Husbands (1970): Cassavetes Directs Gazzara, Falk and Himself

In 1969, John Cassavetes wrote and directed “Husbands,” in which he starred alongside his two favorite actors and friends, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara.   The producers promised Cassavetes complete artistic freedom, and he certainly took advantage of it, perhaps to a fault. 

Of all his pictures, “Husbands” is the least liked and the least appreciated by film critics (even those who champion his work).   In 1970, the film was greeted with mostly negative response by most mainstream critics, such as Vincent Canby in the N.Y. Times.  It took another, younger generation of critics, filmmakers, and scholars to rediscover and bring back the work of Cassavetes, who died in 1989 at the age of 1959.

However, a case could be made that even a flawed Cassavetes work is an interesting movie to watch, ponder, and discuss.  Except for his early studio pictures, Cassavetes had never made a really bad movie.

Dealing with male aggressions and insecurities, “Husbands” centers on three suburban commuters, who are shocked into recognition of their own mortality when a friend of theirs dies.  The tale follows the trio on a three-day trans-Atlantic alcoholic binge, during which they engage in soul-searching, trying to confront, to express and to communicate their innermost feelings and phobias, elements that they never can share with their spouses–or other women.

Harry (Gazzara), Archie (Falk) and Gus (Cassavetes), three best friends in their late 30s who live in a suburban middle-class Long Island community with their families, are shocked when their friend Stuart Jackson (David Rowlands) suddenly dies of a heart attack. After attending the funeral, the men go into Manhattan and get drunk, then stay up all night and play basketball, and then go for more drinking–and talking. 

When they finally go home, Harry engages in a violent fight with his wife, who wishes to divorce him.  Archie accompanies Gus to his dental practice, and talks him into leaving. They later meet Harry, who is also fed up with his job.  The trio decides to take a weekend trip to London, where they check into a fancy hotel and gamble at a casino, then pick up three women and take them back to their rooms.

Quite tellingly, Cassavetes labeled the film “a comedy about life, death and freedom.” And, indeed, though there isn’t a linear, conventional and progressive plot by mainstream standards, the text still offers a highly poignant, utterly candid, occasionally harsh look at the dreams and frustrations of disillusioned “ordinary” males, American men who go through mid-life crisis, searching for meaning or reason for their existence. 

“Husbands” is very much driven by male menopause, and the fact that it was made midway in Cassavetes’ directing career reaffirms even more the feeling that it’s a work reflects his own mid-life crisis; the director was exactly 40 when he made the movie.

Like most of Cassavetes’ films, “Husbands” was criticized for being rambling, shapeless, and unfocused, but it is precisely those elements that make his work so touching, upsetting, and memorable.  Admittedly, this picture is more flawed than the rest of Cassavetes’ oeuvre, and not just for its running time (which was two and half hours when it world-premiered at the 1970 San Francisco Film Fest).  The movie was cut by 16 minutes before its theatrical release, but even the “shortened” version is far too long, and some sequences seem to be going on forever.

As always, a good deal of Cassavetes’ serio-comedy was based on long hours improvisation, utilizing a restless hand-held camera, in order to achieve the style of cinema verite.  

Cassavetes, Falk, and Gazzara all render heartfelt, truthful, outstanding performances, which are contained in an overly long, ultimately self-indulgent narrative that’s sharply uneven in drama and interest.

During the shoot, Peter Falk told a reporter: “More than the material, I felt John. I felt his presence.  The excitement. The belief in himself. I felt his honesty. John has a rebellious perversity but it’s an intelligent rebellious perversity.”

And Cassavetes himself elaborated on his method: “It’s really no fun to work with sane people. I’m so excited about playing with Peter and Ben as long as we can stay crazy.” 

It may or may not be a coincidence that Cassavetes’s next film, the 1974 “A Woman Under the Influence, starring wife-actress Gena Rowlands, deals with the moral and nervous breakdown of a middle-class housewife.  For me, it’s Cassavetes’ most interesting work–his masterpiece.