Husbands

Director: John Cassavetes
Screenplay: John Cassavetes
Stars: Ben Gazzara (Harry), Peter Falk (Archie Black), John Cassavetes (Gus Demetri), Jenny Runacre (Mary Tynan), Jenny Lee Wright (Pearl Billingham), Noelle Kao (Julie), John Kullers (Red), Meta Shaw Stevens (Annie), Leola Harlow (Leola), Delores Delmar (The Countess), Eleanor Zee (Mrs. Hines), Claire Malis (Stuart’s Wife), Peggy Lashbrook (Diana Mallabee), Eleanor Gould (“Normandy” Singer), Sarah Felcher (Sarah)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 1970
Country: U.S.
Husbands Criterion Collection DVD
Husbands

Like his previous film Faces (1968), John Cassavetes’s independently produced Husbands was born out of his conviction that too many middle-class marriages are stale, dispassionate unions held aloft by creature comforts and social conformity, but little else. Faces captured that stubborn suburban malaise with a raw, focused intensity that was heightened by the use of grainy 16mm film and mostly unrecognizable actors who brought a fierceness and sense of genuine anger to their performances. Husbands has many of those same qualities, but it’s like a cover song that hits the right notes, but never sounds quite right. Perhaps it’s the color cinematography, which is slick but made to look cheap with grainy close-ups and shaky shallow focus; perhaps the scripted-but-intended-to-feel-improvised plotting is a little too meandering; or perhaps Cassavetes had already successful exhausted the central theme, which makes the film feel like it’s wallowing in self-importance rather than chipping away at recognizable truths. But, for whatever reason, Husbands doesn’t quite work.

Shot in what, by the early 1970s, was Cassavetes’s immediately recognizable quasi-documentary style, the story follows three best friends—Harry (Ben Gazzara), Archie (Peter Falk), and Gus (Cassavetes)—on a four-day bender following the funeral of a fourth friend who has recently died of an unexpected heart attack (we only see him in still photos at the beginning of the film). The three men are all in their early 40s and are successful professionals with wives and families, but the irony of the title is that their status as “husbands” is in name only (the irony is too obvious, in fact; no film called Husbands could possibly be about good spouses). Not only do we see little of their wives and children, but they behave in a manner that could be deemed boyish, except for the fact that the term carries with it a twinge of innocence and carefree exuberance. Harry, Archie, and Gus, on the other hand, would be best described as cases of extreme arrested development, or, to be less kind, seriously maladjusted and self-centered; what’s cute in a four-year-old is close to repugnant in a 40-year-old. They spend much of the film, which Cassavetes subtitled “a comedy about life, death, and freedom,” chasing their own demons with alcohol, misanthropy, and misplaced aggression, which takes them from various bars around their figuratively and literally wintry homes in New York City to an eventual destination in London. Why London? Why not?

One of the hallmarks of Cassavetes’s films is their misleading looseness, which gives the first impression of something improvised and tossed off, but on repeated viewings reveals itself to be something carefully orchestrated and scripted to reveal dark inner truths that most of us would like to hide. Husbands fits quite well into that schema, but it lacks the underlying sense of compassion that made Cassavetes’s earlier films so moving. In those films, even when his complex characters were behaving badly, we had the sense of what motivated and drove them, even in their worst moments. The three men in Husbands are more opaque and, as a result, maddening. Cassavetes willfully denies us any information about them except what they reveal in fits and bursts, but it never adds up to anything beyond three men who have lost a best friend and are drowning their sorrow in adolescent hijinks and spousal abuse. According to Cassavetes, he made the film to explore “a feeling about men and how they won’t give in to the world they live in,” but he drops his own responsibility in digging into that world past its surface manifestations.

Given that he started his artistic life as an actor, it is not surprising that Cassavetes’s films are usually built around powerful central performances, and Husbands is no different. Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, who collaborated with Cassavetes on numerous projects over the years, each embody a sense of male angst that comes tantalizingly close to puncturing through the pretenses of the supposedly nonexistent storyline and getting at the heart of the matter. Cassavetes cast himself as the third friend, a role that is closest to a mediator, a relatively gentle middle ground between Gazzara’s pent-up-to-the-point-of-explosive rage and Falk’s snarky overconfidence. Together they are meant to convey some sense of stranded masculinity, caught in the crosshairs of the encroaching ethos of counterculture love and their perceived need to remain stoic and impenetrable, but they just come across as childish. As a time-capsule rendition of men being boys, Husbands certainly has an inherent intrigue, but it is not one of Cassavetes’s strongest films.

Husbands Criterion Collection Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
Audio
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary from 2009 by critic Marshall Fine
  • Video interview with producer Al Ruban
  • Video interview with actor Jenny Runacre
  • “John Cassavetes on Action” video essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim
  • “The Story of Husbands—A Tribute to John Cassavetes” featurette
  • Episode of The Dick Cavett Show from 1970 featuring Cassavetes, Gazzara, and actor Peter Falk
  • Trailer
  • Essay by filmmaker Andrew Bujalski
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 26, 2020

    COMMENTS
    Unlike Cassevetes’s earlier independently produced films, Husbands was shot in color on 35mm, but it purposefully lacks the slick gloss of a Hollywood production. The image on Criterion’s DVD derives from a new, 4K restored digital transfer from the original 35mm camera negative and what the liner notes describe as “the best available alternate elements for sections of the negative that required replacement.” Even on DVD (I did not get a chance to review the Blu-ray), the new transfer is a significant improvement over Sony’s 2009 DVD, which was grainier and looked more washed out. The film’s color palette is certainly muted to reflect the story’s wintry environs, but Criterion’s new transfer boasts stronger colors that give the film a much better look, especially in the black levels, which tended to lean more gray on the Sony DVD. The monaural soundtrack, which was restored from the 35mm original soundtrack negative and a 35mm DME magnetic track, sounds good, adequately reflecting the slightly chaotic soundscape of the pseudo-cinéma-vérité approach. It should also be noted that, as with the Sony DVD, Criterion’s disc includes the general release 142-minute version (the long out-of-print VHS was only 132 minutes), although this is not the original cut of the film that premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival, which ran 154 minutes according to the original review in Variety. However, Cassavetes was known to trim his films after initial release, so the version on this DVD represents the version that audiences saw theatrically in 1970.

    In terms of supplements, Criterion keeps everything from the Sony disc and adds quite a bit more. From the 2009 disc we get a first-rate audio commentary by film critic Marshall Fine, author of Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the Independent Film. Fine’s thoughtful commentary is deeply informative, with detailed background and sharp critical observations. There is also a half-hour retrospective featurette titled “The Story of Husbands: A Tribute to John Cassavetes,” which includes interviews with producer Al Ruban, actor Ben Gazzara, and cinematographer Victor Kemper. Ruban shows up again in a new 25-minute video interview, and the disc also features a new 18-minute interview with actor Jenny Runacre. We also get “John Cassavetes on Acting,” an intriguing new 13-minute video essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim that uses audio recordings of actor-director John Cassavetes discussing his approach to working with actors, as well as bits from Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands. From the archives we have a 1970 episode of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Cassavetes, Gazzara, and Falk, as well as the original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2)



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