#32. A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Directed by: John Cassavetes
Written by: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk
John Cassavetes’ film A Woman Under the Influence features what very well may be one of the all-time greatest performances in Gena Rowlands’ portrayal of Mabel Longhetti. Mabel is happily married to Nick (Peter Falk), whom she aims to please at all times. Nick becomes perturbed when he notices Mabel’s behaviour around others is becoming erratic. Eventually he decides to hospitalize Mabel for her safety, and takes on the task of raising their kids alone for six months until their mother is well. When Mabel returns from the hospital, neither party are mentally or emotionally prepared for the strains that have been put on their relationship. John Cassavetes’ film is an absolute showcase of the skills of both Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, letting the two great actors play two very unique characters and really be able to sink their teeth into them. Rowlands’ Mabel is easily one of my favorite screen characters, because her presence is constantly electric, unpredictable, and incredibly sympathetic in a real world way. Mabel is clearly tortured by whatever is affecting her mental health, and it’s both terrifying and heartbreaking to watch it unfold, especially when it begins to affect her family. Peter Falk’s Nick is kindhearted and frustrated, wanting his wife to be well again so things can go back to normal, but also quickly growing tired of taking care of her and ensuring she doesn’t embarrass or harm herself or others. Together, Rowlands and Falk are unstoppable in their incredible chemistry – it’s too bad the pair did not collaborate more frequently. Cassavetes’ direction is especially inspired throughout A Woman Under the Influence, making the best of the limits of independent filmmaking in the 1970’s – he manages to get incredible performances from most of the cast, and keeps the story rolling. A Woman Under the Influence clocks in at a little over 2 ½ hours long, which may be seen as a problem for some. Cassavetes’ writing is never stilted or meandering, instead the director uses the bloated runtime to paint a rich portrait of two very compelling characters, and allows the story to flow naturally. His screenplay takes a respectful look at mental illness and the effects on all parties surrounding it – a rarity for the era. Today, A Woman Under the Influence still feels relevant and respectful, never delving into exploitative territory, which often harms older films in the eyes of modern viewers. It’s clear to me that John Cassavetes was genuinely interested in the subject matter, because his camera and screenplay very clear show this. Despite this, he’s never afraid to inject dark humor where it’s needed, nor does he wander away from some of the more melodramatic aspects of the story – everything comes together perfectly. A Woman Under the Influence is the best John Cassavetes film I’ve had the pleasure of seeing, and one of film’s best looks at the tough subject that is mental illness.