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Indie pioneer’s fearless forays

John Cassavetes: Five Films

Criterion, $125

Criterion’s comprehensive six-disc set includes five features by the influential maverick director-actor who has been called the father of American indie cinema -- “Shadows,” “Faces,” “A Woman Under the Influence,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” and “Opening Night” -- and a compelling documentary on Cassavetes, “A Constant Forge.” What the set really spotlights is Cassavetes’ fearless desire to explore the intricacies of the human condition. Populated with jazz musicians, strippers, nightclub owners, gangsters, housewives and businessmen, Cassavetes’ films are deeply humanistic and moving. The five beautifully restored features in the collection were financed by the late director -- he worked as an actor in such movies as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Dirty Dozen” to earn money for his films, which he made outside of the studio system to ensure that he had total control over his vision.

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“Shadows” (1959)

Cassavetes made a bold directorial debut with this shoestring-budget drama about a light-skinned African American woman (Lelia Goldoni) and her romance with a white man (Anthony Ray), who doesn’t know she is black. Hugh Hurd plays her brother, a dark-skinned jazz singer who is forced to work in strip clubs. Shot over a two-year period in New York City, “Shadows” is an offshoot of improv sessions at Cassavetes and Burt Lane’s acting workshop.

Extras: Video interviews with Goldoni and associate producer Seymour Cassel, who became one of Cassavetes’ film regulars; 16-millimeter silent footage of the acting workshop; stills gallery; and a documentary on the film’s restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

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“Faces” (1968)

This devastating, beautifully wrought drama traces the end of the marriage of a successful executive (John Marley) and his wife (an Oscar-nominated Lynn Carlin) and follows their attempts to find love in the arms of others. Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands, and Cassel, also an Oscar nominee, star in this searing in-your-face film.

Extras: The 17-minute alternate opening of the film from an early edit; an episode from a 1968 French TV series dedicated to Cassavetes that features interviews with him in 1965 and in 1968; a candid new retrospective documentary on the making of “Faces,” with discussions with the cast and director of photography Al Ruban. In a separate extra, the cinematographer explores how he achieved the film’s stark black-and-white look.

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“A Woman Under the Influence” (1974)

Rowlands received her first Oscar nomination for her audacious, heartbreaking performance as a suburban housewife and mother suffering an emotional breakdown. Equally impressive is Peter Falk as her confused husband, who doesn’t know how to deal with his wife’s outbursts or his own emotions. Cassavetes also received an Oscar nomination for his direction.

Extras: A warm, funny conversation between Rowlands and Falk, a 1975 audio interview with Cassavetes, a stills gallery and an above-average commentary between Cassavetes collaborators Mike Ferris, who was the camera operator, and composer Bo Harwood.

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“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976)

Perhaps the film closest to Cassavetes’ heart, “Chinese Bookie” was so poorly received that the director pulled it from distribution within a week of its initial release. After he finished “Opening Night” in 1978, he went back and cut nearly a half-hour of the film and re-released it to a bit more success. In retrospect, it may not have been one of his best films, but it has a lot to recommend itself, most notably Ben Gazzara as a gentleman’s club owner who loses big at cards at a small-time gambler’s establishment in Santa Monica and is forced to commit murder in order to keep his seedy little club with its untalented performers.

Extras: The double-disc set features both versions of the film, revealing interviews with Gazzara and producer Al Ruban, an audio interview with Cassavetes and a stills gallery.

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Opening Night (1977)

Rowlands gives another exceptional performance in this drama about a Broadway actress who is rehearsing her latest play and is forced to confront her professional and personal problems after she witnesses the death of one of her young fans. Cassavetes, Gazzara and veteran Joan Blondell also star.

Extras: A conversation between Rowlands and Gazzara, an audio interview with Cassavetes and a new interview with Ruban, who was cinematographer and producer.


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