Jack Dawn (Buck Henry) is an accountant for the Mafia, but his work for them has been even less on the level than it might otherwise have been since he has been skimming cash off the top of their funds to furnish his own bank account. Unfortunately for him and his family he has wound up with the Mob thugs encroaching on his New York apartment, and his wife (Julie Carmen) is legitimately frightened for the lives of her family - when there's a knock at the front door, they are sent into a state of near panic. But it's just neighbour Gloria (Gena Rowlands), and Jack has an idea...
Which is to send his six-year-old kid Phil (John Adames) away with her clutching the crooked accounts book in the hope that one or more of them will survive, and thus that rare beast, a thriller directed by the Godfather of Indie himself John Cassavetes was born. Not that the director was too keen on this, viewing it as inferior to his more personal work and considering it a favour to his wife Rowlands seeing as how she wanted to make a film with a child as a co-star, and thought her hubby would put precisely the correct spin on the material that a more Hollywood style would fail to carry out to her satisfaction.
Cassavetes may have been dismissive of the results, but seeing a genre piece directed by one of the cinema's great mavericks who would have preferred to using the money for another oh-so-personal and intimate relationship drama turned out to be oddly irresistable, and though his fans may not have agreed, it was his most accessible and enjoyable movie with himself at the helm. That's not due to it being a total sellout in artistic terms, as the location filming on the streets of New York and New Jersey still contained that indie sensibility, and the dialogue had the improvised feel that marked his best efforts, even if as with those best efforts they tended to be individual highlights within a more ramshackle whole.
As Gloria, Rowlands is what would be defined in the parlance of her milieu one tough broad, and we quickly see Phil is in safe hands, even if the plot depended upon her lapsing into irrationality when the pressure grew to unbearable proportions - more than once she tries to abandon the kid, if only as far as we can see to create another tense situation for her to extricate herself (and him) from. Cassavetes also had the two of them run everywhere to emphasise the peril they were in and prevent the drama becoming too static, a simple idea but like much of this, effective enough. The paranoia was nicely amped up when it seems no matter where the fugitives go there is some mobster waiting for them.
Although sometimes it is Gloria who is waiting for the mobsters, as she is not shy about letting people know when she is tired of getting pushed around. The movie's strongest card is Rowland's performance, by turns funny, sympathetic and when she pulls her gun on the bad guys who mean to kill the kid the same way they have done to his family and steal the book, formidable. On the other hand, there was one part which rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way, and that was the turn by Adames, who had never acted before and never acted again. The grumps at the Golden Raspberry Awards saw fit to give the boy a Razzie for Worst Supporting Actor, and ever since the overall judgement of his stylings was that they would likely drive the viewer to distraction. Yet if you watched this with an open mind you'd see that as a child overcompensating for his helplessness in a dangerous world, Adames was actually pretty good, and Rowlands helped him through with her stellar talents. Remade as a flop Sharon Stone vehicle, but stick with the original: you may be pleasantly surprised at how good it is. Music by Bill Conti.