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Fresh Look at Cassavetes's Career

The underrated filmmaker's oeuvre gets a boost from Touchstone collection of his best films. ON VIDEO

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"A Woman Under the Influence" is my favorite Cassavetes movie for several reasons. For one, the filmmaker's blistering visual style is matched by an especially powerful story - about mental anguish, emotional trauma, and the endurance of love in a working-class household - that seems to have erupted full-blown from the most deeply rooted insights of Cassavetes and his collaborators.

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For another, it features Cassavetes's most treasured colleague, Gena Rowlands, in what may be the most astonishing performance of her career. For yet another, it's a movie that focuses on "women's issues" and "family values" with a passion and intelligence still undreamed-of by the vast majority of filmmakers today, much less in 1974 when it was first released.

In addition to "A Woman Under the Influence" and "Shadows," other films in the Touchstone collection are:

* "Faces" (1968), starring Ms. Rowlands with Seymour Cassell and Lynn Carlin, a story of love and infidelity that brings abrasive honesty to bear on mercurial characters and situations.

* "The Killing of a Chinese Bookie" (1976), with Ben Gazzara in the stunningly acted tale of a small-time nightclub owner hooked uncomfortably to the mob.

* "Opening Night" (1978), starring Rowlands, Cassavetes, and a superb supporting cast in the drama of an aging actress facing grave doubts about her present and future.

Touchstone has shown admirable taste in choosing these particular works for its Cassavetes collection, since they are arguably the five strongest films of his career. Others also have a great deal of merit, including "Husbands," which was a favorite of Cassavetes himself, and the complex "Love Streams," his last major work.

This said, it's true that Cassavetes fell short of his high standard at times, as in portions of his early "Too Late Blues," the slightly later "A Child Is Waiting," and the much later "Gloria," all of which suffered from interference by studios that invested in them. Even these pictures still have much to offer, however, and one hopes Touchstone will see fit to make them part of the collection at some point, as well.

The last time I spoke with Cassavetes, near the end of 1988, it was to tell him of the triumphant reception given to "Opening Night" in a New York Film Festival showing about ten years after it was completed. No distributor had been courageous enough to acquire this brilliant work and bring it to movie theaters until then. Cassavetes was touched by the news of his film's belated success, and he would surely be pleased to know it's now available for theatrical presentation (from Castle Hill Films, which h as acquired several Cassavetes pictures) and is heading into the video market.

This news is most meaningful, however, to audiences who can now discover his work for themselves. Video is hardly the best way to see these films, which leap to vivid life on the wide theatrical screen, but it's better than not seeing them at all. For the moviemaker who hated "the movies," it's a welcome start.