John Cassavetes defined an entire approach to film-making; his work is distinctive in that he seems to have made a decision to include what most other directors would leave on the cutting-room floor. This makes for a wonderful, idiosyncratic ambiguity that is as bewildering as it is beautiful.
Ben Gazzara plays club-owner Cosmo Vitelli as a kind of Musilian Man Without Qualities and we are never sure of what he is thinking or feeling – an indeterminacy that makes for one of the greatest performances in modern cinema. In his hands the film-noir anti-hero becomes an even more mysterious and compelling figure in that his behaviour is ultimately revealed as being utterly humane.
There are two different versions – and they are very different – but for me the original 1976 cut has the edge, because the protagonist here is much less tidy, as is the film itself. The bones of a narrative remain but there is absolutely no exposition.
This version also features extended musical numbers from the stage of his club, the Crazy Horse West – drenched in a kind of Wiemar Republic decadence – which augment rather than diminish the sense of menace that pervades the film. And these odd vignettes in some way describe Cosmo, who has created them and who often has to coax performances from his employees, offering up a kind of wise stoicism, borne of anecdote and cod-philosophy, whilst his own life is in the balance.
And then there’s the shifting, sinister coterie of gangsters that orbit the lead – Seymour Cassel, Timothy Carey, Morgan Woodward, Robert Phillips – each played to perfection, each winding Cosmo further and further in to the set-up.
Even though Cassavetes famously balked at the inclusion of the hit itself – it makes an apposite centerpiece, for it demonstrates the lengths to which Vitelli will go to protect his unconventional family: the dancing girls, Mr Sophistication, and those that work his bar and wait his tables.
The film reveals an unhinged, amoral world in which man finds himself alone and yet utterly in thrall to other people’s drive to dominate those around them. Nevertheless, even in this terrible, unforgiving place, one man can balance his foolish behaviour, bad decisions and private desolation with benevolence and empathy if he so chooses.
I try and watch it every so often, and it only gets better with repeated viewings. I can think of nothing else like it in modern American cinema.