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.

In addition to his contributions to filmmaking, Cassavetes was also a major influence on the acting community. His use of improvisation and focus on character and relationships allowed actors to explore their craft in new and exciting ways. His actors were encouraged to bring their own experiences and emotions to their performances, which led to some of the most powerful and raw performances in the history of cinema.

Both writer and director, Cassavetes falls into the auteur conversation and is rightly heralded as one of the most important, albeit still 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 see.

Cassavetes’ films are known for their raw, gritty realism and their focus on characters and relationships. He often worked with a small group of actors and crew members, and his films usually had a loose, improvisational feel to them. This approach was in sharp contrast to the polished, studio-controlled films that were popular in Hollywood in the 1950s/60s, and it helped to pave the way for the rise of independent cinema in the 1970s and 1980s.

Filmmaker and actor John Cassavetes in Husbands (1970)

“You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all.”

John Cassavetes

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.

John Cassavetes (1929 - 1989)
John Cassavetes (1929 – 1989)

Despite the commercial and financial struggles that Cassavetes faced during his career, his films have had a lasting impact on the industry. His use of improvisation and focus on character and relationships have been widely adopted by independent filmmakers and have become hallmarks of the genre. His work has also been a major influence on the development of American independent cinema, which has grown in popularity and influence in the years since his death in 1989.

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.

Gena Rowlands in Faces (1968) directed by John Cassavetes.

Steven Spielberg worked as an unpaid runner on the crew and as with many of John 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.

Middle-aged suburban husband Richard abruptly tells his wife, Maria, that he wants a divorce. As Richard takes up with a younger woman, Maria enjoys a night on the town with her friends and meets a younger man. As the couple and those around them confront a seemingly futile search for what they’ve lost – love, excitement, passion – this classic American independent film explores themes of aging and alienation.

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.

Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and John Cassavetes in 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.

The quiet, simple family lives of Gus, Harry and Archie are shattered when their best friend, Stuart, has a heart attack and dies suddenly. Now facing their mortality, the three men fall into their own midlife crises. First by spending their days playing basketball and nights drinking, and eventually by ditching their families altogether for a sudden getaway to London, where they face the temptation to cheat on their wives for the first time.

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.

Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence (1974) directed by John Cassavetes.
Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence (1974) directed by John Cassavetes.

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.

Mabel Longhetti, desperate and lonely, is married to a Los Angeles municipal construction worker, Nick. Increasingly unstable, especially in the company of others, she craves happiness, but her extremely volatile behavior convinces Nick that she poses a danger to their family and decides to commit her to an institution for six months. Alone with a trio of kids to raise on his own, he awaits her return, which holds more than a few surprises.

4. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Ben Gazzara plays the lead role in this 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.

Ben Gazzara in 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.

Cosmo Vittelli, the proprietor of a sleazy, low-rent Hollywood cabaret, has a real affection for the women who strip in his peepshows and the staff who keep up his dingy establishment. He also has a major gambling problem that has gotten him in trouble before. When Cosmo loses big-time at an underground casino run by mobster Mort, he isn’t able to pay up. Mort then offers Cosmo the chance to pay back his debt by knocking off a pesky, Mafia-protected bookie.

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.

Gloria (1980) directed by John Cassavetes.
Gloria (1980) directed by John Cassavetes.

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.

When a young boy’s family is killed by the mob, their tough neighbor Gloria becomes his reluctant guardian. In possession of a book that the gangsters want, the pair go on the run in New York City.

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