I watched the blurry-looking-and-sounding 90’s DVD of this a decade ago, didn’t understand a bit of it and didn’t see what was the big deal. It helps to have some context, to realize that it was unique to release an independent film based on improvisations in America in the 1950’s. And it helps that the Criterion DVD is less murky – some of the dialogue is still hard to make out, but important to appreciating a movie is having a clue what is going on. Not that I’m the world’s biggest appreciator of Cassavetes or jazz music, and this wasn’t some kind of revelation (I still prefer Faces), but at least I feel like I’ve properly seen the movie and I liked it.
It takes a while to figure the character relationships, since the dialogue is naturalistic, no big opening exposition scenes. Hugh is a washed-up, unfashionable singer, taking bad jobs at crappy bars, serious looking with a light beard. His brother Ben (short curly hair, usually sunglasses) plays trumpet, hangs out with friends every night, borrowing money, hitting on girls and getting into fights. And their very light-skinned sister Lelia hangs out with a dreary artsy guy named David who hosts literary meetings. David introduces her to Tony, who literally grabs David’s would-be girl and runs off with her while they’re walking in the park. Lelia’s line after her first sexual experience: “I didn’t know it could be so awful.” This is pretty intense for 1959, a year when Doris Day and Pillow Talk were getting oscars.
Tony visits Lelia’s apartment and can’t deal with the fact that her brothers are black (and therefore so is she), gets all blustery until Hugh chases him out. Tony tries to get himself figured out, but the siblings have moved on – Lelia starts dating a nice (and black) guy named Davey Jones, and Benny ditches his friends and goes off on his own, an evocative ending.