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  Woman Under the Influence, A Vicious Circle
Year: 1974
Director: John Cassavetes
Stars: Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Fred Draper, Lady Rowlands, Katherine Cassavetes, Matthew Labyorteaux, Matthew Cassel, Christina Grisanti, O.G. Dunn, Mario Gallow, Eddie Shaw, Angelo Grisanti, Charles Horvath, James Joyce, John Finnegan
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 2 votes)
Review: Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) works with the Los Angeles construction business, and is happy in his job, especially compared to his home life since his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is something of a handful. Tonight he wants to make some time for her, so tells his boss over the phone once he and his workmates have gotten off their shift that there is no way they are doing overtime, he has his wife to go back to, and besides she has packed off the three kids to her mother's to allow them some peace and quiet as a couple. But on the way home, a major leak occurs and Nick is waylaid, though curiously reluctant to telephone Mabel to bring her up to date on the situation. When he eventually does, she seems normal to him, but he doesn’t realise she has been drinking heavily in his absence...

A Woman Under the Influence was the closest actor turned director John Cassavetes got to mainstream acceptance for one of his movies with himself at the helm and penning the script - though improvisation was a big part of his methods once the camera was rolling - because it was not only nominated for Academy Awards, but it became a very fashionable night out at the pictures for many moviegoers. That nineteen-seventies acceptance of difficult drama by mainstream audiences may not have caught on with everyone, and may not have necessarily endured into the eighties for the most part, but something about watching Cassavetes' wife Rowlands crack up in such a daring, dedicated performance was irresistible in the middle of the decade.

It truly was a whole night out, as well, for once you had gotten to the end of its gruelling two and a half hours you would likely be keen to discuss it with whoever your fellow audience members had been, leading to much analysis about what Mabel was under the influence of, the answer to that being most obviously her husband. From our outsider's standpoint, this privileged position of seeing into this woman's life and understanding all too uncomfortably where her problems lay was testament to how many a viewer will become an amateur psychologist if given half the chance to examine from a safe distance a troubled existence, diagnosing the issues and more likely than not in this case seeing Nick as the actual source of Mabel's breakdown.

What we don't know is what she was like before. Was she always this eccentric? Or was this state of mind brought on by the years of exposure to a damaging personality that wore her down until she was incapable of a normal life? It’s difficult to make that call in light of all we are given as evidence, though if she was verging on the psychotic before, we can be assured exposure to Nick was no help afterwards, for he behaves even less sanely than his spouse, it’s just that as a man, as the breadwinner and head of the household, and more importantly as one of the guys at work where he is most in his element, nobody is holding him up to the same criteria for sanity as the vulnerable Mabel finds herself prey to. What makes it more tragic is probably that she now has no way of escaping and the couple's shame about her condition feeds on itself remorselessly.

Mabel is tied down to this abusive lifestyle (Nick hits her when he gets frustrated) by family, knowing somewhere in that deranged mind she has to look after her kids, but in effect damaging them too by not being up to the task: she can barely look after herself. When one of her sons tries to reassure her by calling her "beautiful" it's heartbreaking when he tempers that observation with the adjective "nervous", as the little ones have noticed there is something seriously amiss in a more sympathetic fashion than their father ever will. You don't grow to hate Nick, but you wish he would get help himself; take the late on scenes when Mabel has been deemed well enough to return from the mental hospital, and mere minutes of exposure to him sends her round the bend once again, undoing all that good work. His anger is born of an unthinking acknowledgement that his wife and he are seriously mismatched, for by following the conventions of society and getting married, having kids and the rest they have driven each other mad because they were never right for such rigid rules. A Woman Under the Influence, with its dedication to realism, may drive you up the wall as well, but it was probably Cassavetes' most accomplished film as director, a piece where every one of his artistic obsessions were successfully merged.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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