(Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD) In A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, Peter Falk is Nick Longhetti, a construction foreman married to Mabel (Gena Rowlands, who was married to Cassavettes until he died in 1989) and they have three young children as well as a litany of family and friends that constantly drop by, barely giving Nick or Mabel a moment of peace. While this would be difficult for any couple, it’s complicated by the fact that Rowlands is incredibly intense woman, and often interacts with people in socially unacceptable ways. Nick describes her as “unusual, not crazy”.
What unfolds is a story of the two of them trying to cope with Mabel’s behavior, Nick’s detachment and frustration, and eventually Mabel’s breakdown. It’s a stunning depiction of a couple, one enriched by Rowlands’ absolutely astounding performance. She completely inhabits the role, bringing to life a character unlike one I’ve ever seen. It’s a nervy, nuanced take on a character that could otherwise come across as cartoonish. Rowlands was nominated for a Best Actress award for her role, but lost to Ellen Burstyn for the also-exceptional ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. (I do prefer Rowlands’ performance, but they’re both great.)
It’s worth noting that Cassavettes never meant for Mabel to be considered ‘crazy’ — his words, not mine — but that she’s “frustrated beyond belief. More than being crazy, I think she’s just socially inept.” He also pulled from his own personal experience and his relationships, which seems obvious given how close everyone involved in this project are. To callback to my write-up regarding PLEASE STAND BY, this is the difference between writing a puzzle box story about someone with a neurological disorder, and writing an intimate tale about coping with people’s very human and divergent idiosyncrasies.
Just one more thing: COLUMBO fans will almost certainly be surprised to hear Falk whistling ‘This Old Man’, which was a tune that Falk turned into a Columbo affectation with the iconic episode -Any Old Port in a Storm-, which pre-dates A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Falk just always liked to hum or whistle it.
“You want spaghetti?!”