“Come on, come on, I’d love it — don’t hang back!” dares Gloria Swenson, brandishing a gun at three mobsters that know she means business. Gena Rowlands is electric as a tough New York ex- gangland moll who finds that her maternal instincts make her deadlier than the male. John Cassavetes’ commercial crowd-pleaser is also a smart, sassy gangland mini-classic.
1980 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 123 min. / Street Date August 21, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Buck Henry, John Adames, Julie Carmen, Lupe Garnica, Jessica Castillo, Basilio Franchina, Val Avery, Tom Noonan.
Cinematography: Fred Schuler
Film Editor: George C. Villaseñor
Original Music: Bill Conti
Produced by Sam Shaw
Written and Directed by John Cassavetes
Do you have a list of movies that you’ll watch again, just to enjoy a particular actor’s performance? Gena Rowlands is one of those people that pull you in. I’ll watch Kirk Douglas’s Lonely are the Brave just to see her scenes. The elegant, earthy Rowlands is as much a sensation in John Cassavetes’ moody downer A Child is Waiting as she is in an actor’s workout like A Woman Under the Influence.
Gloria’s obvious reason for being is to give the marvelous Gena Rowlands (a national resource if there ever was one) an excuse to play James Cagney. Snarling and glaring her way through the ranks of Mafia crooks and lowlifes, Rowlands carries the entire picture. The majority of her scenes are played with a child actor who never seems fully natural, and it takes Rowlands’ full effort and Cassavetes strong direction to keep the awkwardness at bay.
Cassavetes’ story is a simple account of desperation on New York’s mean streets. Ex gangster’s moll Gloria Swenson (Gena Rowlands) takes charge of young Phil Dawn (John Adames) when his family is wiped out in a Mafia hit. The problem is that the mob knows who both of them are, and they want the kid dead. At first wishing only to steer clear of the responsibility for little Phil, Gloria builds a relationship with the kid. Together they defy and evade the gangsters.
An actress with uncommon strengths, Gena Rowlands is beyond excellent as a self-pronounced ‘overweight woman’ up to her neck in organized crime trouble. Husband John Cassavetes took a break from his personal improvisation films to do this much more centrist gangster chase thriller. He has a fine eye for the byways of New York City as they might be travelled by people on the lam. Remember, a cabbie can be your best friend. And always keep your money in your sock.
The riveting opening covers the panic that shakes the Dawn family as the father (Buck Henry) tries unsuccessfully to get his wife (Julie Carmen) and kids evacuated before the hit men arrive. The show ten turns into an extended chase, as Gloria and Phil sneak around in taxis, hiding out in flop houses and swank hotel rooms alike. The mob has every exit covered. Gloria’s willing to surrender the book demanded by the chieftains, but won’t give up the feisty little Phil. Gloria has a history of putting up with abusive tough guys — but forms a solid connection with the nervy kid.
Phil is cute and well-meaning and for some people may be just the ticket, but young John Adames is fairly stiff as the orphan who falls under Gloria’s protective wing. Although I’ve come to accept him in time, Adames’ coached smiles and attempts to ‘act’ all look as if Cassavetes is desperately trying to manipulate his face from just off camera. Improvisatory genius doesn’t mean diddly without accomplished talent, and most kid actors simply aren’t up to it. An exception might the little fellow stealing ice cream in Kramer vs. Kramer. This particular kid actor must be led through everything. He spends a lot of time just standing still, waiting for cues. It falls upon Gena to make scenes work, and to the extent she succeeds, the show is impressive.
Secondly, a lot of Cassavetes’ dialog for the kid doesn’t cut it either. Too many of his lines just don’t sound as if a child would say them, not even a precocious one. The adult dialog is just fine, so this must simply be a weakness that Cassavetes didn’t count on. All acting is stylized, so it’s no hardship simply accepting the child actor for what he is. With one’s critical ear taken off alert status, little John Adames comes off as better than okay.
Gloria and Phil spend two days plus change on the dodge from various hoodlums. The word’s on the street, and Cassavetes assembles a full menagerie of very convincing mob soldiers, all staying cool, all maintaining discipline. Gloria does nothing impossible, but she manages to give her pursuers the slip in more than one tight spot. She does a lot of running in high heels, and as she openly admits, she’s not in the shape she used to be. Cassavetes lets Gloria express her character through action. At one point she tries to cook a breakfast in a bad skillet and makes a mess of things. They way she tosses the eggs into the trash skillet and all, tells us that she’s never had the patience for cooking, or kids. But facing off with armed hoods is second nature for her: “I’ll kill anybody that’s trying to kill me.”
Gloria is a swank production for Cassavetes, and he uses his resources to garner maximum realism. The many street scenes are utterly convincing. We never feel we’re in a ‘controlled’ space looking at dress extras. When Gloria hails cabs, jaywalks and chases Phil down the sidewalk, we see the action in full context. The New Yorkers eyeing the fugitive woman & child remain wary of getting involved, but Gloria is aided by gutsy cab drivers and a bartender that can easily tell that she’s in trouble. We also need no explanations for why Gloria doesn’t go to the cops — all those slick Italian gangsters couldn’t operate so brazenly without the protection of the police force.
The big thrill is watching Gloria cut loose in standard gangster confrontations. She’s always more than credible when drawing pistols and blasting away at the baddies; we never doubt her ability to intimidate a table full of hoods. When the picture opts for standard sentimentality, it’s a bit less successful. Gloria dodges the heart-tug moments with class, as when she answer’s the kid’s “I love you” with a smirk and “thanks.” Overall, the film does not feel at all compromised — Cassavetes and Rowlands do their best for a mainstream boxoffice hit, but not at the expense of character. This dame is a keeper, the least sappy, most convincingly tough gangland lady of them all.
Yes, Gena Rowlands is the whole show. Audiences loved her in this picture, which did fairly well on its first run. She interacts with a great many minor characters, all carefully cast. Buck Henry is effective as Phil’s panicked father, and Julie Carmen appealing as his frustrated, frantic mother. Screenwriter Basilio Franchina (Germania anno zero, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Blue Max) is Tony Tanzini, Gloria’s ex-lover and the top mobster she consults in hope of a peaceful solution. Cassavetes’ old pal Val Avery (Faces) has a nice walk-on, asking Gloria to let him turn her in so he can collect money. Fave tough guy Lawrence Tierney is a bartender, but we don’t get to hear him speak. Favorite Tom Noonan (RoboCop 2) is just a hood scrambling after Gloria in a hotel lobby, but we recognize him immediately.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Gloria presents John Cassavetes’ pitch for commercial viability at its very best, with a dazzling transfer that flatters the gritty cinematography of Fred Schuler (The King of Comedy). When the location is a dank tenement hallway we can barely see what’s going on, but even though the lighting constantly changes, Schuler manages to keep Gena Rowlands looking good.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes point up elements I’d missed before. In the titles sequence Bill Conti’s original score seques from flamenco music (not really Puerto Rican, but no matter) to soulful jazz. He then uses old-fashioned suspense music stings at just the right moments, as if telling the audience that, yes, we can relate to the movie like an old-fashioned thriller. Kirgo tell us that Cassavetes’ project was first offered to Barbara Streisand (good luck with that) and eventually reverted to him when Gena Rowlands stepped in.
Twilight Time’s isolated music track allows us to admire the deft use of Conti’s contribution. Trailers are included as well.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Trailers, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 23, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson