“Gloria” (1980) was independent film-maker John Cassaveates’s most commercial (read “entertaining”) movie. Certainly, it was not the only one with a fascinating performance by his wife, Gena Rowlands (Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, Minnie and Moskowitz were earlier ones). Rowlands frequently went crazy in Cassaveates movies, but Gloria was a very tough dame, a former gangster’s moll who takes on the dangerous and difficult challenge of saving a six-year-old named Phil (Juan Adames) after the mob slaughters his father, Jack (Buck Henry), an accountant who had been stealing money and may have been informing the government, plus his beautiful mother (Julie Carmen), his sister, and his mother’s mother.
Buck Henry seems an unlikely machismo-teacher, but before the killers come repeats to Phil: “You’re the man now.” I guess Jack was hoping there would be a family for Phil to head. Proclaiming “I am the man” to Gloria is poignantly funny. She doesn’t know what to do to get away, but she does it decisively and she produces a high body count in her wake, since none of the goons is willing to let her and the boy leave town.
The goal is Pittsburgh, though Gloria realizes there are probably mobsters there, too.” New York’s finest” believe she is holding Phil hostage, and having done prison time, she does not trust them. (Don’t ask why the whole family wasn’t in witness protection: there wouldn’t be a movie is the answer.)
Gloria definitely prefers cats to children, but shoulders the responsibility thrust upon her. She and Phil form a very odd couple: each frequently annoys the other, often in funny, offbeat ways. The six-year-old macho who believes he is self-sufficient is still a six-year-old and has no one but Gloria; having lost her cat in fleeing, she has no one but him, though she knows a lot of mobsters who were underlings of Tony (Basilio Franchina) whose moll she once was and whom she hopes she can exchange the book in which Jack wrote down what he knew about mob business for letting Phil and her live. (Obliterating the whole family is exemplary punishment, the goons she shoot don’t count for as much apparently. Cassaveates said the protocol is “it’s OK to blow away small mob figures, guys that are trying to kill you, or trying to kill somebody involved with you.”
Cassaveates considered “Gloria”a pot-boiler, but Rowlands wanted to play the “sexy but tough woman who doesn’t really need a man” (the character is named for Gloria Swanson, but is much more Gloria Grahme and Rowlands’s idol Marlene Dietrich).
The pleasures of the flight across 1980 NYC and of watching Rowlands overcome her aversion for children to save Phil sufficed for me to suspend disbelief. Though the music was often obtrusive, when it’s jazz-inflected as the score by Bill Conti (The Right Stuff, Rocky) was, I can tolerate or even enjoy it. And Fred Schuler (Taxi Driver, Stir Crazy) was a master at shooting NYC.
Also see my reviews of Cassavetes’s Shadows, Minnie and Moskowitz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, A Woman Under the Influence, and Opening Night.