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Is It Really a Great Movie? Part Thirty-Four: A Woman Under the Influence

by dan heaton

Using Roger Ebert's Great Movies book as a guide, this series of articles will focus on all films included on his list that previously have escaped my notice. Since all lists are subjective, I am not treating Ebert's choices as the essential selection of films. However, his essays offer the perfect chance for me to explore both classics and lesser-known pictures from around the globe.

John Cassavetes’ films showcase a unique directing style with documentary-like camera work, emotionally charged acting and effective use of natural light. The performances feel improvised even when the actors are working from a completed script. Cassavetes is often cited as inspiration for the modern wave of independent directors like Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles and many others, and his signature movies include Shadows, Faces and Husbands. One of Cassavetes’ most acclaimed films is 1974’s A Woman Under the Influence, which stars his wife Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, and Rowlands received a Best Actress nomination. This movie also received four Golden Globe nominations and was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1990.

The story focuses on Mabel (Rowlands) and Nick Longhetti (Falk), a working-class couple who are struggling to cope with her mental illness and raise the kids. Although Mabel handles the basic household duties, she has difficulties in social situations. Nick seems to love her and treats her well most of the time, but he does snap and reveal a darker side. The conflicts with each other and their parents lead to loud, distressing arguments that are not easy to watch. While observing Mabel, it’s hard to tell if she’s truly insane or has been made that way by society’s tight expectations. While Nick works long hours at his blue-collar job, she shifts through nearly every emotion as she waits alone in the house. A memorable scene involves Mabel’s wait for the school bus and attempts to discover the time of day. While twitching and mumbling to herself, her attempts to answer the simple question are rebuffed by snooty women who want to avoid her fiery presence at all costs.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours and offering plenty of yelling, A Woman Under the Influence is not a good choice for a relaxing viewing. Gena Rowlands’ immersion into the role is complete, and it’s hard to believe that she’s just acting like an unstable person. Her work is the definite high point of this film and deserves all the awards and recognition. Falk grumbles his way though the difficult scenes and performs well, but his character is not the centerpiece. A pivotal sequence involves Mabel’s return from a stay at a mental institution, which begins quietly and grows into an unfortunate situation. Both Falk and Rowlands are excellent and completely believable, which ratchets the tension to extreme heights. Another noteworthy scene has Nick bringing a large group of co-workers home after the night shift. Mabel is initially charming and serves them spaghetti, but her efforts to be sociable eventually go too far. Cassavetes really takes his time and presents the happy meal before shifting gears in the end. This approach can become tiring, but it does allow the characters to become singular individuals.

Roger Ebert describes how this film’s “shots, scenes, dialogue and characters all instantly identify their creator,” and I cannot deny Cassavetes’ distinctive style. This was my first experience seeing one of his pictures, so I can only comment on this film. It’s definitely worth a viewing for audiences looking for key independent features of the past. This premier status and Rowlands’ chaotic performance are undeniable, but I don’t believe these traits warrant Great Movie recognition. You’ll definitely understand the acclaim after watching this picture, but you might not enjoy the experience. I can’t say that I’m excited to see it again, but certain moments do remain with you for a long time. It’s definitely not a forgettable movie and presents impressive work from a highly original filmmaker.

Check out the entire series of "Is It Really a Great Movie?" articles here.

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