A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE (1974)
I have to admit that until I saw this later stage of his career, I was having difficulties in appreciating John Cassavetes’ style as a writer/director. His earlier films FACES and SHADOWS unfolded in what felt a very rambling, unfocused fashion. The lengthy improvisations often irritated me despite allowing for superbly compelling performances and an element of danger; some of the obviously inexperienced supporting actors marring the truth that was being worked for so hard.
Listening to Peter Falk being interviewed about this 1974 masterpiece, it turns out I wasn’t alone. Falk first worked with Cassavetes on HUSBANDS (which I haven’t seen) and after a very stormy collaboration he vowed he would never work with the director again. He was used to more certainty in the shape of a piece and couldn’t understand where Cassavetes was going or what he wanted. Thank goodness he reconsidered for A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE is made by his and Gena Rowlands’ brilliantly real performances in a shattering masterpiece.
They play a married couple, Mabel and Nick, who over the course of months are brought to breaking point by her increasing mental instability. Eventually Nick has no choice but to temporarily institutionalise her, and then comes the difficulty of her adjustment on returning to the family. It’s a simple plot, but the staging of the crucial scenes of this period is what give the film its power. Cassavetes lights the blue touch paper and gets out of the way, giving the actors space to play out excruciating truths between people in the greatest crises of their relationships.
Nick is a construction worker, a well-meaning and big-hearted family man who takes pride in his love and protection towards his wife, children, domineering mother and co-workers. His only real flaw is his unwitting insensitivity at delicate moments, though always with good intentions. This is played on beautifully later. Falk gives the kind of richly layered playing that easily erases his famously vivid Columbo persona. Just before a take on the first day of shooting, he recounted fondly that Cassavetes came up to him and plonked on his head the floppy denim hat that Falk spends most of the film wearing. It’s a delightful and instinctive touch that Falk recognised as a green umbrella (the name actors give to a prop clue to the character). It humanises Nick, softening his sandpaper edges.
His wife Mabel is equally warm and loving yet her own high-pitched protectiveness at the beginning is a clue that there is something wrong with her. She over-worries about her children’s planned sleep-over with her mother, arranged so that she and Nick can look forward to a long-overdue ‘date night’. When he is forced to work a night shift, Mabel’s caged-animal of anxiety drives her to relieve her frustration by picking up a stranger at a singles’ bar. Thus we begin to see her slide out of control.
Nick invites his workmates in the next morning for a big group breakfast, wanting to be the generous host. Mabel papers over her internal cracks by over-compensating with ebullient hosting that becomes cringe-worthy in her flirtatiousness towards his men. Cassavetes allows the tension to build very realistically, pacing it so that each of the men is systematically embarrassed by Mabel’s inappropriate behaviour in long takes. Rowlands’ bravery of increasingly exposed choices is exhilarating and Falk matches her note for note till his shame causes him to roar at her to stop. He makes his excuses and the meal is over.
Gradually we see how love and protectiveness toward one’s partner clash with embarrassment, shame, confusion and ultimately exhaustion. The scene where Rowlands parades in her lounge in full unself-conscious throes of madness and Falk finally clasps her to him, willing her to calm down and ‘Come back to me’ is heart-breakingly raw in both actors’ portrayals. She cannot understand reality any more and he can no longer pretend to the world that he can cope.
The other set-piece that magnificently conveys the couples’ characters and the difficulties in domestic mental health issues is Mabel’s return home. Fittingly for Nick, he sees this is a big family celebration, not realising how overwhelming this will be for his wife. The stage is set for a supreme example of taste and time given by the director to permit the gathering to work its claustrophobic pressure on Mabel. Once more her brittle shell of control earned during rehabilitation breaks and it takes Nick’s over-bearing mother to make him see that the couple must acclimatise in private not in the full glare of the family circle.
After such a brutal journey, there is a glimmer of hope though. Once in private, Mabel’s sudden inner storm passes somewhat. In companionable silence, they put away the party remains while the telephone rings. Nick and Mabel may begin to cope with each other - and without his mother.
Watch A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE without distraction and appreciate the searingly honest work by Cassavetes, Rowlands and Falk. It’s a masterclass in committed and compassionate art.