We first see them in a series of snapshots, four shirtless guys in their early 40s mugging for the camera in beefcake poses by the pool. We then see them in motion, whittled down to a trio now that one of them has suddenly died—we’ll never know him as more than a frozen ghost, hardly mentioned yet looming over everything that follows—and they all wear black suits, white shirts, black overcoats. Like they’re all on the same team. The funeral ends and instead of going home to their families they go out to get very drunk, staying up all night, singing in the streets and then going to a gym in the early morning to play basketball and swim, one long fury of masculine desperation to assert their aliveness. This desperation will consume the full two hours and 20 minutes and by the time its all over the exhaustion and the wreckage feel cleansing and dirty at the same time, like sweating through some arduous outdoor task on a scorching summer’s day. That’s John Cassavetes’ Husbands (1970).
Some say it’s one of the messier or more troublesome Cassavetes films, maybe not the best place for the uninitiated to start. That may be true, yet so much of what makes Cassavetes great is present and accounted for: the scenes that we crash into with no buffering transitions, that seem to go on and on with no direction until some startling emotional truth just happens before out eyes, where humour erupts out of the bursts of craziness and someone’s always shouting over someone else, often to tell that person, however dubiously or confusedly, that they love them. The only essential Cassavetes ingredient missing here might be women, that half of the human race we suspect that Cassavetes trusted in far more, a trust that can be seen as either respect and admiration or as condescension and bewilderment. Husbands is very much about men—the truly inspired combo of Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes himself, with those Satan eyebrows—manly men fearful of women, who treasure their male friendships and the affectations these friendships encourage, men clinging to each other like life preservers in a tempest. Men who seem hopeless with women but more hopeless without them. The fourth musketeer dies and in some loopy method of mourning his disappearance they all go to London to gamble, gallivant and sweet-talk ladies who seem as on edge as they are. That’s about it for story, so watch it for something else. Maybe consolation.
Husbands followed Faces (68), which was a big hit for Cassavetes and a milestone for independent film. Cassavetes knew he wanted Falk and Gazzara, both of them actors who made an enormous impression on the stage but were dissatisfied with what came their way in film and were gradually fazed out of the studio rolodexes. He got some money in Italy and he had a valiant producer in Al Ruban. The script, so it’s been said, was just a blueprint and there was a great deal of improvisation developed between the men, who became best friends through the process. It’s interesting to note that the male leads were all highly trained actors who got a lot of rehearsal time, while the women were mostly non-professionals who had to work on the fly—were the women genuinely that much more “natural” on screen, or did Cassavetes just want more time with the boys? There’s an interesting debate here, but in the end the results speak for themselves. Every performance is wild and immaculate. Each of these men are by turns terrifying, repellent, very moving, and insanely, almost nonsensically funny. “We’ve got five children between us,” Falk tells Cassavetes, “I hope they’re individual!” Cassavetes’ camera, wrangled by an unseasoned but very game Victor Kemper, is utterly devoted to letting the unbridled interactions play out, in bars and public bathrooms, in hotels, in terrorized living rooms, and on the street, often in close-ups that careen to catch the action, close-ups so tight that they become abstract, of faces, hair, mouths, feet, hands, hands covering faces, hands inside faces. Nearly 40 years on, Husbands, like much Cassavetes, boasts an intimacy that still feels exceptionally rare in film.
Sony’s new disc marks the first time Husbands and been on DVD, and they’re done a terrific job of it, using a version longer and reputedly much better than many of the shorter ones that have circulated in the past. The transfer is lovely and the sound mix impressively crisp given the chaotic nature of dialogue, especially in the more crowded scenes. There’s a very good half-hour documentary with enlightening comments from Ruban and Gazzara, who obviously found Cassavetes’ unorthodox and often financially foolish methods at once punishing and the most rewarding events of their careers. Marshall Fine, whose Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film came out a few years back, gives an informative, affectionate yet skeptical commentary track. Husbands, to be sure, can be a difficult film to digest, and the appendices in this package can help a viewer to deepen their experience of it without claiming to dissect it.