John Cassavetes was a filmmaker who made his independent films in two primary modes: brilliant character-driven masterpieces like Faces, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, and Opening Night, or interesting character-driven mediocrities with ‘moments,’ like Shadows, A Woman Under The Influence, and Gloria. His 1970 film, Husbands, however, falls somewhere in between. It’s nowhere near a great film, for it is poorly edited and, surprisingly, poorly scripted, most of the time. But, there are certain scenes that are not overly long and utterly pointless. And in these scenes lie the seeds for what could have been a brilliant, if not great, film. As it is, though, the 142 minute DVD version of the film, released by Columbia and Sony Pictures, plays out more like the opening scene of the film that came before it, Faces. That film had an opening scene of drunken revelry and misery of the sort never before committed to celluloid. The difference is that it, for all its greatness and minor flaws, ran only about 20 minutes into that film, Now, extend that scene and try to cobble and sustain a film narrative about seven times its length, and the problems with Husbands becomes obvious. It simply needed the touch of a good editor.
Proof of this claim comes, in fact, from the brief final scene of the film where the character played by Cassavetes himself (Gus) returns home after a drunken weekend in London, England, with two other buddies mourning the loss of a fourth pal, to confront his crying daughter and mischievous son in his driveway, as they call on there never seen mom to tell her that daddy is home to take his lumps. This scene is poetic, spare, and filled with realism. By contrast, far too many scenes in Husbands are bloated, overly long, pointless, and prosaic- in the worst sense. The whole film opens with still photos of four fortyish male friends, then cuts to the funeral of one of them, Stu (in the photos portrayed by Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands’ real life brother, David Rowlands). Interestingly, the putative main character of the film makes his exit from the film at this point. Another good touch, in fact, is that, save for the wife of Harry (Ben Gazzara)- who works at an advertising agency, in a brief scene of domestic violence, no other wives make an appearance. The two other surviving members of the male quartet are Gus (Cassavetes himself)- a dentist, and Archie (Peter Falk)- profession unknown.
The two indulge in almost every cliché of male bonding excess, beginning with going on what seems to be a non-stop weekend bender, in grief over their dead pal, to harassing women, brawling, dickwaving, repeated commendations of each others flaws and virtues, etc. But, very little comes of this, at least in the vast majority of scenes. But some scenes- such as when Cassavetes flops over a bed with a British gal he’s trying to have sex with, when Harry calls himself a fairy, or when Archie tries to pick up one British gal at a pub, and ends up in bed with a non-English speaking Oriental girl- are classic in the Cassavetes canon. The film’s cinematography is hit and miss, but given the way the actors range freely in front of it, this is really not a bad thing, the way it would be in a Yasujirô Ozu film. It doesn’t always enhance the scene, but it does not necessarily diminish it, either. The fact that the film lacks a score is a boon, for it enhances the cinema verité feel of it all.
Yet, the pacing of the film leaves much to be desired. Even though a film like The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie is long, too, it feels much more crisply paced. The digressions in that film all enhance the characters, whereas the digressions in this film often do detriment to the characters. As example, in the digression with the men in London, after picking up women, only the scenes with Gus and his woman have any real heft. This is most true after a night in the sack, when his ‘bird’ pleads with Gus for some conversation afterward. Cassavetes does a terrific job as an actor in his disillusioned diffidence. Falk’s best moment is not in an early famous scene wherein Archie takes off his clothes trying to persuade an American woman to sing better at a bar, but in the film’s penultimate scene, after he and Gus return home, after leaving Harry behind to a life in England, and he asks Gus what will Harry do without them? It is a poignant moment because a) the viewer knows Harry really doesn’t give a damn what his buddies think, and b) Archie is clueless to this fact, since we’ve seen him and Gus spend the whole film basically freezing Harry out of their friendship. It’s a terrific moment that shows the best of ‘realistic’ character development. Unfortunately, the majority of the film is not like this. Also, the camaraderie that is shown between the three characters, and the basis of their friendship, and their missing of Stu, is lost in the bulk of the film, The viewer sees that these guys are close, but never feels it. There are no moments of real intimacy between the men, no scenes that give a sense why these men were close to Stu nor to each other; only bravado and dickwaving. Adolescent banter passes for male bonding. There are no scenes where the men honestly communicate with themselves, others, nor with each other. Also, the men are portrayed almost wholly as parts of a larger trio, rather than three individuals worth watching in their own right.
The film is shown on a single disk, in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer is really quite pristine. There is a making of featurette that is brief but informative, and then an audio commentary by film critic Marshall Fine. It is an excellent commentary, one of the best I’ve heard in the last year or so of watching DVDs. Why? Well, aside from being informative on the film’s making and meaning, Fine levies scene specific information that illuminates more often than it obfuscates, and he’s not overly stiff and prepared. For example, he digresses on some of the more mundane issues of the film, such as the lighting of a scene in black bathroom stalls, with characters wearing black tuxedos, but does so in a way that gives insight into the film and also into the processes behind the film. In another prescient comment, Fine discourses on a number of effective ellipses in the film that Cassavetes deploys- most notable the glossing over of the specifics of a phone conversation we see Harry engaging in before he destroys a telephone booth. Fine correctly posits that Cassavetes realizes that most people, at that moment, can guess what Harry is calling about and how his call is received, by his reaction. Another interesting comment regards Cassavetes’ dialogue in the film, and how, when writing it, Cassavetes would dictate to his secretary what came to his mind, but did so by using his own voice for his own character, while imitating the voices of Falk and Gazarra when writing for their characters. It is observations like this by Fine that make the commentary a valuable addition to the DVD package, and also serve the purpose of making the film more enjoyable on rewatch. As a matter of fact, the film, with commentary on or off, works better when rewatched. This is because there is so much stuffed into it that a viewing or there is required to let it all sink in.
However, no amount of rewatching can exorcise the screenplay’s flaws which make this film merely a good and interesting one, rather than a masterpiece. Far too much testosterone in place of intelligence, and a too easy reliance on melodrama over real drama make the film something that a great film never is: soap operatic. A better editing job would have allowed the film to have been shaped into a coherent whole, rather than an often formless mess. The old maxim about films being made or broken in the editing room seems to have been uttered for films like this. Husbands is one of those films that, in a sense, makes one wish for what could have been, but is good enough that what is can satisfy, at least to a point. Beyond the point, though, the sky is how you make it.