Seymour_Cassel_In_the_Soup

By the end of the 1980s, it was often hard to identify what qualified as an independent film. As Kim Newman pointed out in his essay Independent Daze, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing looked indie but was financed and distributed by Universal, while James Cameron’s Terminator 2 was backed by short lived independent Carolco.

Twenty years before in America, things were different. Faces was obviously independent. Director John Cassavetes ploughed his own money made from acting into financing it, as well as re-mortgaging his home. Luckily, he had a circle of friends who would also chip in cash and help out in any way they possibly could. Seymour Cassel was one of this group, along with Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands.

This resulted in Faces being made on a very modest budget of $40,000, and it was shot and edited over a number of years.

Seymour Cassel - Faces

Cassel got started in film in Shadows in 1959, Cassavetes’ first foray into the independent filmmaking scene. Here he played an uncredited, blink and you’ll miss him role, and acted as an associate producer.

On Faces, the next Cassavetes independent, he again took on double duties. As well as helping out as a crew-member, he also agreed to play Chet, a charismatic chancer whose dancing catches the eyes of a quartet of dissatisfied middle-class women while they visit a nightclub. One of this quartet is Maria (Lynn Carlin), whose husband John Marley has just announced he wants a divorce before storming out to meet up with Jeannie, a prostitute played by Gena Rowlands.

Faces is shot in grainy black and white and most of the action takes place in home interiors. It might resemble mumblecore in some ways, with its emphasis on dialogue, naturalistic performances and real locations – much of it being shot in Cassavetes’ LA residence, a spare room serving as an editing room – but don’t expect any mumbling here. Instead the characters drink, sing, argue, tell jokes, dance, suffer emotional meltdowns and shout at each other. THEN SHOUT SOME MORE AT EACH OTHER!

Seymour Cassel in Faces (1968)

You could easily imagine many scenes as a play and the length of some of these scenes might strike modern audiences as terribly overextended. Some dialogue could easily have been cut. It’s not my favourite Cassavetes film but the acting by everyone involved is absolutely superb, down to even relatively small roles – especially Dorothy Gulliver’s poignant turn as the lamentable drunk Florence.

Shot in sequence, so the actors had an improved chance of developing their characters, Faces never comes across as scripted. It looks like an early experiment in reality TV. Either that or a drama where the actors improvised extensively. According to Cassel, though, he was the only actor who veered off-script.

Uncompromising and unpredictable, Faces is raw but utterly riveting. Critic Roger Ebert judged in a contemporary review that it was the sort of film that made you want to grab people by the neck and drag them into the cinema to watch it.

Faces was recognised at the 1969 Academy Awards, earning Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Lynn Carlin), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Seymour Cassel) and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen (John Cassavetes), although it failed to take any gongs home on the night.

Seymour always retained fond memories of his time on Faces. Talking about this period during an interview on an extra feature on the John Cassavetes Collection, he noted that: ‘The closest I’ve come to having that kinda fun was doing In The Soup.’

He did liven up some big budget movies too like Convoy (1978), Dick Tracy (1990), and Indecent Proposal (1993), but Seymour Cassel remained drawn to independent work throughout his long career. ‘I like the excitement of not having enough money, enough film, enough time to do it, and still trying to make it work,’ he explained in an interview with IndieWire.

In 1996 he was cast as Uncle Al in in Steve Buscemi’s much underrated directorial debutTrees Lounge; he was Bert Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore (1998), and Dusty, the elevator operator in The Royal Tenenbaums in 2001.

Seymour Cassel - In the Soup 1994

Perhaps best of all was the role of Joe in the aforementioned In the Soup, directed by Alexandre Rockwell in 1992. Here, he played a minor-league mobster who somehow gets the idea that his money might be well spent by helping to finance the indie movie debut of wannabe filmmaker, Adolpho Rollo (Steve Buscemi).

As always, Buscemi puts in an excellent performance here: a wide-eyed dreamer, as desperate to direct as he is deluded about his talent. Jennifer Beals is very good too, but Cassel steals the show, and is at his irascible best throughout, drawing Rollo into his criminal world and constantly advising him how his film could be improved.

Seymour surely deserved a second Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Yet another one the Academy got wrong. Saying that, In the Soup was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, ahead of Reservoir Dogs.

You win some, lose some, and I’ve just belatedly discovered that the world of cinema has lost Seymour, who has sadly died of Alzheimer’s disease.

Seymour Cassel: January 22, 1935 – April 7, 2019