Left: John Cassavetes, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, 1976, still from a color film in 35 mm, 135 minutes. Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara). Right: John Cassavetes, A Woman Under the Influence, 1974, still from a color film in 35 mm, 147 minutes. Mabel Longhetti (Gena Rowlands).

COSMO VITELLI’S (Ben Gazzara) final advice to his team of strippers in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) is “Be comfortable.” Near the end of A Woman Under the Influence (1974), Nick Longhetti (Peter Falk) begs his wife, Mabel (Gena Rowlands): “Just be yourself!” Rough-edged studies in jostling forces, these two midcareer John Cassavetes films explore why neither is an easy task.

Cassavetes, who died in 1989, has come to be recognized as a pioneer of outsider American cinema. Known for his detail-oriented household dramas, his petri-dish sets—on which lines were often improvised and amateur actors played off professionals, and vice versa—and his stubborn disregard for the traditional rules of planning and shooting a movie, Cassavetes earned a belated place in film history.

An actor by training, Cassavetes could charm when he wanted to. He took roles in films like The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) to finance his own low-budget projects. But he also made a point of shunning the mainstream film community; to cite one example, he once kicked New Yorker critic Pauline Kael out of a restaurant mid-interview because he didn’t think she appreciated his films enough.

Cassavetes had a similarly strained relationship with audiences, and his protagonists in these two films share that unease and sense of struggle. They are constantly molding themselves for a world of impatient spectators, memorably evoked in such probing close-ups as the marathon dinner-table scene in A Woman, in which Nick’s team of construction workers, hunched over plates of spaghetti, crowd into the frame from both sides. Even as Mabel makes eyes at her husband, we never forget the presence of these participatory onlookers, and neither does she. In her eager, eccentric way, she addresses each one of them: “What’s your name?” Characters, even the principals, shift into and out of focus, and the camera lingers on the last guest to tromp out the door.

Most of the action in A Woman is confined to Nick and Mabel’s modest home, which they share with their three children and a constant flow of friends and relatives. Few nonperiod American movies have made social pressures and influences feel so ever-present. But A Woman doesn’t preach the familiar gospel (as salient in Hollywood as it is in art-house cinema) of transcending it all. As Raymond Carney writes in American Dreaming (1985), his book-length study of Cassavetes, “[i]n even more detail than [his] previous films, A Woman Under the Influence argues that personal freedom is not achieved by attempting to break away from influences into a less compromised, purer, more autonomous selfhood, but by making oneself vulnerable to them, by plunging into them, navigating them, and if possible mastering them.”

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, which Cassavetes made while fighting to secure distribution for A Woman, can be read as a shift away from this combative anti-romanticism and toward despair. The earlier film has flashes of bighearted lyricism; both its structure and its musical score owe a great deal to opera, and there’s a moving scene in which Mabel has her kids act out “The Dying Swan” in the backyard. Perhaps most important, much of Mabel’s community, though confused by her weird antics, also wishes her well.

In Chinese Bookie, the odds are stacked more heavily against the hero. “My name’s Cosmo Vitelli. I’m the owner of this joint,” he announces, before his girls take the stage. “I chose the numbers, I direct them, I arrange them. You have any complaints, you just come to me and I’ll throw you right out on your ass.” He’s got a hard-boiled devotion to his club, and he genuinely views it as a stage for art. The double-crossing gangsters chasing him down for a debt, though, couldn’t care less. “Money, money,” as one of them puts it, comes before everything—including, even, Cosmos’s status as a stand-up fellow Italian in multicultural Los Angeles. The greedy thugs give Cosmo no breathing room, and in the context of their extortion, the “style” he has so proudly cultivated begins to seem delusional. There are obvious parallels between Cassavetes and Cosmo, who fancies himself more sophisticated than he is and tugs on cigarettes as the performances he has orchestrated are booed by the audience, and Chinese Bookie is often referred to as the director’s most personal film.

The traditional view is that uncompromising filmmakers like Cassavetes have complete ownership of their art, but it was never that simple. Shortly after making A Woman—which, thanks in large part to Rowlands’s groundbreaking performance, has achieved classic status—Cassavetes lamented how hard it was to be an auteur without a support network: “The pressures are too unnatural.” He goes on, in an interview reprinted in the liner notes of the new Criterion edition: “I don’t know if I could do it again. I would want to have more ease and relaxation; I would want to have some endorsements of my talent and the film I’m making.”

He’s received plenty of endorsements since. And now there’s the Criterion reissue, which includes both the original, 135-minute version of Chinese Bookie and the 108-minute cut he made after the film’s disastrous premiere. And it’s important to note, as the film’s producer, Al Ruban, does in a taped interview included on the second disc, that no distributor made him trim it: In typical Cassavetes fashion, he did it on his own.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and A Woman Under the Influence are available now on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more information, on Chinese Bookie, click here; for more information on A Woman, click here.

Darrell Hartman