Dec. 27, 2009
A Woman Under the Influence (1974)
Grade: 63/100

Director: John Cassavetes
Stars: Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Katherine Cassavetes

What it's about. Nick (Peter Falk) is the foreman of a large team of blue collar maintenance workers. His wife, Mabel (Gena Rowlands), is a homemaker raising their three adorable post-toddler, pre-teenager children.

Nick loves Mabel dearly, but she is losing her sanity. She is clingy, afraid of criticism, and hits on strange men, although she has no intention of cheating on Nick. She just wants companionship, particularly the kind that involves harmless, fun, low-key activities. She is adored by her children, who find in her unconditional love, but is increasingly unable to cope with life outside her home, or with visitors in her home.

Finally unable to cope under any circumstances, Mabel is committed to an asylum, where she remains for six months. She disappears from the film during this time, and Nick has to cope with the children himself, sometimes with the help of a fellow construction worker. She is released, with great anticipation from her family, but alas, it is the same Mabel and not the sane Mabel that returns.

It should be noted that Gena Rowlands is the wife of the writer and director, John Cassavetes. Peter Falk appeared in several of Cassavetes' films. The real-life mothers of both Rowlands and Cassavetes appear in this movie, as do at least one of their children.

John Cassavetes independently financed the low budget film, and was eventually rewarded with two Oscar nominations, one for his direction, the other for his wife's acting. Rowlands is indeed a great actress, although we prefer her work in The Betty Ford Story, one of the great forgotten made for television movies.

How others will see it. Many people will find this movie unwatchable. It is slow, uncinematic, barren of beautiful women, and it does not fall under the category of Entertainment. This is an actor's movie, with the meaty roles given to our two leads, Falk and Rowlands. Both characters are well intentioned, but Nick is absent too often, and Rowland no longer understands that there is a time to have fun, and a time to be serious. The latter time greatly exceeds the former, and that's just the way it is.

Courtesy of cable television channels, Cassavetes' films receive more distribution now than they ever did when they were initially released. Knowledgeable film fans pay close attention to Cassavetes' work, and this once-obscure movie has its adherents. Curiously enough, however, the user ratings drop steadily with age. Men like it more than do women, probably because of Nick's occasional physical abuse of Mabel.

How I felt about it. Great effort has gone into the screenplay and acting. The story has only minor problems: a worker tumbles down a cliff, but is unclear how responsible Nick is for this. The three children are innocent angels throughout, which is more like how adults would like to seem them than as children actually are. A big slap from a man, enough to knock Mabel over, is not going to restore her sanity. And why do Nick's workers like him so much, when he acts like a jerk much of the time?