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.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (2)
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