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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

A Woman Under the Influence (1974), John Cassavetes [3.5/5]

Updated: Sep 20, 2022

In A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands bring two woundingly intimate performances; they are often so vulnerable that it can be hard for the viewer not to avert their eyes. Falk, usually the working's man Sherlock Holmes as Columbo, brings a fiery fragility as Nick Longhetti, a hotheaded construction worker dealing with a wife who struggles with mental illness. His intensity and quickness to anger is matched only by his tragedy as a husband helpless to the whirlwind around him and his family.

At times the movie can feel like a hidden camera show of the cringe-inducing, domestic scene variety as Nick struggles to wrangle together his abandoned children and construction worker buddies to understand and accept an unhinged, accidentally unfaithful Mabel, played expressively by Gena Rowlands. And John Cassavetes and cinematographer Al Ruban have devised just the right visual for the whole mess: their microscopically uncomfortable close-ups and unrelenting long takes string the viewer out through painstaking scenes of public embarrassment and manic monologues. Please just get the kids out of that house!, a viewer might say. Or, why is Nick having the whole construction crew over for a big dinner party the moment she's back from the mental health ward?

Unfortunately, Mabel’s manic frenzy nearly defeats the story as it approaches, if not cliché, exhaustion. Scene after scene of the crooked-faced, wide-eyed, nonsense-babbling Mabel begins to drag on and obscure the momentum and direction of the film. Where is this going; can we just get out of here?

Yet Cassavetes is no stranger to digression. Two years later in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), Cassavetes takes us on many wordless diversions into the seedy diners and late night jazz bars of 70s Hollywood, yet the film is so gorgeously shot and animated by Ben Gazzara's impresario coolness that we're not bothered when were brought to another striptease dancer's house to meet her mother in a robe. The world is so full of color, music, sexiness, hell STYLE!, that we'll go anywhere Cassavetes wants to take us. The same cannot be said for A Woman Under the Influence, and Mabel's drawn-out monologues can only induce sympathy and tragedy so long before they become unpleasant, even pedantic.

3.5/5 stars, good to see to understand Cassavetes' style, but not one of his most important or compelling stories.

Miles Stephenson

P.S. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), on the other hand, is a fantastic must-see, 5/5 stars.

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