The patron saint of American independent filmmaking, John Cassavetes was a filmmaker who inspired rhetoric and conjecture. His influence is writ large on at least three generations of directors (not all of them American, many see echoes of Cassavetes cinematic purity in the work of Wong Kar Wai) including Martin Scorsese (the pair formed a lasting friendship and respect), John Sayles and Harmony Korine. Today, many regard him as the single most influential American director of the last century bar Orson Welles, a man whose single-mindedness and independent and anti-studio production methods were to prove something of a blueprint for the radical, counter-culture surfing films Cassavetes began producing with 1959's Shadows.
Some twelve years after his untimely death, Cassavetes finds himself once more at the forefront of contemporary cinema. No less than three books are due for publication and perhaps more importantly a major retrospective has been curated at the National Film Theatre in London featuring all his major work as a director, screenwriter (he also penned She's So Lovely, the 1997 film directed by his son Nick that featured his wife Gena Rowlands) and occasional actor.
It was indeed as an actor that Cassavetes began his career. He played numerous bit parts in indifferent to middling Hollywood fare - mainly B-movies belonging to a particularly realist strain of crime genre - which at least allowed him to cultivate something of a rapport with Don Siegel, a director who perhaps inspired Cassavetes' no-nonsense approach to direction. Often cast for his brand of fiery intensity, Cassavetes quickly grew disaffected with the mediocrity of the profession and the conventionality of studio system production that had a nasty habit of turning would-be artists into could-be businessmen.
At the height of his malaise Cassavetes decided quite simply that if he was to retain his ferocious sense of integrity and use cinema as a medium to provoke and express the possibilities of emotional honesty he was going to have to do things his own way. So in 1957 with the aid of various loans and the purchase of a new lightweight hand-held (another pioneering aesthetic later appropriated by the mainstream) 16mm camera Cassavetes embarked on Shadows. Ostensibly the story of two beatnik-type brothers (Hugh Hurd and Ben Carruthers), their sister (Lelia Goldoni) and the tensions that arise between them, Shadows was pioneering in its depiction of racial tension, the seedy-side of New York life and its jazz-inspired (Charlie Mingus provided the Be-Bop score) free-form camerawork and frenetic editing (through which it shares kinship with Godard's A Bout De Souffle, released the same year).
The film caused such a stir that the Hollywood studios soon came-a-knocking. Cassavetes, though wary, accepted their courtship and a brief and frustrating period ensued which was to cement his distrust and wholesale rejection (in terms of directing projects at least) of the studio method of film production. The two films that he directed during this period, Too Late Blues (1961) and A Child Is Waiting (1962) were fine features, invested with an integrity and poignancy alien to most features of the time. Both dealt with sensitive issues - artistic disillusionment and a school for the mentally retarded respectively - but were met with relative indifference. Worse, legendary producer Stanley Kramer re-cut A Child Is Waiting (the scenes inside the school were frankly not audience friendly), provoking a bitter dispute with Cassavetes.
Scarred by the experience, Cassavetes returned to Hollywood as an actor, appearing in a number of intelligent, mainstream productions in order to provide the much-needed finance for his next directorial effort. The Killers (1964) saw him reunite with Don Siegel for the oft-filmed Hemingway tale of revenge and redemption, pitting him against Ronald Reagan's remarkably assured bad guy. Cassavetes' role as Franco in Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967) gave him perhaps his greatest on-screen role for another director, garnering him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in the process. The following year a remarkable hat-trick was completed with Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), in which Cassavetes played an actor so hungry for success that he was willing to sell his unborn child to Satan in return for better roles. Oh sweet irony.
With borrowed film stock, a growing ensemble of actors (Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel prominent amongst them) and regular cameraman-editor Al Ruban, Cassavetes returned to independent production with 1968's Faces. Shot over a six month period in locations including his own home and that of his mother-in-law, and edited over a two-year period in his own garage, Faces remains perhaps Cassavetes most accomplished work. A biting criticism of middle-class inertia, it's a harrowing account of the events leading inexorably to a marital breakdown. Technically challenging - the film contains takes of up to ten minutes in length and some intrusive camerawork - and unflinching in every regard, the film was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of modern realism, garnering three Oscar nominations and playing for more than six months in New York City. Cassavetes had the world of independent cinema at his feet.
A devastatingly bleak view of the emptiness of suburban life, 1970's Husbands, is the story of three best friends (Cassavetes and new regular cohorts Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk) who get together for a wake fuelled by drink, drugs and sex following the death of their best friend. Wilfully fractured in style - much to the exasperation of some - Husbands is never comfortable viewing and at times does feel rather like an exercise in technique as opposed to a fully formed aesthetic. Yet for all that, it's still remarkably compelling and never for one moment does it lack the courage of its convictions.
Stung by some of the criticism Husbands received, 1971's Minnie and Moskowitz is much lighter in tone than many had come to expect from Cassavetes. Something of a modern screwball comedy about a mismatched couple (Cassel and Rowlands) tentatively skirting around the possibilities of love, it's an undeniably witty film again driven by remarkable and committed central performances. It's not all sweetness and light however, Minnie and Moskowitz is also a veiled attack on the redundant morality of a Hollywood ever keen to keep Cassavetes at arm's length.
A three-year hiatus passed before Cassavetes returned with A Woman Under The Influence (1974), widely and quite rightly regarded as one of his best films. The story of Mabel Longhetti (a riveting Rowlands) driven to the point of mental instability by her husband (Falk) and the pressures of conforming to the respectability mores of a suburban middle-class existence, the film's strength lies not only in the integrity of the performances but in its sympathetic and accurate observations of archaic social structures. Despite being comparatively light in tone Cassavetes was unable to find an American distributor. Not a problem: he simply distributed it himself.
Opening Night (1977) is a film about not only about the craft of acting itself (Gena Rowlands plays an actress, Myrtle Gordon, haunted by a younger fan, a figment of her younger self) but a film about reconciling oneself to the process of ageing. A genre exercise - its a melodrama, not that you would necessarily recognise it as such - Opening Night remains relatively unknown amongst Cassavetes' oeuvre but is typically intelligent, intriguing and though provoking fare.
In his career Cassavetes offered two highly idiosyncratic variations on the gangster genre. The first of them, 1978's The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, features Ben Gazzara in perhaps his most iconic role as Cosmo Vitelli, the businessman owner of the Crazy Horse West, a sleazy LA strip joint. In hock up to his eyeballs to the local hoods, Vitelli is persuaded to carry out a hit on their behalf in lieu of the money he owes them. The film owes little to the gangster genre other than its existential influenced plot. Other conventions - set-pieces, shoot-outs, mobsters - are markedly absent as Cassavetes is much more interested in looking at codes of honour; the honour involved in business practices and the honour one must display towards one's own social strata. Poorly received upon release, Cassavetes (who once famously announced that he would alter a film if the reaction from a preview audience was unanimously positive) subsequently re-cut the film, significantly reducing its running time.
Cassavetes' second entry into the gangster genre was 1980's Gloria, the suitably hard-boiled tale of a gangster's moll (Rowlands in an Oscar nominated role) on the run from the mob with a six year old neighbour's son (John Adames) - the witness of a Mafia slaying - in tow. Written and directed purely for financial gain, Cassavetes subsequently had little time for Gloria though conversely it remains a favourite of his admirers despite its somewhat diluted nature. It's an odd hybrid, part art-movie and part escapist fantasy but it never for a moment resorts to sentimentality and makes good use of the disparity between Rowland's wisened moll and her young doe-eyed companion.
Suffering from ill health, 1984 gave us the last true Cassavetes picture in Love Streams. (The following year he directed Big Trouble at the request of leading man Peter Falk after original helmer Andrew Bergman was fired mid-shoot. Competent, it however bears few of the hallmarks of Cassavetes' work.) Adapted from a play by Ted Allan, it's a fitting epitaph to a remarkable career, blessed with a winning performance from the director himself as a writer staving off loneliness by living out a kind of fantasy existence with his private harem of girls. The equilibrium is cracked however when first a woman (Rowlands, who else?) on the brink of divorce enters his world, closely followed by the son he barely knows. Though at times frustratingly elliptical and obscure (Cassavetes was nothing if not single-minded right up until the very end), the playful, mordant tone of Love Streams and the characteristically charged performances - perhaps Cassavetes' most recognisable signature - as ever win through.
The John Cassavetes season runs at The National Film Theatre throughout March. The same month sees the publication of Tom Charity's John Cassavetes: Lifeworks (Omnibus Press), Cassavetes On Cassavetes, edited by Ray Carney (Faber & Faber) and Ray Carney's Shadows (BFI Film Classics).