This is a gangster movie without a memorable gangster. But it has one of the all-time great underworld molls in film history.
Gena Rowlands, in the title role, is the movie. And that’s both a blessing and a curse.
Her depiction of Gloria, which earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (Sissy Spacek won for Coal Miner’s Daughter), is the best thing going here.
That may be by design.
Gloria was written and directed by Rowlands’ husband, John Cassavetes. He did the film, a departure from the less-commercial, cerebral and artsy work he was noted for, as a favor to his wife, according to Ray Carney in his biography Cassavetes on Cassavetes.
“The role deeply appealed to her,” Carney wrote. “It tapped into a side of her that captured the way she sometimes thought of herself—the ‘sexy but tough woman who doesn’t need a man.’ “
Critics had mixed reactions to the movie, which didn’t do much at the box office.
Most correctly described it as a thin narrative that was designed to provide a stage for Rowlands. She appears in nearly every scene surrounded by a supporting cast that is just so-so.
Buck Henry is Jack Dawn, the nebbish mob accountant whose decision to cooperate with the Feds provides the violent jumping-off point for what amounts to a two-hour game of hide-and-seek. But his portrayal of the panicked FBI informant seems forced.
And the film’s young costar, John Adames, gives a stiff performance as Phil Dawn—the overly precocious six-year-old boy Gloria has to save. If you want to see how this should have been done, check out Natalie Portman’s performance as a 12-year-old underworld waif in Léon: The Professional, a film built around a similar storyline.
Gloria is the ex-mistress of Mafia don Tony Tanzini (Basilio Franchina). She lives comfortably with her memories and her cat in a shabby apartment building in the Bronx. She knocks on a neighbor’s door to borrow some coffee and walks out with Phil in her care.
The rest of the family (Jack, his wife, their teenage daughter and her grandmother) have waited—for reasons that are not entirely clear—too long to flee and are about to be visited by a group of angry hit men.
Gloria then goes on the run with Phil and the book his father has entrusted to him. It’s a ledger containing all the details of the mob’s financial wheeling and dealing—a book that could bury, as it turns out, Tanzini and several of Gloria’s other former mob friends.
Using buses, subways and taxis, the intrepid couple traverses the Bronx, often just steps ahead of the mobsters looking to kill the boy and get the book. Bill Conti’s jazz score adds just the right mood changes as the chase ebbs and flows.
The late Cassavetes, whose more intense work included Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence (which also starred Rowlands) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, described Gloria as “an adult fairy tale” with a message for women.
“I wanted to tell women that they don’t have to like children—but there’s still something deep in them that relates to children, and this separates them from men in a good way,” he said in his biography. “This inner understanding of kids is something very deep and instinctive, in a way, it’s the other side of insanity.”
That’s the instinct roiling beneath the surface as Gloria blows away several gangsters and, despite her protestations, develops a fondness for the boy in her care.
Phil, in turn, goes from angry to sad to belligerent and back again while falling in love with the gun-toting mama who has become the surrogate for all he has lost—mother, father, sister, family.
But his wisecracks, while meant to show a street-smart toughness, ring hollow and often sound like a second-rate Damon Runyan. When a desk clerk at a fancy hotel refuses to give Gloria a room because she is with a Puerto Rican boy, Phil explodes at the slight.
“He don’t know the score,” he says as Gloria hustles him out of the hotel lobby. “He sees a dame like you and a guy like me. He don’t know.”
At another point, when Phil says that he wants to go home, Gloria gives him a verbal slap, telling him, “Don’t be stupid. You got no home. You got me.”
Their goal is to get to Pittsburgh, which from the New York-centric perspective of a Bronx bomber like Gloria, sits at the edge of the earth—a place where the mob won’t go.
HIT: The movie’s depiction of New York is real. This is not Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It’s the Bronx—chaotic, pulsating and never at rest.
MISS: Not one mobster says anything worth remembering. They are one-dimensional stereotypes.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Shortly after fleeing an apartment ahead of the mob, Gloria has second thoughts about what she is doing and tells Phil to take off on his own. Just then, a car containing four mobsters pulls up. One of the gangsters tells Gloria to walk away, that they just want the boy.
“Frank, what are you gonna do, shoot a six-year-old Puerto Rican kid in the street?” she asks. “He don’t know nothing. He don’t even speak English.”
With that she reaches into her purse, pulls out a gun and opens fire.
After that, there’s no turning back.
BEST LINE: In the climatic scene when Tanzini and his associates have a sit-down with Gloria, they tell her that her maternal instincts have kicked in. She denies it.
“I was always a broad,” she says. “Can’t stand the sight of milk.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “While the script pitches a series of wildly improbable events, the direction remains disruptively attuned to the dark, arrhythmic poetry of anticlimax. Heightened emotion and nagging banal reality fight each other for screen space, doing final battle in a daringly ambiguous ending.”—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: After one lengthy cab ride, Gloria hands the driver a five-dollar bill and emphasizes, “That’s a five!” implying that his tip is included. Today, five dollars in a cab in New York will get you about six blocks.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Cassavetes, according to his biography, got street people and real gangsters for the scene in Tanzini’s apartment. In fact, one of the gangsters, a “professional hit man,” argued with Cassavetes about the way the scene would play out in real life.
BODY COUNT: Ten.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”