This autumn marks the 40th anniversary of Gloria, the gritty New York City crime drama starring Gena Rowlands as a glamour-faded former gun moll who becomes the unlikely protector of a six-year-old Puerto Rican boy targeted for execution by the mafia. With her glorious mane of golden blonde hair and decked out in a number of sleek monochromatic power suits, brandishing a silver Smith and Wesson Model 60 and ready to throw down at the drop of a hat, Rowlands cuts an instantly iconic figure: half guardian angel, half angel of death, pure Gotham steel.
Although Gloria remains an underseen gem, it is now recognized by those in the know as one of the toughest, most singular thrillers of its day, its influence readily apparent in any number of more well-known offerings from the intervening decades.
Not bad for a movie whose director considered it a commercial hack job.
To be fair, that director was John Cassavetes, as prickly and uncompromising an auteur as ever stepped behind the camera. Although he made his name and living as a prolific character actor during the second half of the 20th century, today he is regarded as the godfather of American independent cinema and is synonymous with the handful of humane tragicomedies he produced, wrote, directed and often starred in between 1968 and 1984: Shadows, Faces, Husbands, Minnie and Moskowitz, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Opening Night and Love Streams.
Those films, including the mob-centric Bookie, defy any pat classifications of genre, the entire concept of which Cassavetes personally abhorred (he liked to remark, “I hate entertainment!”). But his work across a number of classic crime films, as both actor and director, combined with his influence, both stylistic and directly personal, on filmmakers working within the genre, cannot be understated. Loathe as he’d probably be to hear it, Cassavetes is a legitimate icon of film noir.
Appropriately, Cassavetes’ earliest milestones as an actor came by way of crime dramas, with memorable performances in both the television and subsequent feature film versions of The Night Holds Terror (1955) and Crime in the Streets (1956), the latter of which was directed first by Sidney Lumet, and later by Don Seigel. In 1957, he nabbed a starring role alongside Sidney Poitier in the social drama-cum-noir Edge of the City. From there, Cassavetes, recently wed to Gena Rowlands, who was concurrently making her own name as an actor, reluctantly moved into television, appearing in Decoy, the first police procedural to boast a female lead, before starring in the short-lived Johnny Staccato, about a jazz musician who moonlights as a private detective (or maybe it’s the other way around).
The move did not suit him. Cassavetes despised the artistic and commercial strictures of television, as well as the creative limitations of the detective story, which he described (in the essential Cassavetes on Cassavetes) thus: “You know, man commits crime, man goes after man with crime, man solves crime and kisses a few girls on the way.”
He attempted to raise the quality of his show by focusing on more character-driven storytelling, directing five episodes to some small acclaim. However, the ratings remained poor and the studio refused to acquiesce to his vision, so Cassavetes—ever ready to play the part of Cortés and burn his boats—waged a public war of attrition against the program’s sponsors until it was canceled and he was released from his contract. Today, Johnny Staccato is mostly forgotten, although it does have its small cult of admirers, including Thomas Pynchon, who, in his own hipster private eye novel, Inherent Vice, namechecks the character alongside Philip Marlow and Sam Spade as “the shamus of shamuses.”
Cassavetes would spend the next decade volleying between his acclaimed and groundbreaking independent work (Shadows , Faces ) and a couple disappointing studio-backed efforts (Too Late Blues , A Child is Waiting ), all while continuing to pay his bills through acting. While he mostly resented the films he appeared in, there were a few notable exceptions, one of which came by way of his Crime in the Streets director Don Seigel, who, in 1964, cast Cassavetes in his more violent reimagining of Ernest Hemingway’s short story, The Killers. Cassavetes stepped into the role previously brought to life by his A Child is Waiting star Burt Lancaster in Robert Siodmak’s 1946 version, playing a lovelorn sportsman and patsy who runs afoul of some gangsters and awaits his own execution with grim, but stoic acceptance.
Although they are incredibly different actors, Cassavetes, like Lancaster, excelled in the part of the duped sucker and doomed fall guy. But, like Lancaster, he could also embody the taciturn man-of-action, as seen in the 1969 Italian poliziotteschi Machine Gun McCain, where he starred alongside Rowlands (playing the alternate world version of Bonnie Parker to his aged Clyde Barrow), as well as Peter Falk, who’d go on to become one of his key collaborators and best friends. Machine Gun McCain is no great shakes, but it does display Cassavetes’ ability to convincingly play the hardboiled anti-hero; his blurry-eyed stare, lupine-like features and nervy body language telegraphing the coiled, simmering violence that lay just below his small frame.
Cassavetes run of acting jobs throughout the rest of the ‘60s paid good dividends: when Seigel cast him again in The Dirty Dozen (1967), he earned a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for his work. One year later, he co-starred in the biggest hit of his career in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. He parlayed these successes, along with the connections he and Falk made in Italy, into financing his next movie as director, the grueling but hypnotic expose of masculinity in crisis, Husbands (1970).
That film—about a trio of married suburbanites who go on a debauched, multi-day bender following the death of the fourth member of their posse—is a spiritual cousin to the project that first introduced Cassavetes and Falk—their having discussed the script during a chance meeting an L.A. Lakers game—but which would take another few years to come to fruition: Elaine May’s Mikey and Nicky.
(During this time, Cassavetes also guest starred in an excellent episode of Columbo, “Étude in Black,” playing a suave killer who gets outfoxed by Falk’s beloved sleuth.)
Mikey and Nicky finds Cassavetes’ bookie Nicky hiding out in a fleabag motel. Convinced a hit has been put out on him, he calls on his lifelong best friend and fellow low-level mobster, Mikey (Falk), to help him flee town. The two embark on a classic long, dark night of the soul in which their various personal resentments and betrayals, as well as their mutual and deep-seated self-loathing is borne to the surface. But for as heinous as they are often shown to be—especially through their treatment of women in a handful of disturbing scenes—our hearts can’t help but break for them—especially Cassavetes’ pitiable Nicky—when the final axe inevitably falls.
With Mikey and Nicky Elaine May, the brilliant comedian turned equally brilliant director, mines the depths of male chauvinism and romantic betrayal so key to her first two pictures—the black comedies A New Leaf (1971) and The Heartbreak Kid (1972)—while adopting a grittier aesthetic and more improvisational style. The latter was partly informed by her background in sketch comedy, but it also bears the unmistakable workshop technique used by Cassavetes on his own movies. It takes nothing away from May’s achievements to note that Mikey and Nicky has the texture and feel of a Cassavetes production, albeit with one key distinction: it is, in the words of critic Richard Brody, “[May’s] depiction of what these wild, rowdy, willful, poetic, violent men are like from the point of view of women.”
In 1976, around the same time that Mikey and Nicky had its ignominious release following a grueling three-year battle between Paramount Pictures and May over its final cut, Cassavetes, riding high off the critical and commercial success of A Woman Under the Influence two years prior, suffered his own critical and commercial disaster with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.
No doubt inspired by the desperate hustlers of Mikey and Nicky, as well as the decade’s new breed of gangster pictures (Francis Ford Coppola briefly considered him for the part of Tom Hagen in The Godfather), Cassavetes stuck around the underworld for this moody character study of Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara), a Sunset Strip nightclub owner and degenerate gambler who gets in deep with the mob and is forced to assassinate a rival gangster.
Like Mikey and Nicky, Bookie is a hypnotic neon nocturne about the fragility of the male ego, although here Gazzara isn’t playing a frustrated tough guy, but rather a would-be playboy with pretensions of high class. Watching Cosmo attempt to smooth talk his way out of the hole he’s dug himself into is as awkwardly funny as it is achingly sad, all of which makes the third act turn—in which he’s revealed to be almost preternaturally gifted at dispensing lethality, much to the shock and dismay of the gangsters who set him up—all the more unexpected and thrilling.
Yet, for all its neo-noir ambience, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is, like all of Cassavetes’ films, less concerned with plot than with the messy humanity of its characters and the choices they make attempting to rectify their hopes, dreams and desires with the unaccommodating, hardscrabble nature of day-to-day life.
Gazzara as Cosmo is very much a stand-in for his director, for while his character may trade in flesh, he is an artist at heart, and his struggle—both moral and mortal—against the jackal-like forces of greed and conformity is the same which Cassavetes continuously waged in the name of his own art.
By the late ‘70s, that struggle had taken its toll. After Bookie and his film of the following year, the haunting backstage drama Opening Night, failed to recoup the money he personally invested in them, he was ready to make another studio picture.
Enter Gloria, which started out as a spec script written for MGM after they asked Cassavetes—a prolific screenwriter—to help them cash in on the recent success of their father-and-son boxing drama The Champ by penning a gritty story with a kid at its center. He threw together a simple tale about a woman and boy running from gangsters that essentially picks up where Mikey and Nicky and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie left off and handed it over with no thought of directing it himself.
MGM eventually lost interest, but the script was picked up by Columbia, who offered the starring role to Rowlands (after first being turned down by Barbara Streisand, who held a grudge against Cassavetes ever since he’d coldly shot down her offer to direct A Star is Born several years earlier). Rowlands accepted, on the condition that her husband direct. Despite his initial reluctance—he wasn’t interested in doing another gangster movie, especially one that contained as much violence as his script, nor was he keen to work under a studio banner again—he eventually agreed.
Although Cassavetes never disowned or even greatly disparaged Gloria—in fact, the last script he worked on before his death was Gloria II—he never fully embraced it either. It’s understandable that an artist as proud and stubbornly independent would distance himself from a picture that he didn’t own outright, but his embarrassment is hard to square with the finished product, which plays as idiosyncratic and deeply felt as his personal work.
It’s also yet another brilliant showcase for Rowlands, who gets to play the inverse of her spiritually and mentally unmoored characters in A Woman Under the Influence and Opening Night (and later in Love Streams). Her Gloria is so tough, so unflappable, that even when the full weight of the New York City underworld bears down on her, she doesn’t budge an inch. Her co-star John Adames, meanwhile, gives one of the all-time great performances by a child actor; a tiny tornado of street smarts and machismo, it’s as though Cassavetes was able to grow a miniature version of himself in a lab. Along with the performances, Gloria’s overall aesthetic—the result of Fred Schuler’s saturnine cinematography, Bill Conti’s soulful jazz score, and especially its real-world backdrop—make it as mesmeric and transportive a window into dirty old New York as any of the more celebrated films from that same era.
After Gloria, Cassavetes only made two more pictures before succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver, the last of which was another for-hire studio job. Big Trouble (1986) is ostensibly a screwball reimagining of Double Indemnity, but really, it’s just an excuse to reunite The In-Laws stars Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. Despite its pedigree and noir trappings, there’s not much to recommend the film, which, unlike Gloria, truly does feel like a paycheck gig. Indeed, Cassavetes only came aboard after filming already began, taking over from the original director, Andrew Bergman, at the request of Falk. Big Trouble isn’t so much unwatchable as it is immediately forgettable, and if you didn’t go in knowing Cassavetes directed it, you’d never be able to tell.
As a final indignity, Big Trouble received some of the best reviews of any of his movies upon its initial release.
Since his death, Cassavetes has regularly been cited as the patron saint of American indies, but it’s worth reiterating how large a shadow he’s cast over crime cinema as well. As an actor, he may not be as synonymous with noir and neo-noir as the likes of Burt Lancaster or Lee Marvin—although he’s not that far removed from them—but as a director, forget about it.
The shadowy, insomniac, often surreal aesthetic he regularly employed feels spiritually derived from the grand tradition of film noir, even as the influence of his personal style can be heavily felt in major works of crime cinema from the likes of Martin Scorsese—for whom Cassavetes served as an early mentor (it was on his customarily curt advice that Scorsese decided to pursue his breakout film, Mean Streets)—as well as Abel Ferrara, Jim Jarmusch, David Chase, the Safdie Brothers and others.
Meanwhile, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Gloria have become outright templates upon which new crime stories have been fashioned, most notably Leon: The Professional, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, Pusher, Julia (a highly underrated gem) and The Queen of Hollywood Blvd.
There is also the 1999 Sharon Stone remake of Gloria from Sidney Lumet, who directed Cassavetes all the way back in 1956, although the less said about that, the better. Thankfully, Bret Ratner’s planned remake of The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which would have starred Warren Beatty, never came to fruition. (We have Paul Thomas Anderson to thank for that: as the story goes, he told Ratner, in all seriousness, that he would take a gun and blow his brains out if he went through with it, a course of action that Cassavetes’ would have probably approved.)
But beyond his influence and resume, Cassavetes also personally embodied the spirit of noir. A hard-drinking, hard-gambling, hard-smoking, hard-charging, hard-loving, hard-headed schemer and dreamer, he is reminiscent of any number of doomed antiheroes, his willingness to pursue his dream at any and all costs dooming him even as it ultimately redeemed him.