Directed by John Cassavetes
Starring Gena Rowland, Peter Falk

Jonathan Duggan

Mabel Longhetti is the most socially awkward wife you’ll ever meet.

She does just fine with her husband Nick. When they’re alone, it’s one of the sweetest, most tender relationships imaginable. But around others, Mabel’s just nuts.

“A Woman Under The Influence” is a brilliant showcase of American melodrama, held together by its heart-breaking performances. Released in 1974, the film struggled commercially but was met with widespread critical success. It garnered lead Gena Rowlands (“The Notebook”) and her director/husband John Cassavetes Oscar nominations for their spellbinding collaboration, now considered part of the foundation of independent cinema.

Nick Longhetti, played by Peter Falk (“The In-Laws”) is a city construction foreman. After an incredibly long shift, he brings his tired coworkers back to his house for something to eat in the morning.

“Want some spaghetti?” a shrill Mabel shouts.

Safe and kind enough, yes. But then, Mabel begins to alienate Nick’s friends. She hugs a man far too long and nearly makes out with a worker at the meal.

Oh, I neglected to mention that she went out the previous night, got loaded and slept with another man.

The film eventually implies that Mabel is sent away to a mental hospital. So Mabel’s crazy, right?

But what’s to be said for her husband? Nick is sporadically violent and prone to bad judgment. He eventually pulls his three kids out of school, giving them beer and taking them to the beach. Hypocritical? Insane? Those come to mind.

The movie still is “A Woman Under The Influence,” and Mabel is that woman, but her children, her peers and especially her husband all play parts in that influence.

“Influence” has been said to be a struggle with modern marriage, and has been viewed both as a domestic observation piece and as a useful lesson in acting. Contemporary filmmakers owe a lot to Cassavetes; considered a godfather of American independent cinema, he’s the creator of such classics as “Shadows” (1959) and “Faces” (1968), and helped define a generation of low-key filmmaking. To most, he was a successful movie actor, appearing in hits like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Dirty Dozen.”

Cassavetes’s style was unique, because, well, his movies looked shitty. Shot on a shoestring budget, with actors repeatedly encouraged by the director to improvise, his movies are singular for their realism. Cassavetes shot on location without permission in friends’ homes, with natural light and poor sound – “A Woman Under The Influence” is no exception. This is about as honest as movies get. And that’s hard. But Cassavetes got it.

Quiet moments, such as Mabel smoking alone, isolated in a hallway to the sounds of classical music, say so much despite their limited scope. It’s near impossible to find moments like this today.

Thanks to Cassavetes, we have great minimalist maverick directors today. There’d be no Lars Von Trier (“Breaking The Waves”), Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”) or Sofia Coppola (“Lost In Translation”). Cassavetes’s films are classic productions of chaos and creation, and “Influence” is a sterling example of his work.

It’s aptly titled, too, considering that it remains on of the most influential and important films of the 1970s and even today.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *