“A Woman Under the Influence” – Classic Film Reviews #30

A Woman Under the Influence

“A Woman Under the Influence” is a 1974 drama written and directed by the acclaimed independent filmmaker John Cassavetes. It stars Peter Falk as Nick Longhetti, a construction foreman married to Mabel (Gena Rowlands), a mentally ill housewife whose increasingly destructive behavior creates conflict in their family.

The indisputably best part of this film is the acting. Peter Falk is excellent as this exhausted and deeply confused man scrambling to keep his family together, but Gena Rowlands is clearly the standout of the film. This is one of the greatest lead actress performances I’ve ever seen. Rowlands allows her character to engulf her. Her darting eyes and tense body make for an unpredictable performance. None of her lines feel rehearsed, but instead as if they’re being thought up in real time. The ticks and mannerisms she gives Mabel are legitimate aspects of certain mental disorders, and she doesn’t go over-the-top with some forced wackiness. It’s truly incredible and Rowlands was robbed of the Best Leading Actress Oscar.

A Woman Under the Influence Gena Rowlands

That being said, the material Rowlands has to work with isn’t even in the same stratosphere as her performance. I respect the themes, honesty, and compassion behind Cassavetes script, but unfortunately the characterizations don’t completely work and, unlike Rowlands, go over-the-top. Many of the actions the screenplay has Mabel do, such as when she dances on top of a couch, hums, and refuses to come down, borderline on cartoonish and make the film less grounded. The behaviors don’t feel well researched and instead seem like a compilation of symptoms Cassavetes wanted to focus on.

Speaking of characterization, Nick’s is entirely inconsistent. For much of the film he’s a warm family man, albeit rough on the edges, who staunchly defends his wife. Later on, however, he beats her, throws her to the ground, and screams at her. I would understand these changes if there was a character arc detailing some slow progression, but there isn’t.

I also feel that the first hour could be trimmed by 30-40 minutes, as this is nearly two-and-a-half hours long. In fact, the first act could be cut almost entirely. Everything up to the birthday party scene could be either trimmed or deleted.

Peter Falk Gena Rowlands A Woman Under the Influence

Watching this film, it’s evident that Cassavetes is a stronger director than writer. As a performer himself, he’s obviously a gifted actor’s director, but his skills go beyond that. He’s terrific at building anxiety using extreme close-ups and changes in field of view. His style reminds me of the Safdie brothers’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if he was a significant influence on them.

“A Woman Under the Influence” struggles to extract realism from an inconsistent script, but Gena Rowlands’ performance and Cassavetes’ direction are somewhat able to compensate for the material. The film has perpetually relevant themes and good intentions, but it fails to form a cohesive narrative.


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