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‘The Balcony’: Peter Falk, Leonard Nimoy & Shelley Winters frolic in Jean Genet’s twisted whorehouse

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The Savage Eye was an early example of American cinema vérité that began as a film project worked on (over several years at weekends and days off) by three friends Ben Maddow (famed and award-winning screenwriter of Asphalt Jungle amongst many others), Sidney Meyers (radical film-maker and documentarian), and Joseph Strick (successful businessman and ambitious film-maker). Their movie mixed social documentary and drama that told the story of one woman’s (low) life in big, anonymous, brash, modern Los Angeles. It became a major hit at the Edinburgh Festival and won the trio a BAFTA—the equivalent of a British Oscar—in 1960. Encouraged by the film’s success, Strick sought out another project to work on.

He tried and failed to option James Joyce’s Ulysses, a project he had long cherished, though he would eventually film Ulysses with Milo O’Shea in 1967, and later produce and direct the big screen adaptation of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man with Bosco Hogan and John Gielgud in 1977. Having failed on a first attempt with Ulysses, Strick approached Friedrich Dürrenmatt to option his play The Visit—in which a woman offers her home village money and success at the cost of killing her ex-boyfriend—but was also knocked back. He then approached Jean Genet and asked to option the film rights to his highly controversial play The Balcony. This time he was successful.
 
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Jean Genet.
 
The Balcony is a brilliant and often disturbing drama, hailed as either the play that re-invented modern theater or the first great piece of French Brechtian theater—take your pick. Set in a high-class whorehouse situated in some unnamed city during an apparent bloody revolution, the play works as a metaphor for the different classes and corrupt structures of society. Genet wrote the first version of The Balcony (and a first version of The Blacks) in the spring and summer of 1955. Over the next ten years, Genet constantly wrote and rewrote The Balcony and between 1955 and 1961 he published five different versions. (There are some—like the play’s editor Marc Babezat—who believe Genet destroyed the script through his incessant revisions.)

In his introduction to the first version of The Balcony, Genet explained the drama’s story:

This play has as its object the mythology of the whorehouse. A Police Chief is infuriated, chagrined, to notice that at the ‘Great Balcony’ there are many erotic rituals representing various heroes: the Abbe, the Hero, the Criminal, the Beggar—and others besides—but alas, never he Police Chief. He struggles so that his own character will finally, through an exquisite act of grace, haunt the erotic daydreams and that he will thereby become a hero in mythology of the whorehouse.

Though Genet claimed he had no interest in films (“Cinema does not interest me”), he agreed to Strick’s offer to produce a movie version of The Balcony. Edmund White in his biography of Genet described the original meeting between French playwright and American film-maker:

Strick first encountered Genet in Milan, where Genet had reserved rooms in two different hotels ‘in case he had to reject my idea—he’s that sensitive,’ said Strick. Genet had seen one of Strick’s earlier films The Savage Eye, the story of a sad, recently divorced woman and her view of the seedy side of California life. Genet instructed Frechtman to speak to Strick for him: ‘Tell him that a lot of the images in his film touched me, but that the plot construction, the under-pinning appeared to me very weak. He doesn’t prove to us that this woman has changed at the end of the film. Now, a film adapted from The Balcony needs a very solid structure. Who will provide?’

While Strick stayed in the luxurious Hotel Negresco, Genet preferred a ratty hotel he called the Horresco. He was clean and neat but always dressed in the same corduroy trousers, turtleneck sweater and black leather jacket. Genet wrote a long treatment, a detailed description of the action without dialogue. Two stumbling blocks were the character Roger’s self-castration, and the whole end of the play, which is not well integrated with the preceding scenes. In the final version the castration was indeed removed. Genet worked four hours a day. Strick wanted Genet to do a shooting script and promised to follow every shot, but Genet didn’t want to invest any more time in the project. He latter told Marianne de Pury that he found the collaboration very irritating. He was still working on The Screens. He did accept, however, the idea that The Balcony should take place in a film studio and not a whorehouse.

 
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Peter Falk as the Police Chief and Shelley Winters as Madame Irma in Strick’s ‘The Balcony’.
 
Ben Maddow was then employed to write the final script. The movie was then shot a very low budget, with the actors all working for minimum wage. Strick originally wanted Barbara Hepworth as Madame Irma, but she refused working for a minimum fee. Strick therefore approached the Hollywood star Shelley Winters to play the madame. Peter Falk, in only his second movie, agreed to play the Chief of Police, while future Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy played the role of Roger. Ruby Dee reprised her stage role as one of the prostitutes. Though considerably tamer than the Genet’s play, Strick still manages to maintain much of the play’s integrity. However, critics were mixed on the film’s release, with some papers, like The New York Times—quelle surprise—hating it. Watching it now, Strick made a bold and brave venture of a difficult and powerful drama.
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara take over ‘The Dick Cavett Show,’ 1970

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Invited to discuss their current film Husbands on the Dick Cavett Show in 1970, the three amigos John Cassavetes, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara spend the first ten minutes horsing around, amusing each other and the audience, partly because Cavett jokingly described them as “animals” in his introduction. It takes around twelve minutes of such antics before director Cassavetes explains Husbands is a very serious picture about death.

Made over a two year period, Husbands tells the compelling story of three middle-aged men (Falk, Cassavetes, and Gazzara), re-examining their lives after the death of a close friend. After bar-hopping and long subway conversations, the trio decide to take a trip to London, in the hope of finding something long lost, and possibly never possessed.

It’s a love it or loathe it movie and depending on your point of view it’s brilliant, self-indulgent, funny, boring, frustrating, the best or the worst. When I first saw it, I was blown-away. Here was something more like a documentary, centered around three of the greatest improvised performances put on film. I was breathless at their audacity and talent.

Cassavetes wrote the script after improvising scenes with Falk and Gazzara. Falk later described his experience of working with Cassavetes as a director “shooting an actor when he might be unaware the camera was running.”

“You never knew when the camera might be going. And it was never: ‘Stop. Cut. Start again.’ John would walk in the middle of a scene and talk, and though you didn’t realize it, the camera kept going. So I never knew what the hell he was doing. But he ultimately made me, and I think every actor, less self-conscious, less aware of the camera than anybody I’ve ever worked with.”

It’s an amazing piece of cinema, an uncensored slice of life in all its humor, pain, emotion, charm and endless subterfuge.

Back to The Dick Cavett Show: the host does his best to keep the whole interview going (along with a comedy turn from the house band), but after a series of pratfalls, Cavett leaves the set, only for the audience to call him back. It is with Cavett’s return, around 20-minutes in, that the interview finally kicks-off. Falk says the three constantly fought during the making of the film. Then Gazzara talks about the spark between the three actors, before going on to compare Cassavetes with Orson Welles.

Inspired by such adulation, Cassavetes opens-up:

“I happen to think Husbands is a very fine film that has to do with what’s happening today from our point of view, you know, three guys that have lived part of their lives and don’t have their youth to look forward to.”

It takes a while to get there, but if you can sit through the testosterone-fueled antics of three men horsing around, then its worth it.
 

 
H/T Tom Ruddock

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
What’s Wrong With Mabel?: John Cassavettes’ ‘A Woman Under the Influence’

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Unrelenting. That is one of the first words that comes to mind when talking about the work of John Cassavetes. Few filmmakers were as willing to not only open a vein but then deny their audience any easy answers about said act as Cassavetes. A Woman Under the Influence is a supreme example of this, standing as one of the most honest and quietly uneasy films that have emerged in the past fifty years. How uneasy? Well, it made Richard Dreyfuss physically ill after watching it…..in a good way. (Yes, even vomiting can be a compliment when done correctly.) That reaction sounds completely over dramatic, but when you see the film, you can understand why Dreyfuss or anyone else, would have been so gut punched by it.

Woman stars Gena Rowlands as Mabel, a middle-aged mother of three precocious kids and wife to Nick (Peter Falk), who is a gruff but warm blue collar man. She seems high-strung at first, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is something not right. Everyone knows it except her husband, with even some of his co-workers asking about her health. Nick’s the kind of guy who lives in denial for the reasons most due in such situations; out of love and out of an inability to deal. But much like in real life, it takes a series of events to bring everything to a simmer and after one particularly ugly and intense intervention with Mabel, her doctor and Nick’s stunningly irritating mother, he has his wife committed.

It is in her absence that he is confronted with the fact that he is not only been out of touch with his wife, but with his children as well. The only time we get to see him bond with the kids at all, is when he gets them unwittingly snockered on cheap beer after a dreary trip to the beach. Two months later and Nick plans a huge welcome back party for Mabel, but then quickly scraps it in favor of a more intimate family gathering. But as she arrives home, looking heavily sedated bordering on shell shocked, it becomes apparent that there are no easy fixes, especially for a family that is so steeped in simply not dealing.

Woman Under the Influence is a film that not only confronts its characters’ issues but a larger issue looming ahead. Mental illness, along with addiction, are two of the most misunderstood and often mishandled issues. It’s true now and it was true then, especially when you are talking about a time when electroshock therapy was common, a procedure Mabel mentions receiving. There’s nothing like someone leaving a facility worse off than they were beforehand. (For more info on this, just listen to Lou Reed’s song “Kill Your Sons”, which references Reed’s own experiences with electroshock.) Often, families’ ways of dealing with mental illness is to not deal with it all until it becomes the loud and at times, dangerous elephant in the room. Even then, there is an undercurrent of resentment there, something that comes out especially from Nick’s mother, making an already dicey situation worse when her son is finally trying to help Mabel.

Even Nick, who clearly does love his wife, is still impotent in his ability to even truly empathize with his spouse, including slapping her around a few times to calm her down. He’s not a villain just someone who is rendered useless by his unwillingness to try to understand, but also by the fact that he was never raised to see his partner as a full fleshed human being and an equal. It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that gender roles have hurt Nick and Mabel. In one scene, she tells her kids that “I never did anything in my whole life than make you guys.” She’s not trying to make them feel bad or anything, but it is a loaded statement because it’s clear that she has been relegated her whole life to the categories of “wife,” “mother” or “daughter.” There is nothing wrong with any of those categories, but every person is more than just a label put on them. The whole being gets neglected, along with any troubles they may have. This applies to Nick too, because men often get a whole other set of baggage to deal with, so you end up with a whole generation of individuals who are not equipped to fully deal with one another.

Cassavetes handles all of this brilliantly, which is no shock for anyone familiar with the man’s work. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to simplify everything. Have Nick be a total bastard or pure doting husband and Mabel just be a misunderstood eccentric or a total psychopath. Not to mention the last 20 minutes, which mirrors Cassavetes equally sublime Killing of a Chinese Bookie, both in terms of open-endedness but even with the main character’s blood on their own hand. (The latter may or may not have been on purpose, but it’s interesting nonetheless.) It’s that gray-area borderland of no easy answers that permeates this film, making it all the more uncomfortable but all the more honest. Cassavetes is a director that not only loves his work enough to be real but his audience as well. This is an artist that respects you enough to never bullshit you. That alone makes me a fan for life.

The acting in Woman, especially where our two leads are concerned, is flawless. Watching Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk together is one blue spark of a gift, with the both of them being equally compelling and heartbreaking. In fact, Rowlands won the Golden Globe for best actress and was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this film. But enough praise cannot be heaped upon Falk, who’s at his zenith here. While most are familiar with him as TV’s lovable Columbo, Falk was a red blooded actor’s actor. How many can boast about not only working with Cassavetes but also Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) to boot? Not many, but Falk was a special breed of character actor and it’s hard to think of someone who could pull off a guy like Nick, who is both likable, sympathetic and at times, a total ass.

Woman is an incredibly uncompromising work that at times is too close for comfort, but in a way that is needed. There’s a truth to this film that has not faded with age. Illnesses get ignored, families repeat dysfunctional patterns and miscommunication is bred in a hothouse of forced gender roles for all involved.

Luckily for us, the British Film Institute (BFI) have done a wonderful job of presenting this film, both on DVD and Blu Ray, for European viewers or anyone who happens to have a Region 2 (PAL) player. (Never fear, North Americans, for Criterion’s Region 1 release of it is still in print and also available as a part of their John Cassavetes Five Films box set.) This is a loving release, with a 30 page booklet, the original trailer as well an alternative one that features footage which is not in the final cut, an archived interview with Peter Falk and an interview with Elaine Kogan, Cassavetes’ long term personal assistant. It’s a supremely fine release and a great tribute to the man and his work.

A Woman Under the Influence is brilliant and like many a great piece of art, it may bristle and worm its way in your skin. It’s a near flawless film that gives you no easy answers because it does not and will not play you for a fool. (Though do try to ignore the awful bit of weird Dixieland music that pops up at the very end. Not sure what that was about but it’s a minor quibble.)

Posted by Heather Drain | Leave a comment
Documentary on John Cassavetes directing Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara in ‘Husbands’ 1970

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While it will be for Columbo that the late great actor Peter Falk will be best remembered, we should not overlook his Oscar-nominated performances in Murder inc. or Pocketful of Miracles; his subtlety in Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire; or his brilliant work with John Cassavetes in Woman Under the Influence and Husbands.

Made in 1970, Husbands told the compelling story of 3 middle-aged men (Falk, Cassavetes, and Ben Gazzara), who re-examine their lives after the death of a close friend. After bar-hoping and long subway conversations, the trio decide to take a trip to London, in a hope of finding something long lost. It’s a love it or loathe it movie and depending on your point of view it’s brilliant, self-indulgent, funny, boring, frustrating, the best or the worst. When I first saw it, I was blown-away. Here was something more like a documentary, centered around 3 of the greatest improvised performances putt on film. I was breathless at their audacity and brilliance.

Cassavetes wrote the script after improvising scenes with Falk and Gazzara. Falk described his experience of working with Cassavetes as a director “shooting an actor when he might be unaware the camera was running.”

“You never knew when the camera might be going. And it was never: ‘Stop. Cut. Start again.’ John would walk in the middle of a scene and talk, and though you didn’t realize it, the camera kept going. So I never knew what the hell he was doing. But he ultimately made me, and I think every actor, less self-conscious, less aware of the camera than anybody I’ve ever worked with.”

It’s an amazing piece of cinema, an uncensored slice of life in all its humor, pain, emotion, charm and endless subterfuge.

During filming in 1970, the BBC followed Cassavetes and his actors in New York and London making a documentary for their Omnibus strand, examining the unique way this great director made his movies.
 

 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Long live the authentic revolution!’ Peter Falk shined in Jean Genet’s ‘The Balcony’

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Peter Falk’s death today will bring back memories to Boomers and Gen X-ers of his title role as the good-natured and shambling L.A. detective in the ‘70s TV show Columbo. But by the time he donned that character’s famous trenchcoat, he had about 15 years of acting under his belt, most famously in gangster roles in films like Murder Inc. and Frank Capra’s last, Pocketful of Miracles. (Of course, he augmented the Columbo years with amazing performances like his role as Nick in John Cassavettes’s masterful A Woman Under The Influence.)

He also appeared as the Chief of Police in Joseph Strick’s 1963 adaptation of Jean Genet’s surreal play The Balcony. The film stayed faithful generally to Genet’s meditation on revolution, counter-revolution, and nationalism, which is set in a brothel/movie set/fantasy factory designed for its authoritarian allegorical characters while unrest boils over in the fictional country outside.

Here’s Falk’s big segment after his character breaks up the party. May he rest in peace.
 

 

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment