John Cassavetes was a filmmaker who made his independent films in two primary modes: brilliant character-driven masterpieces like Faces, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night, or character-driven mediocrities with “moments,” like Shadows, A Woman Under the Influence, and Gloria. Husbands (1970) falls somewhere in between.
Husbands is nowhere near a great film, for most of the time it is poorly edited and, surprisingly, poorly scripted. But in the scenes that are not overly long and utterly pointless lie the seeds for what could have been a truly brilliant work.
As it is, Sony Pictures’ 142-minute DVD version of Husbands plays out more like the opening scene of the Cassavetes effort that came before it, Faces, which began with a depiction of drunken revelry and misery of the sort never before committed to celluloid.
The difference between the two films is that, for all its greatness and minor flaws, that sequence ran only about 20 minutes into Faces. Now, extend it and try to sustain a narrative about seven times its length, and the problems with Husbands become obvious. It simply needed the touch of a good editor.
Proof of this claim comes, in fact, from the – brief – final scene where Gus, the character played by Cassavetes himself, returns home with two other buddies mourning the loss of a fourth pal after a drunken weekend in London. At that point, Gus has to confront his crying daughter and mischievous son, as they call on their (never-seen) mom to tell her that daddy is home to take his lumps.
The scene is poetic, spare, and filled with realism. By contrast, far too many sequences in Husbands are bloated and, in the worst sense, prosaic.
Husbands opens with still photos of four fortyish male friends, then cuts to the funeral of one of them, Stu (in the photos portrayed by David Rowlands, the brother of Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands). Interestingly, the putative main character makes his exit from the film at this point.
Another good touch is that, save for the wife of Harry (Ben Gazzara), seen in a brief scene of domestic violence, no other wife makes an appearance. The two other surviving members of the male quartet are the aforementioned Gus, a dentist, and Archie (Peter Falk), profession unknown.
The two indulge in almost every cliché of male bonding excess, beginning with what seems to be a nonstop weekend bender in grief over their dead pal, in addition to harassing women, brawling, dickwaving, remarking about each others’ flaws and virtues, etc. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of scenes very little comes of all this.
Even so, there are moments – e.g., when Cassavetes flops over a bed with a British gal he’s trying to have sex with, when Harry calls himself a “fairy,” and when Archie tries to pick up one British gal at a pub and ends up in bed with a non-English speaking Oriental girl – that are classics in the Cassavetes canon.
Victor J. Kemper’s cinematography is hit-and-miss, but given the way the actors range freely in front of it, this is really not a bad thing (the way it would have been in a Yasujiro Ozu film). Kemper’s work doesn’t always enhance the scenes, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish them, either. And the fact that Husbands lacks a score is a boon, for it enhances the cinéma vérité feel of it all.
On the downside, as mentioned above, Husbands’ pacing leaves much to be desired. For comparison’s sake, even though The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is also long, it feels much more crisply paced. The digressions in Chinese Bookie enhance the characters, whereas the digressions in Husbands often are detrimental to the characters.
For instance, in the digression showing the men in London after picking up women, only the scenes with Gus and his female companion have any real heft. This is most true after a night in the sack, when his “bird” pleads with Gus for some conversation afterward.
Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, John Cassavetes, Husbands
John Cassavetes does a terrific acting job with his portrayal of disillusioned diffidence. Peter Falk’s best moment is not in an early famous scene wherein Archie takes off his clothes trying to persuade an American woman to sing better at a bar; instead, Falk shines in Husbands’ penultimate scene, after Archie and Gus have left Harry behind to a life in England, and Archie asks Gus about what Harry will do without them.
It is a poignant moment because the viewer knows Harry really doesn’t give a damn what his buddies think. Also, Archie is clueless to this fact, since we’ve seen him and Gus spend the whole film basically freezing Harry out of their friendship.
It’s a moment that shows the best of “realistic” character development – something Husbands sorely lacks elsewhere. Compounding matters, the camaraderie shown between the three characters, which is the basis of their friendship and their missing of Stu, is lost in the bulk of the film.
The viewer, of course, sees that these guys are close, but never feels it. There are no moments of real intimacy between the men; it’s all about bravado and dickwaving. Adolescent banter passes for male bonding. Also, the men are portrayed as parts of a larger trio, rather than three individuals worth watching in their own right.
On Sony’s DVD, Husbands is presented on a single disc, 1.85:1 aspect ratio, in a quite pristine transfer. Additionally, the DVD offers a making-of featurette that is brief but informative, and an audio commentary by film critic Marshall Fine.
Fine’s is an excellent commentary. Why? Well, aside from being informative on the film’s making and meaning, he levies scene-specific information that illuminates more often than it obfuscates. As a plus, he’s not overly stiff and prepared.
At one point, for instance, Fine discourses on a number of effective ellipses that Cassavetes deploys in Husbands – most notably the glossing over of the specifics of a phone conversation we see Harry engaging in before he destroys a telephone booth. Fine correctly posits that Cassavetes realizes that most people, by Harry’s reaction, can guess what he is calling about and how his call is received.
Another interesting comment relates to Cassavetes’ use of dialogue, and how, when writing it, he would dictate to his secretary what came to his mind – doing so with his own voice for his character, while imitating the voices of Falk and Ben Gazzara when writing for their characters.
Such observations make Fine’s commentary a valuable addition to the DVD package, besides serving the purpose of making Husbands more enjoyable on rewatch.
As a matter of fact, whether with commentary on or off, Husbands works better when rewatched. That’s because there is so much stuffed into it that another viewing is required to let it all sink in.
Having said that, no amount of rewatching can exorcize the screenplay’s flaws, which make Husbands merely an interesting effort – rather than a masterpiece. Cassavetes offers far too much testosterone in place of intelligence, while a facile reliance on melodrama over real drama turns Husbands into something that a great film never is: a soap opera.
And once again: a more concise editing job would have allowed Husbands to have been shaped into a coherent whole, rather than an often formless mess. The old maxim about films being made or broken in the editing room seems to have been uttered for movies like Husbands.
Overall, Husbands is one of those films that makes one wish for what could have been. Yet, it’s good enough that what is seen on screen can satisfy up to a point. Beyond that point, however, the sky is how you make it.
Photos: Sony Pictures.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.
HUSBANDS (1970). Direction & Screenplay: John Cassavetes. Cast: John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, Jenny Runacre, Jenny Lee Wright.