- Faces (1968) movie review: Hailed in some quarters as the first [sic] independent American film to find wide critical and commercial acceptance, John Cassavetes’ 130-minute dysfunctional marriage drama is not only a cinematic landmark but also a cinematic chore.
- Faces was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Seymour Cassel), Supporting Actress (Lynn Carlin), and Original Screenplay.
Faces movie review: John Cassavetes’ 1968 drama is an independent U.S. cinema landmark; it’s also a narrative wreck
After playing Mia Farrow’s slimy husband in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, John Cassavetes reportedly used the money he made as an actor to apply the finishing touches to his Faces movie project, a $200,000 personal endeavor he had begun shooting in 1966. Cassavetes spent months (some sources say a couple of years) editing the film into a “manageable” seven hours, and eventually into its final 130 minutes.
Silent film maverick Erich von Stroheim, whose initial version of Greed ran nine hours, would undoubtedly have been an admirer – at least in regard to Faces’ original cut and to Cassavetes’ committed (and at least in part Morris Engel-inspired) auteurship.
But would the pathologically meticulous Stroheim have also approved of Faces’ frequently inaudible dialogue, sloppy editing, poor lighting, careless camera placement, and faux-naturalistic acting?
Home movie from hell
Shot cinéma vérité-style, in high-contrast, black-and-white 16mm (that looks like poorly developed Super 8) at his Hollywood Hills home and the Los Angeles home of his mother-in-law, Faces is John Cassavetes’ home movie from hell.
Once its characters begin to booze up, spout off philosophical musings, and scream out of despair, expect a significant percentage of viewers to run looking for a soothing drink, wonder about their life’s purpose, and do their own bit of screaming.
And here is where you’re reminded that many consider Cassavetes’ Faces one of the greatest American releases of the 1960s.
Faces begins as a group of film executives get together to watch their newest effort: Faces. Now, before proceeding, readers must be reminded/made aware that this “innovative” cinematic trick of having the main storyline be framed as a film within a film can be seen at least as early as 1940.
That was when Michel Simon, Ramon Novarro, Jacqueline Delubac, Micheline Presle, Sylvie, and Louis Jourdan all played characters in a movie/reality within a movie/fantasy in Marcel L’Herbier’s unjustly forgotten La comédie du bonheur.
Back to Cassavetes’ Faces: Once the film-within-a-film begins, we see two drunk middle-aged businessmen babbling the night away in the company of a high-class prostitute. One of the men, Freddie (Fred Draper), is an insufferable bore with strong misogynistic tendencies; the other, Richard (John Marley), is a married man who develops feelings for the sex worker, a good-looking blonde named Jeannie (Cassavetes’ real-life wife Gena Rowlands).
Richard’s 14-year marriage has been suffering from chronic ennui for some time, and the cool, experienced Jeannie has managed to arise his long dormant spirit. It doesn’t take long before Richard returns to Jeannie’s home for more fun and games – in addition to some nasty arguments with a few of her drunk, woman-hating clients.
Meanwhile, Richard’s much younger but equally bored wife, Maria (MASH filmmaker Robert Altman’s former secretary Lynn Carlin), decides that she needs some excitement of her own. Joined by a group of female friends, she goes to a club where she meets a nice young man, Chet (National Society of Film Critics’ Best Supporting Actor winner Seymour Cassel).
Once back at Maria’s home, the friends try to figure out who’s going to bed their eager-to-please guest. Maria is the lucky one.
Maria and Chet’s night of sex and physical solace is followed by a morning of guilt and emotional turmoil on the former’s part – an unpleasant combo that leads to a suicide attempt. She is saved by Chet, who slaps her some and then hands her a cigarette. He also tells her that “nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other.”
Ultimately, husband and wife are left to their still disaffected – albeit radically changed – lives.
Self-indulgent ‘anti-Hollywood brilliance’
John Cassavetes’ Faces movie experiment fails not because of its plot, however predictable at times, or conventional set of characters and situations. In point of fact, the film’s chief handicap is its screenwriter-director, who apparently felt so enamored of his own anti-Hollywood brilliance that he wouldn’t let a mere story and a handful of distraught human beings get in the way of his stock-in-trade cinematic devices.
These include the use of a handheld camera that makes the barely discernible action even murkier, and an overabundance of close-ups. True, the film is called Faces, but unlike Ingmar Bergman, whose close-ups (usually) serve to expose the inner workings of his characters, Cassavetes presents us only with talking heads. And do those heads talk.
What they actually talk about is anyone’s guess, since much of the dialogue is inaudible, but the sections that are intelligible are best described by one line in the movie: “Blah, blah, blah.” And when actors, no matter how capable, are given loads of such vapidness – or if that’s all they’re capable of ad-libbing – their performances come across as one single, flat blah. For an interminable two hours and ten minutes.
That’s deplorable, for underneath all of Cassavetes’ artificially created “rawness” there is a real, tragic story about two desperately lonely people struggling to come to terms with both the passing of time and their crumbling relationship.
Even while taking into account that Faces was three years in the making, it’s probably no coincidence that when the movie came out Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, like the lead characters in the film, had been married for 14 years. John Marley, in fact, looks like an older Cassavetes.
As for its historical importance, Faces is generally accepted as the first independently made and distributed American film to reach a (relatively) wide mainstream audience.
That is, if you choose to label something like Joseph E. Levine’s Embassy Pictures, which released Mike Nichols’ blockbuster The Graduate in 1967, a “Hollywood major.”
Besides, as mentioned further up, at least in some circles Faces remains one of the most admired American productions of the 1960s. It was nominated for three Academy Awards (supporting nods for Seymour Cassel and Lynn Carlin, plus an original screenplay nod for Cassavetes), while John Marley was named Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival and Cassavetes was given the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Screenplay award.
Far better dysfunctional marriage movies
Looking for a no-holds-barred 1960s look at a marriage on the rocks?
Check out director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Ernest Lehman’s big-screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s Broadway hit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as, respectively, a former blushing bride and a former stalwart groom.
Direction & Screenplay: John Cassavetes.
Cast: John Marley. Gena Rowlands. Lynn Carlin. Fred Draper. Seymour Cassel. Val Avery. Dorothy Gulliver. Elizabeth Deering. George Dunn.
According to unverified sources, the following have bit parts/cameos in Faces: Filmmaker Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), future filmmaker James Bridges (The China Syndrome), and Joan Crawford’s daughter and future Mommie Dearest author Christina Crawford.
“Faces Movie (1968) Review” notes
John Cassavetes’ mother-in-law
 As Lady Rowlands, Gena Rowlands’ mother would be featured in three John Cassavetes movies starring her daughter: Minnie and Moskowitz (1971), A Woman Under the Influence (1974), and Opening Night (1977).
The Blu-ray edition also features a “high-definition digital restoration, with newly restored uncompressed monaural soundtrack,” which may help to make the film’s dialogue more comprehensible. (Alt Film Guide’s Faces movie commentary pertains to Pioneer Entertainment’s no-frills 1999 DVD release.)
Saving P.A. Spielberg
 Steven Spielberg was a production assistant on Faces.
New York Film Critics infighting
 At the 1968 New York Film Critics Circle awards, when Faces lost the Best Picture citation by one vote to Anthony Harvey’s more mainstream The Lion in Winter (though a de facto “indie,” as it was an Avco Embassy release), Life reviewer Richard Schickel became so incensed that he accused several veteran NYFCC critics of being “deadwood” and – temporarily, as it turned out – resigned from the group.
Once Schickel was done with his Faces fit, “some of those girls had tears in their eyes,” a Circle member told Variety’s Stuart Byron.
Lastly, even though John Marley and Gena Rowlands were bypassed at the 1968 Oscars, they would both be shortlisted in later years: Marley as Best Supporting Actor for Arthur Hiller’s Love Story (1970), and Rowlands as Best Actress for Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974) and Gloria (1980).
“Faces Movie” endnotes
Faces movie budget via several sources, including Carnegie Magazine, Vol. 53 (1979) and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s The Oxford History of World Cinema. According to the AFI Catalog, John Cassavetes initially said that the film had cost $40,000.
Faces movie original length via the AFI Catalog.
Steven Spielberg’s work on Faces is mentioned in Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography.
The New York Film Critics Circle’s Faces debacle is discussed in Damien Bona and Mason Wiley’s Inside Oscar.
Al Ruban is credited for Faces’ cinematography, though several sources also mention Haskell Wexler (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night) as a contributor. Also worth noting, the Anne Shirley listed as a cast member is not the 1937 Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Stella Dallas.
John Marley and Gena Rowlands Faces movie images: Continental Distributing.
“Faces Movie (1968): Landmark + Long-Winded Dysfunctional Marriage Drama” last updated in September 2021.