John Cassavetes is primarily remembered as the director who changed the face of independent production and film performance with his actor friends and a shoulder-slung b/w 16mm Bolex, creating a new breed of dramatic exploration with Shadows in 1959 and Faces in 1968. As an actor, Cassavetes came to fame through the TV Series and Live Playhouses of the 1950's (Kraft Theatre, The Elgin Hour, Goodyear Playhouse, etc.). What he went on to achieve as an actor and director in his own films stands in illuminating contrast to the system that incubated the technique and reactionary fervor of one of the most influential and singular directors of all time. As a sort of follow-up to the ECSTATIC discussion of Cassavetes' Opening Night, I thought I might recommend a couple of films that feature Cassavetes the actor on the brink of beginning his directorial career:
Expanded from the 1955 Philco Television Playhouse production A Man is Ten Feet Tall, the Martin Ritt feature debut Edge of the City manages to make some significant expansions to the scope of mid-50's live TV production. Essentially a tale of the tragic friendship between two men, the film pulls the working class racial tensions of New York City into the light. The script centers around the character of Axel Nordmann, a drifter with an alias (North) who cons his way into a job as a dock worker. Cassavetes captures the sort of youthful desperation called for to keep Nordmann's somewhat thin dramatic arc aloft, though ultimately Sidney Poitier as Tommy Tyler (T.T.) is the star here. As Nordmann's only confidant and protector (with the original piece evidently written to showcase the young Poitier's talent), Edge of the City occasionally plays like Poitier simply giving young Cass an acting lesson or two. Both Poitier and Ruby Dee (as T.T.'s wife Lucy) breathe a life into their characters that leans toward the kind of spontaneity and naturalism that would define Cassavetes' directorial signature from the beginning.
Director Ritt would go on to helm the Faulkner adaptations of The Long, Hot Summer (1958) and The Sound and the Fury (1959), as well as shoot one of the landmarks of black-and-white cinematography with James Wong Howe, Hud (1963). Edge of the City shows the beginnings of those cinematic achievements in a parallel fashion to Cassavetes' emerging talents. The young actor's sensitivity to the camera is evident throughout, no doubt refined through his numerous live TV roles. But, it isn't until the final violent climax that we truly see the spark of what we now associate with the Cassavetes' school of acting to come, relentlessly striving to capture a moment of rage/passion/humanity at any expense.
A year later Cassavetes would step into the role of hotshot rancher Tony Sinclair in Robert Parrish's surprisingly novel western Saddle the Wind. Here Cassavetes plays the younger brother of Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor), and, not unlike Poitier in Edge of the City, the secondary character proves the meatier role. Particularly, Cassavetes gets to show his sense of range and story, as the younger Taylor goes from a likable yet instantaneously hopeless presence in the film's opening, to an irretrievably hopeless villain by the film's brother-vs-brother finale. This is aided significantly by the casting of Julie London as Sinclair's bride-to-be, Joan Blake. Even though Cass and London share a romantic moment where she serenades him with the titular theme, we never get the sense that she could actually belong to the kid. In fact, the song itself is such a Western lullaby that the moment is less romantic than it is a reminder of Tony's need for a Mother figure, a presence unfulfilled by his relationship with his brother. The performances and casting are sharp here; from their first scene together we understand this imbalance in the film's central love triangle, which makes the downward spiral of young Tony even more tragic to witness.
Once familiar with the works that liberated Cassavetes from the traditions of acting and storytelling that bore him, everything else seems like confinement. Saddle the Wind is probably one of the most significant markers that Cassavetes had mastered the traditional Hollywood vein of acting (not to mention coming off fairly at ease in a Western for a New Yorker). Both Edge of the City and Saddle are fine pictures that exhibit some of the best traits of an era whose influence would be welcome in relation to some less-than-desirable recent commercial trends. I don't want to draw an easy black-and-white relationship between the Hollywood and Independent Cassavetes, because they obviously both played off each other in positive and negative ways. But, Cassavetes was most likely always thinking beyond what the studio template could offer, and, like Welles before him, had to keep those chains in place in order to finance the work to which he truly aspired. Hold up the best of Cassavetes' directorial work next to any of his acting gigs and you can't help but see the difference: one is art, the other product. Whenever I watch Cassavetes merely act, I can't help but wonder if we will ever see a system that solely thrives on the former, and not the latter.