Director in Focus: John Cassavetes – Husbands

Husbands (1970)
Starring Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, John Cassavetes

Husbands is a very flawed, self-indulgent picture. And it is hard to talk about without bringing up the only Cassavetes film I had seen before this spotlight, Faces. So for this review we will look at where Faces gets right what Husbands fails on. Just like Shadows, both Husbands and Faces adopt the cinéma vérité style, though only Faces really lives up to the tenets of the form. Where Faces is an honest examination of the horrible cruelties couples visit upon each other, Husbands is a self-indulgent mess with occasional moments of brilliance that are snuffed out by moments that drag on without purpose for too long.

Husbands‘ opening credits are a series of still photos of four male friends in their early forties. The photos cut to a cemetery where we learn one of the men died of a heart attack. From there, the three remaining men embark on a series of drunken escapades that typically involve them bothering other people, and eventually traveling to London where they attempt to sleep with some women and fail. In a lot of ways these men are where I see Don Draper headed on Mad Men, except there it will be comprehensible and not a messy blur of film. In Faces, we follow a middle-aged couple who are on their last straw. In the course of one night, they both become involved in trysts that end with their lives changed forever. Both films incorporate loosely improvised dialogue and scenes. In the case of Husbands its a complete and total mess.

Husbands could have said a lot about its time, and the role of husbands and fathers coming out of the 1960s, but it completely fails. It ends up coming across as a Mailer-esque Machofest, where women are treated as objects without a second thought. Yes, Cassavetes doesn’t seem to condone that behavior, but the narrative thread of the film is such a mess its hard to figure out what he intends. I think Cassavetes got so caught up in the aesthetics of the film, he forgot to put a story in there. Both Shadows and Faces are the same cinéma vérité style and have heavy improvisation, but they still had stories you could follow. With a film like Husbands you expect some sort of realization on the part of the characters, they don’t necessarily have to change or grow, but the audience at least should understand something about them better. We get none of that, one man stays behind in London, the other two come home, stocking up on trinkets for the kids and preparing to be chewed out by their wives and that’s it.

I know my mother’s father died when she was twelve and he was only forty-five. His death was around the same time of this film and, after seeing certain shows like Mad Men and other period pieces, you can see that excessive drinking and smoking were a common part of the culture. It would have been interesting for these three to be forced into some self-analysis in the wake of their friends’ death, and this could have been played out in the same settings and scenarios, just reigned in by a tighter story structure. This was the last generation to have participated in a war they believed was honorable in America (The Korean War) and in the time that followed military service became just one way of defining manhood. For these men, hard drinking, hard smoking, and promiscuity outside their marriage was what defined them. Despite their friend, who surely engaged in these behaviors, dying as a result, they indulge and learn nothing. And the story is told in a way that challenges us to even keep watching. A missed opportunity.

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