A Few Words Upon Discovering Cassavetes

John Cassevetes is my latest obsession. On a whim, I recently picked up a used copy of Faces (1968), the story of Dicky and Maria Forst’s disastrous attempts to find peace and companionship outside of their loveless marriage. Shot entirely in stark, high-contrast black-and-white, and featuring Cassevetes’s trademark dialogue, Faces feels at times like a documentary — voyeuristic, discomforting, and brutally real.

It took me about 15 minutes to fall into the film’s rhythms and style — the opening sequence might be its weakest — but by the time we see Dicky and Maria alone together at the dinner table, I was absolutely hooked. Faces is like the New Wave meets Edward Albee, as it builds its emotional conflict from the tension between the characters’ false surface bravado and all of those painfully insecure close-ups. I’m amazed by how genuine some of the shifts in emotion feel.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) might be a more refined film, but it’s also, I think, less satisfying. Ben Gazarra’s performance as Cosmo Vitelli, a strip club owner deep in debt to dangerous men, is always convincing and occasionally brilliant. But nowhere does he (or maybe it’s the material) reach the same plaintive heights achieved by Lynn Carlin and Gena Rowlands in Faces. Still, though, his closing monologue is the best scene I’ve seen in some time. His fate is now sealed, yet he manages to inspire a strange joy and pride and community among his performers. It’s almost like a moment of grace.

Special mention goes to Bookie for featuring the always fascinating Tim Carey, most memorable for his performances in the early Kubrick films, The Killing and Paths of Glory. There are several scenes here in which his castmates (especially Seymour Cassel) seem almost apprehensive — or even afraid — around Carey. Those moments give the film a nice spark, an odd bit of unpredictable energy.