Husbands was John Cassavetes’ follow-up to Faces, which was his first “hit” film. Faces arrived after Shadows, which was an influential film (especially on a young Martin Scorsese), but not widely seen outside of film festivals. It’s worth mentioning that Cassavetes dabbled in more commercial filmmaking in the early ’60s as a director, with Too Late Blues and A Child is Waiting. Despite being incredibly compromised, both of those films are interesting, especially A Child is Waiting with its sympathetic portrayal of mentally handicapped children. Husbands was funded independently, but was one of the very few films distributed by a studio (Columbia Pictures) that Cassavetes made.
Over the years, Husbands has divided critics and audiences, and there’s easy to understand. It was a deeply personal film for Cassavetes, which came out of the fact that a close friend died and had a profound impact on his psyche. The film is about three truly horrendous men—the “Husbands” of the title—played by Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk and using improvisations that were built on their personalities. Given it’s Cassavetes, there isn’t much of a conventional “plot”: basically, they attend their collective best friend’s funeral, and through their utterly toxic masculinity they drink themselves silly, treat their wives horribly, decide to fly to London, and terrorise some women they pick up there.
The film really captures a certain type of man who grew up in post-World War II America, and who may or may not have been old enough to fight in the conflict. Their complete toxicity might make it difficult viewing for some, and it’s meandering for sure. There is a 20-minute scene in a bathroom, for instance. It’s also one of the great mid-life-crisis films, because the impact of their friend’s death is the catalyst for attempting to recapture what little youth they still have and trying to deal with grief.
All three leads give some of their best work. Cassavetes is the real standout, and is not afraid to go to places very few actors would be willing to, especially in the London part of the film. It’s also a love story between these men. There is dialogue from Gazzara’s character, Harry, who says “I’ve been telling my wife for years. Aside from sex, and she’s very good at it, god damn it, I like you guys better. I really do.” There is a homoerotic undercurrent if you want to see it, as when they pick up the women in London they are far interested in each other. Very few films are able to capture non-sexual love between men, with maybe The Shawshank Redemption being the other one that comes mind. The reason the film works is that Cassavetes understates exactly where these guys are coming from, but also is critical enough to absolutely despise everything about them at the same time.
This may not be the best starting point for those new to Cassavetes, just because of how awful the protagonists are. A Woman Under the Influence is probably a better choice, but my favourite is his last real film as a director, Love Streams.
Criterion has been keeping Cassavetes films alive for years with the boxset they did years ago of films his estate owned, but has since released Love Streams and now Husbands. It’s been restored in 4K, and looks as good as it should and extremely natural. The extras include the previous extras on the Region 1 disc, which were an audio commentary with critic Marshall Fine and a featurette that includes interviews with cast and crew. Additional extras are new interviews with producer Al Ruban and actor Jenny Runacre, and a new video essay by filmmaker Daniel Raim that is intercut with audio recordings of actor-director John Cassavetes discussing his approach to working with actors and the trailer. The best extra, however, is the epic piss-up between Cassavetes, Gazzara and Falk when they went on the Dick Cavett show to promote the film, it’s a total trainwreck but hilarious. The essay in the booklet is by mumblecore filmmaker Andrew Bujalski.