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Guns, gangsters, and New York City—Cassavetes style

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Venice Film Festival begins, so we’re recommending some of the best winners of the fest’s highest honor, the Golden Lion.

Gloria (1980)

Director John Cassavetes made his name in the 1970s with independent features like The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie and A Woman Under The Influence (going as far to mortgage his own house to finance the picture). However, his Venice recognition didn’t come until he directed a Gena Rowlands star vehicle for Columbia Pictures. Because of Cassavetes’ fights with the studio, Gloria has never been held in the same regard as his other works, but this New York gangster thriller is just as vigorously authentic as any of his more “realistic” pictures.


In fact, Gloria is the rare Cassavetes film to expand its scope beyond an insular community. Rowland plays Bronx resident Gloria, who accidentally becomes the protector of Phil (John Adames), a Puerto Rican boy whose family has been gunned down by the mafia, leaving him a target. Little does Phil know, however, that Gloria herself is a former member of this mob. The film jumps from the Bronx to Queens to Midtown, and Cassavetes’s New York is one in which the gangsters seem to be omnipresent, often slipping into the scope of the frame without notice. If most of Cassavetes’ films revolve around tightly knit communities, Gloria shows how his characters fit among a New York populated by fast talkers with no time for nonsense. Every cabbie, motel clerk, and waitress is accented with intricate detail.

If anything, Gloria’s genre conventions underline what made Casaavetes so singular among his contemporaries. The director was often celebrated for bringing a new type of realism to cinema. The truth was that Cassavetes paid meticulous attention to how actors moved and spoked, methodically planning how the camera would pick up details. With Gloria, he often cuts on unexpected beats to empty spaces, but then allows actors to work their way into those spaces. When Rowland’s Gloria slips a gun into her purse before we know her connection to the mob, Cassavetes notes it with the camera, but only registers it on the edge of the frame. A chase sequence out of Penn Station in the middle of the movie keeps its camera alongside its characters, only revealing what they can see themselves. When Rowlands finally busts out her gun, there’s little transformation between street smart New Yorker and super-heroine. As with all of Cassavetes, the unexpected rhythms transform a familiar tale into something new.


Availability: Gloria is available on DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It is also available for streaming on most digital services.