesses the accidental death of an adoring young fan, after which she begins to confront the chaos of her own life. Headlined by a virtuoso performance by Rowlands, Opening Night lays bare the drama of a performer who, at great personal cost, makes a part her own, and it functions as a metaphor for the director’s singular, wrenched-from-the-heart creative method.

John Cassavetes: Five Films was released on DVD by Criterion in 2004 and is still available for purchase. Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition contains many of the same features that first appeared on the DVD, including the following:

• High-definition digital restorations of all five films, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
• High-definition digital restoration of Cassavetes’s 108-minute 1978 version of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
A Constant Forge: The Life and Art of John Cassavetes (2000), a 200-minute documentary by Charles Kiselyak
• Interviews with actor Lelia Goldoni and associate producer Seymour Cassel about Shadows
• Silent footage from the Cassavetes-Lane Drama Workshop, from which Shadows emerged
• Restoration demonstration for Shadows
• Alternate eighteen-minute opening sequence for Faces
• Episode of the French television series Cinéastes de notre temps from 1968, dedicated to Cassavetes
Making “Faces,” a 2004 documentary featuring interviews with actors Cassel, Lynn Carlin, and Gena Rowlands and director of photography Al Ruban
Al Ruban on Lighting and Shooting “Faces,” a new program
• Audio commentary for A Woman Under the Influence by sound recordist and composer Bo Harwood and camera operator Mike Ferris
• Conversation between Rowlands and actor Peter Falk from 2004 about A Woman Under the Influence
• Interviews with actor Ben Gazzara and Ruban on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
• Conversation between Rowlands and Gazzara from 2004 about Opening Night
• Interview with Ruban from 2004 about Opening Night
• Audio interviews with Cassavetes from the 1970s about A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night
• Trailers for Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night
• Stills and poster galleries
• A booklet featuring essays by Gary Giddins, Kent Jones, Charles Kiselyak, Stuart Klawans, Dennis Lim, and Phillip Lopate; writings by and interviews with Cassavetes; and tributes to the filmmaker by director Martin Scorsese; actor and writer Elaine Kagan, Cassavetes’s former secretary; and novelist Jonathan Lethem


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.