A Woman Under The Influence

A Woman Under The Influence


Reviewed by: Chris

“Mabel's not crazy, she's unusual.” Nick puts on a brave face with regard to his wife. He wants his workmates to accept her. Nick is an LA construction supervisor. He is played by Peter Falk, better known to TV audiences as Columbo, the taciturn detective. Here, Falk has room to develop a complex character – a man devoted to his wife but struggling to cope with her eccentricities.

Mabel is, in fact, slightly mad. Gena Rowlands was Oscar-nominated for her performance. The craziness is not overly engaging at first. She picks up a man at a bar. She is frustrated and annoyed when her husband cannot get promised time off. When she serves Nick’s workmates dinner, she is vague and then flirty. This famous ‘spaghetti’ is embarrassing in its realism and almost seems to outstay its welcome. But when madness becomes seriously disturbing, we see such trivia in stark contrast. Mabel had been weird, but happily so. She didn’t hurt herself or her children. But incarceration and electric shock treatment will take away all trace of levity. Never a threat to others, we sense that it is Mabel who feels understandably threatened. And how much of her ‘madness’ is from misunderstanding, male chauvinism, and intolerance?

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John Cassavetes, reviled at the time (he had to hawk his film in an attempt to get it shown), is today remembered as an auteur of almost legendary daring. A keen proponent of method acting, his script was tightly written and only the actors’ attitudes to the dialogue are improvised. Yet the film has a free-wheeling quality often emulated many years later (Half Nelson might be a good example).

The low-budget style threatens to look amateurish if it doesn’t ultimately succeed. Fortunately, A Woman Under The Influence succeeds in a way that rips your guts out. The image of a woman teetering on the brink of insanity is forceful and disturbing. The film goes beyond mere bravura performance – subtle family dynamics are recognisable enough to make us question dismissive stereotypes such as the Neurotic Woman or the Alpha Male Husband. How much are they influenced by circumstance? Characters are all dealt with sympathetically and it is unsettlingly easy to identify with the strong traits - determination to hold a family together in adversity – which makes us vulnerably open to the more distressing themes.

A Woman Under The Influence is a treat for serious film lovers. But some viewers may find the style too serious or demanding of hard work. It refuses to be entertainment - even in the grand melodrama style of comparable movies such as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? It also switches jarringly between theatricality and outdoor action scenes (necessary to show Nick’s work persona, his inability to cope with the children when Mabel is away, or Mabel’s sorrowfully unbalanced outer shell when she frightens people just by asking them the time). Flawed and uneven, A Woman Onder The Influence is still a jewel to be treasured.

Reviewed on: 12 Mar 2008
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A husband and wife struggle to cope as the latter falls prey to madness.
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Director: John Cassavates

Writer: John Cassavates

Starring: Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Eddie Shaw, John Finnegan, Fred Draper, Mario Gallo

Year: 1974

Runtime: 155 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US



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