Shadows (1959) was his first film, a low-budget, avant-garde, seemingly improvisational story of an interracial love affair on the streets of Manhattan, shot with an almost entirely amateur cast and crew. In a style most akin to the French New Wave that was just emerging with François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, the technically unpolished and emotionally raw result was like nothing being made in Hollywood. After a couple of mainstream studio projects that did little but frustrate him as a director and continued work as an actor to pay the bills (including indelible turns in The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary's Baby), Cassavetes returned to his own style with Faces (1968), which is more assured craftwise and even more emotionally powerful than Shadows, with a standout performance by Seymour Cassel. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) is perhaps one of his most accessible, as it grafts his style and characters onto a noirish crime-genre frame. Opening Night (1977) concerns a stage actress falling apart during a rehearsal and, made nearly 20 years after Shadows, shows the progression of his voice and consistency of theme.
But A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is his masterwork. It features one of the most devastating and mesmerizing performances captured on film, by John's real-life wife Gena Rowlands. She is Mabel, an eccentric wife and mother slipping into madness before the eyes of her husband (played perfectly by Peter Falk). There have been many takes on insanity in narrative film, but none as unvarnished, unsentimental or potent. Cassavetes' style of dialogue and trust in character over plot machinations pay off in a big way, with a nonjudgmental portrait of the fragile complexity of the mind and the incapability of love to heal all wounds. If you only ever see one Cassavetes film, this is the one.
Each movie is packed with extra features, including archival and present-day interviews. Chinese Bookie is presented on two discs with both the original 135-minute 1976 cut and the 108-minute re-edited version. And the cherries on top are the 200-minute definitive documentary A Constant Forge: The Life & Art of John Cassavetes and a 65-page booklet reprinting many essays and interviews. Terry Gilliam's Brazil still stands as Criterion's best presentation of a single movie, but Cassavetes' Five Films sets the new standard for must-have box sets.