A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

And I thought people in my family were crazy.

The film takes a look at a married couple with Nick, played by Peter Falk, while well-meaning, is too gruff and authoritarian for his own good, while his wife Mabel (Gena Rowlands) is highly sensitive, expressive, and emotionally volatile. Or is the word unstable?

Now, for the most part, I’ve never been declared mentally ill, nor have I ever had to live with a person that was mentally either but I can only imagine what kind of hell it is after seeing something like this. I mean everybody’s a little crazy, but this chick is actually crazy.

Writer/director John Cassavetes is a dude, get ready for it, that I have never seen a movie before and this marks my first viewing of his. It’s crazy (pun-intended), I know but I can easily say that this guy really does know how to a film a regular story, in no special way, and make it compelling the whole way through. There isn’t much of a plot/plot structure here but it pretty much leans on Cassavetes dropping us right into the middle of an insane family crisis happening right in front of our eyes. Minute-by-minute, they are falling apart and everything starts to get more and more wild as the day goes by, and it’s filmed in no special kind of way which is what I liked most about this flick.

Since a lot of this movie revolves around these two and their crumbling relationship, the film is pretty much up-in-their-faces the whole time and makes it seem like this is actually happening with no special flair or beauty to it. It’s just straight-up ugly, just the way real life is. God, how amazingly simple indie flicks used to be without trying to be “too indie”.

The other reason that most of this feels very realistic is because the dialogue here, doesn’t even feel like it was written by anybody. It seems like it was just came up with on the spot with these actors, and rather than rehearsing what they were going to say or do next, it seems like they just got out there and went with whatever was on their mind next and went with it. This brings the story to some very uncomfortable and unpredictable places as time goes on and it gets harder and harder to watch even though you know it’s only a flick. I’m sure that there probably was an amazing script underneath everything here, but it almost felt like it was non-existant and that’s something that Cassavetes and his cast pull off very, very well.

My main problem with this flick was that I think the story gets a little too barbaric at times. Without giving too much away, the story starts to get more and more depressing where we see Nick have to take over the family himself and it shows that he obviously can’t hold the family up as much as his wife could. I didn’t mind this part because I thought it was a great look at sexual politics and how a male and a female both work differently when it comes to raising children, but Nick starts to get a little too crazy for my liking and I started to think that maybe this dude should have gotten his ass kicked at one point. The guy has obvious stress from the fact that his wife is a craving lunatic, but he really gets crazy and it’s almost to the point of where I wonder why somebody didn’t do something an why somebody didn’t just hold him down and tell his ass to relax. Somebody who hasn’t seen this movie probably will have no damn clue what it is that I’m talking about but if you have seen the movie, you may know what I’m talking about. I know it’s supposed to show how stress can affect a certain someone, but it bothered me that all of the people around him didn’t really do much to him and did more to his crazy wife.

Regardless of how I felt about his character, Peter Falk was still pretty damn good as Nick, the mentally sound husband who may not be as normal as people may think. This guy has obvious stress from marrying such a loon and you can see all of the stress coming right out of this guy’s eyes. He has to practically watch his wife, someone he has known and love for so long, pratically become a stranger to him and fall apart as the seconds go by. It’s a very rough and tough role for somebody to play, but Falk pulls it off very well and I’m surprised to see that he didn’t get any type of nomination for this performance.

However, as good as Falk is, he still doesn’t hold a candle to Gena Rowlands, playing his crazy wife. I haven’t really seen Rowlands in much other than her bit performance in The Notebook (good performance there, too), and watching something like this, makes me wonder just why the hell I haven’t seen her in much else. This is probably some of the best acting I have ever seen and she absoloutely nails what it’s like to be crazy, wild, and not-all-that-there in the head, but also be somebody who isn’t a bad person or bad mother by any stretch. She’s just a chick that’s very effed up in the head, and Rowlands plays this perfectly from start-to-finish. I don’t know if I’m getting much emotion out here through text, but you really have to see what Rowlands does with this performance because she can do mentally ill, better than most people that are actually declared “mentally ill”. The best thing too, is that she doesn’t feel like she’s hamming it up or over-acting in the least bit, she seems like a genuine person that really wants to do right, but her mind takes her somewhere else and it’s very sad to see.

Consensus: A Woman Under the Influence is pretty much a standard story that’s done perfectly with writing that feels natural, a direction that makes you feel like you’re watching a real life story play out right in front of your own eyes, and the two performances from Falk and Rowlands, that are as heartbreaking as they come people.



  1. The scene from this film that stayed with me the most was the dinner scene with Falk, Rowlands and his co-workers. I kept waiting for them to cut from the dinner scene to the next scene because my brain has become numb from how standard Hollywood movies operate. However, this scene seems to go on for an hour! It doesn’t, but it seems that way and isn’t a bad thing. We learn so much about the dynamic of the couples relationship through this.

    Also, take a look at the movie Shadows if you haven’t seen it. It is definitely the godfather (I guess grandfather at this point) of today’s American independent films.

  2. Great review here Dan! I love this hell out of this movie. In fact, Rowlands’ performance in it is my favorite female acting performance of all time. Glad you had a chance to catch this one!

  3. I freaking love that you are so young and actually took the time out to watch this amazing film let alone review it so thoughtfully and LIKE it! You give me hope for the young un’s today! 😉

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