This blog entry contains spoilers.
The spectator’s identification can’t go any deeper than with the character of the orphan, the child alone in the darkness.—Leos Carax
It’s a hard world for little things.—Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955)
It’s well known that Gloria (1980) wasn’t a film that John Cassavetes had much interest in making. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Cassavetes wrote the script for MGM thinking some one else would direct it; he wound up directing it himself for Columbia only because his wife, Gena Rowlands, was the star and the studio asked him to.” Rosenbaum quotes Cassavetes as saying, “I was bored [shooting the movie] because I knew the answer to the picture the minute we began. […] All my best work comes from not knowing.” However, looking at the finished film, I can’t imagine any other director doing a better job. Although the plot isn’t very original, the seedy locations and unglamorous performances (which reflect Cassavetes’ profound aversion to any sort of studio gloss) help to situate the narrative in a bleak universe in which the familiar story becomes uncommonly harrowing.
The film begins with a young woman, Jerri (Julie Carmen), and her husband, Jack (Buck Henry), frantically packing their bags while gangsters assemble in the lobby of the dumpy apartment building where they live in the Bronx. Gloria (Rowlands), a single woman who lives down the hall, drops by to ask for some sugar and winds up taking in the couple’s seven-year-old son, Phil (John Adames). Gloria is reluctant at first (“I don’t like kids, especially yours”), but Jerri explains that her husband is an accountant for the mob who informed on his former employers to the FBI, and that there are men downstairs who are coming to kill them. Before he dies, Jack gives Phil a notebook in which he’s written down everything he knows about the mob. It’s a familiar situation: a child on the run from gangsters bonding with an unlikely parental figure. But I think one reason it’s been done so many times is that viewers instinctively respond to the idea of a child in danger, even if he is a bit of a brat. (At one point Phil says to Gloria, “You’re not my mother! My mother is beautiful!”)
Necessarily, the world that Phil inhabits is a pretty grim place in which every adult character but Jerri is morally compromised by their connection to organized crime. It’s purposefully never explained why Jack betrayed the mob, and ultimately, all he achieves by this is to get himself and most of his family killed. On the other hand, while Gloria can’t bring herself to turn over a little kid to the gangsters for execution, she’s hardly an anti-mob crusader. Early in the film, she explains to Phil that she can’t take him to the police because the people who killed his family are “friends” of hers. Later, after reading the notebook given to Phil by his father, Gloria’s advice is to burn it, and in the end, she willingly hands it over to the mob boss who used to be her sugar daddy. In other words, the movie lacks a truly heroic character to oppose the gangsters. Adding to the film’s sombre tone are the drab settings in which everything looks shabby and worn out—including Gloria, whose makeup gives her a slightly haggard look. If the environment were less dreary, and if Gloria were a less dubious heroine, I’d have little reason to doubt that everything was going to turn out fine for the characters, but here, that she and Phil might be killed seems like a very real possibility.
The most suspenseful scenes in the film are those in which Phil is completely on his own. In one sequence, Gloria abruptly decides that she and Phil should split up and walks into a dive bar to have a drink; a few minutes later, she has a change of heart and gets into a cab to go looking for him. What makes this sequence so agonizing is its avoidance of crosscutting, so that (like Gloria) we don’t know where Phil is or what’s happened to him. Later, when Gloria goes to the mob boss’ apartment, the movie cuts back and forth between her and Phil, who boards a train to Pittsburgh. On her way out, Gloria gets into a shootout with the gangsters and it’s not clear if she survives. (The last thing we see is the gangsters firing down an elevator shaft at Gloria, who’s concealed from view by the elevator’s ceiling.) In Pittsburgh, Phil concludes that Gloria must be dead and takes a cab to a cemetery (recalling an earlier scene in which Gloria took him to a different graveyard to say goodbye to his family, who hadn’t yet been buried.) Since they arranged to meet at the train station, it seems unlikely that Gloria would be able to find him even if she were alive—and indeed, the film doesn’t explain how she was able to track him down so that it’s a surprise when she steps out of a black car. What’s more, between the car arriving at the cemetery and Gloria getting out, there’s a period of dreadful uncertainty in which it looks like the gangsters may have caught up with Phil. When the movie was over, I felt the same sense of relief that one has upon waking from a nightmare.