Saturday 26 November 2011

Movie Review: Gloria (1980)

A character study chase movie, Gloria showcases Gena Rowlands in an Academy Award nominated performance. An unlikely story is secondary to an intriguing character forced relatively late in life to be the difference for someone who needs her.

In a grimy Bronx neighbourhood, a low-life Puerto Rican accountant for the mob is targeted for elimination: he has been skimming off the top and singing to the Feds. A group of Mafia henchmen invade his apartment building and kill him and all his family, except for six-year-old Phil (John Adames), who is stashed along with the tell-all accounting book in the next-door apartment of Gloria (Rowlands).

Gloria is late-fortysomething, single, hates kids, but is tough as nails and has ties to the Mafia: she used to be the mistress of local mob boss Tony Tanzini. Now Tanzini wants the accounting book, and he doesn't care if both Gloria and Phil need to be killed as a consequence. Through a long series of chases and dangerous hide-and-seek episodes with a chasing pack of goons, Gloria would like nothing more than to just look after herself and leave her old life behind, but finds herself compelled to protect the orphaned Phil, who is irritating, vulnerable and hopelessly endearing.

A study of a complex woman told though what is effectively one long pursuit movie, John Cassavetes directs his wife Gena Rowlands to her most memorable screen performance as Gloria, a one-time gangster moll with her best days very much behind her. Forced to confront perhaps her only mission in life, Gloria slowly and reluctantly rises to the challenge, but she herself is never sure if she is helping Phil or just getting back at the men who used her and dumped her. Rowlands dominates the screen, staring down thugs, firing guns down the street, confronting her sordid past life, exuding exaggerated bravado to conceal her fears, all while trying to lead Phil to safety.

The relationship between Gloria and Phil is the other anchor in the movie, and it's a collision between two stubborn lost souls. Gloria was never cut out to be a mother and wastes no time proving it, while Phil, despite his tender age, embodies a lot of the of clueless machismo that Gloria has had to suffer through all her life. Cassavetes, who also wrote the script, makes sure to prolong the question of whether Gloria and Phil will ever warm up to each other.

Cassavetes makes excellent use of New York's more sordid corners, easy to find as the depressing seventies came to a tired end and the new decade was slow to unveil its greedy lustre. But beyond the central character, the film struggles to find a purpose once the premise is set, and it defaults to a mechanical series of interchangeable encounters, with Gloria and Phil on the run and fending off an endless series of incompetent attacks by thick-necked assassins.

Gloria may not be the most memorable of mob movies, but it does feature a most distinguished central performance.

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