Directed By: John Cassavetes
Starring: Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Fred Draper
Trivia: To help fund the film, John Cassavetes remortgaged his home. Peter Falk also chipped in with some of his earnings from "Columbo"
According to director John Cassavetes, his 1974 film, A Woman Under the Influence, is the story of two people who go to great emotional lengths for the sake of love. Now, that may sound a bit simplistic, but if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know the ‘emotional lengths’ he speaks of are anything but elementary.
Mabel (Gena Rowlands) has been acting strangely. Nick (Peter Falk), who's obviously noticed his wife’s bizarre behavior, decides to overlook it at first for the sake of the family, but when Mabel crosses the line into madness, he knows something must be done. At the insistence of both his mother (Katherine Cassavetes) and their family doctor (Eddie Shaw), Nick has Mabel committed to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. Nick, who loves his wife dearly, longs for his life to return to normal, but at the same time worries that the long confinement may ultimately destroy Mabel’s already fragile psyche.
For me, the experience of watching A Woman Under the Influence felt similar to spying on one's neighbors through an open window, which undoubtedly was the effect director Cassavetes hoped to achieve. The scene where the doctor arrives to take Mabel away is as intensely emotional a moment as you’re likely to ever see. It begins with Mabel arguing bitterly with her mother-in-law. Then, once she realizes why the doctor has made this particular house call, Mabel tries to avoid him by running behind the couch in the living room. Essentially, Mabel has what amounts to a nervous breakdown right before our eyes, and it’s more than Nick can bear. He continuously mutters “I love you” at an almost inaudible level, and can’t even bring himself to follow Mabel up the stairs when she runs to their children for comfort. This is man and wife at their lowest point, and witnessing the outburst left me feeling like an unwelcome intruder who'd just eavesdropped on what was obviously a traumatic moment for a very distraught couple.
A Woman Under the Influence is, as Cassavetes said, a bitter reminder of the true cost of love. Yet, as we see in this film, no matter what that cost may be, love will always collect in the end. Nick and Mabel go through hell together, yet what remains important to them is that they are together. They'll more than likely face even tougher times in the days ahead, but at least they know they’re willing to pay their dues for each other. In spite of everything love threw at them, the alternative to “paying up” was far too depressing for them to even consider.