Even by the Criterion Collection’s towering standard, the label’s eight-disc box set devoted to John Cassavetes is an extraordinary event. Picky fans may carp about what’s missing, but “John Cassavetes: Five Films” will keep the serious film watcher fixated for weeks.
The package, overwhelming in its sheer enormity, reveals how Cassavetes developed his exceedingly personal art about the search for love and connection, sometimes turning genres on their heads. It helps affirm Cassavetes’ place as one of the greatest of U.S. filmmakers, restores one legendary but fairly neglected film (“Faces”) to its original luster and definitively revives another (“The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”) from shadowy obscurity to the highest ranks.
The quintet of meticulously restored films comprises Cassavetes’ first, “Shadows” (1959); “Faces” (1968); “A Woman Under the Influence” (1974); the original premiere release and re-cut re-release versions of “Chinese Bookie” (1976-78) and “Opening Night” (1977). These are accompanied by Charles Kiselyak’s sensitive 201-minute docu on Cassavetes’ work and collaborators, “A Constant Forge” (2000).
The set includes a lavish second disc of extras for “Faces,” an audio commentary for “Woman Under the Influence” (oddly, Cassavetes’ wife and favorite thesp, Gena Rowlands, isn’t on hand to talk about her most renowned performance), more than two hours of video and audio interviews, multiple galleries of rare production photos (especially choice in the case of “Shadows”), and a fine 68-page booklet with Cassavetes interviews and essays by critics.
Fans may lament the absence of the first, quite fascinating version of “Shadows” (long thought lost until it was unearthed by Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney for last year’s Rotterdam fest). Also missing are “Minnie & Moskowitz” and what some consider Cassavetes’ masterpiece, “Love Streams.” But this package reps all of the films owned by Cassavetes’ Faces shingle, and indisputably surveys the entire career’s essence. (It would have been wonderful to compare versions of “Shadows,” as one is able to do here with each “Chinese Bookie,” but the early cut was discarded by the filmmaker, and is disavowed by Cassavetes’ estate.)
The “Chinese Bookie” set unveils a work, almost universally castigated when it first screened in 1976, that now must be ranked among the landmark American films of the past 40 years, and contains Ben Gazzara’s greatest performance, as Cosmo, a lonely, desperate Sunset Strip strip-club owner. Only at the end of the experience of watching “Five Films” can one appreciate that Cosmo was the nearest Cassavetes came to an autobiographical portrait.