A welcome re-release for John Cassavetes' rambling, London-set dissection of male foibles from 1970.
Still unavailable on any home video format in the UK, and long considered by his detractors as typifying the maverick’s tendencies towards self-indulgence, Husbands isn’t the most ideal entry point for those unfamiliar with the films of John Cassavetes.
The director’s most resolutely masculine picture, it sees three pals tumble through a booze-'n'-girls-fuelled mid-life crisis over the course of a weekend retreat to London following the death of a close friend. If Cassavetes more than succeeds in his goal to depict the American man without any camouflage, he also offers perhaps the most radical distillation of his concerns as a filmmaker.
Cassavetes believed that narrative should always be in service to behaviour. Through the search for emotional truth in performance, that behaviour would ultimately become all the narrative one needs. It was an approach that had led to huge international acclaim with his previous feature, 1968’s Faces, but Cassavetes’ dogged refusal to bow to any form of narrative convention with Husbands – especially in the face of what appeared to be studio approval after a screening of the film’s first edit – ended in critical and commercial disaster after a year spent re-cutting the film beyond the recognition of anyone else involved.
It’s unlikely we’ll ever see the 154-minute cut of Husbands that premiered to mass walk-outs at the San Francisco Film Festival, let alone the director’s preferred 225-minute original. Cassavetes shot over 280 hours of footage over the course of a production that eventually ballooned to 23 weeks, running out of money numerous times throughout. For Cassavetes, financial concerns were always secondary to allowing himself and his cast the time to discover what any given scene was really about.
Whether through an extended series of rewrites, rehearsals, multiple takes or re-shoots, Cassavetes saw nothing wrong with building a nightclub inside Camden’s Roundhouse, hiring 400 extras to fill it and then discarding the footage when he felt it no longer served what he wanted to say. Columbia eventually re-cut the film without his approval, removing a further 11 minutes from the 140-minute edit he had finally delivered. This is the only version that survives today.
Husbands is not a film without its longeurs, particularly in an early barroom singing scene, but it’s impossible to take away the effect the director’s method had on his cast. Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Cassavetes himself give remarkable performances; robustly unsentimental and often unsympathetic, their characters walk a knife’s edge between ego and fear, showing up the ‘male condition’ in its ugliest form. The non-professional female cast prove even more of a revelation, particularly Jenny Runacre as Cassavetes’ one-night-stand.
The film may show the joins of its troubled post-production history when viewed as a whole, but there are moments that stand alongside this remarkable filmmaker’s best. When Cassavetes said he was pleased with the walk-outs the film provoked – that at least he’d made the audience feel enough to take action against the picture – one senses he may have been licking a wound or two.
Perhaps unsurprising given the thorough trashing administered by his long-standing nemesis, film critic Pauline Kael. Interviewed later, he’d tempered his response: “I think the picture is about people being just what they are, and that’s good enough.”
A long overdue opportunity to re-assess Cassavetes’ much maligned follow-up to Faces.
Unapologetically unsympathetic, but a masterclass in screen acting.
Husbands may not be structurally perfect, but it’s an unsentimental dissection of ego, fear and masculinity nonetheless.