Husbands (1970)

John Cassavetes | 2hr 18min

There is nothing terribly special about the three middle-aged men at the centre of Husbands, and we can tell that somewhere deep in their subconsciouses, they recognise that. To bring this existential self-awareness to the surface may be crippling though, and besides, watching them dance around their insecurities for two and a half hours reveals far more about their lonely, desperate characters than any grand reckoning might have. If Richard Linklater was to shift the focus of his hangout films to a much older age bracket and turn his trademark idealism to pessimism, then perhaps the result would look something like this. At the same time though, it is impossible to imagine him centring characters as disturbingly boorish as those which John Cassavetes creates here, or aiming to create an experience that is as unpleasant as it is thoughtfully stimulating.

As is typical of his realist style, Cassavetes is not beholden to any plot convention or character development that might turn this into a more traditional drama, so any time such an advancement does take place in the film, it often feels purely incidental. By the time they touch down in London just past the halfway point, we have already spent enough time with them in bars, pools, and bathrooms to know that this sudden change of pace isn’t going to fix their deep-seated fears of inadequacy and mortality. Just as the film’s title suggests, wives are largely absent from this portrait of indulgent, toxic masculinity, leaving these emotionally inept men to seek out their own feeble solutions to the bitterness and grief that plagues their minds.

Cassavetes’ is more likely let his camera wander naturally around environments, but he still finds the time to stage these thoughtful compositions, pressing the environment in on his characters.

The film’s inciting incident lands in the opening minutes with the realisation that this group of three was once a group of four, framing everything they do from this point on as some indirect sublimation of their mourning, and trying to convince themselves that they have plenty of years in front of them. The only glimpse we get of their lives before the death of their friend, Stuart, comes through a montage of still photos at a public pool. While their children and wives splash around, they strike manly poses for the camera, putting on a front that is immediately undermined by the sharp cut to Stuart’s funeral. Rather than using the time to sort through their feelings around this tragedy though, Gus, Harry, and Archie would rather complain about all the pomp and circumstance, holding onto the air of manliness that they can’t let slip away.

“People get symbolic over death. They get very formal, and it’s really ridiculous. Because it’s probably the most humiliating thing in the world.”

A montage of photos at a swimming pool preceding Stuart’s death opening the film, flashing through images of performative masculinity.

Though the camera follows the funeral proceedings from afar, Cassavetes’ telephoto lens zooms in close to the bereaved faces in the crowd, positioning us as intimate but totally invisible observers. It is an intrusive perspective that persists through much of Husbands, and one which demonstrates Cassavetes’ absolute commitment to the primal realism of the piece, naturally letting his actors’ bodies obstruct frames as they move around, and consequently immersing us even further into each scene. His goal here in stripping everything in Husbands back to a bare, minimalist style feels like a precursor to Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg’s Dogme 95 movement in the 1990s, with natural lighting, handheld camerawork, and location shooting dominating the film’s chosen aesthetic, and thereby giving weight to the purely naturalistic performances by the main trio of actors.

Excellent use of a telephoto lens observing the mourners at Stuart’s funeral in close-up.

Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and Cassavetes himself take on the roles of the three friends at the centre with organic ease, and while many of their lines weren’t quite ad-libbed on camera, it is not surprising to learn that most of them were written into the screenplay from improvised rehearsals. Robert Altman might have been the director who would solidify himself as the master of overlapping dialogue, but Cassavetes’ control of such aural chaos is admirable here, using it to underscore the recurring conflicts between the men, as well as the textures of an indifferent world that keeps moving independent of their existences.

After a period of time running through New York streets, skinny dipping, and revealing their sheer lack of coordination in a clumsy game of basketball, these men congregate at the local bar where Cassavetes submits us to a scene lasting over half an hour, watching their drunken singing gradually develop a sadistic edge. Around them, pitch black walls envelop them in a stifling depression, and Cassavetes populates his mise-en-scène with half-empty jugs and glasses of beer, telling the story of their night up to this point.

The bar scene lasts for almost forty minutes, as Cassavetes immerses us into its uncomfortable, drunken atmosphere.

If listening to their piggish behaviour for so long is a wearying experience, then the discomfort only intensifies when they escape into the bar’s equally dark bathroom and start retching, forcing us to stick with them through every ugly facet of their lives. With perhaps the most confined space of the film comes a slight shift in Cassavetes visual direction as well, swapping out the telephoto for a wider-angle lens, and sitting the camera right behind the toilet as they uncomfortably heave into it.

The telephoto lens is gone when we move into the bathroom, as the camera now sits behind the toilet to uncomfortably press up against the actors’ faces.

Husbands can’t be described as punishing in the same way one might associate that descriptor with Gaspar Noe or von Trier, but by lingering on scenes like these for longer than what’s comfortable, it does exhaust its viewers in a similar way. Gazzara especially works to alienate his character more than anyone else, as the abuse that erupts from Harry within his own home reveals the logical conclusion of what sort of man we have surmised him to be. The fountain of red and yellow flowers pouring from a vase in his dining room only adds a meagre touch of colour to an otherwise cheerless scene, which sees him push his wife to her knees and force out a reluctant “I love you.” That he despises his own family this much speaks a lot to the unresolved anger he clearly doesn’t know how to deal with, and in this moment, Harry fully reveals himself as the most damaged of all three men.

“I hate that house. I only live there because of a woman. You know, the legs, the breasts, the mouth.”

A meagre splash of colour in Harry’s home life barely distracts us from the misery that exists inside these walls.
Very simple blocking with Cassavetes sitting on the lawn and Falk standing on the driveway in this long shot, but the barren minimalism is a purposeful and impactful choice.

With each attempt to reclaim their youth leaving them unfulfilled, an impromptu trip to London becomes a last resort, though even in its flashy casinos there is still no glamour to be found. Dialogue continues to roll out like aimless, verbal anarchy, and the awkwardness only amplifies when they each take a different woman up to their hotel room. With Cassavetes’ long takes often comes handsomely staged compositions of his actors, and one of his greatest unfolds here with Gazzara lying along the bottom of the frame in the foreground, while the camera pans between his five other companions clumsily interacting behind him. As they split off into pairs, their insecurities become more evident than ever. Gus is rash and overbearing in his attempts to initiate sex with his terrified partner. Archie panics the moment his woman even kisses him. It is disappointing that Harry’s scene is so short in comparison to theirs, because his brief conversation reveals a guilt and helplessness that he has never let surface up to this point.

“I feel so goddamned disloyal. I feel like my – my heart is breaking.”

The camera pans left to right and back again in the London hotel room, lingering in the awkwardness of these interactions.
The precise angle of the door catching Falk’s reflection in the background, emphasising the loneliness.
An inspired close-up with this oblique angle coming from above – complete melancholy.

The rain pouring down on London’s streets the next day becomes a perfect backdrop to the melancholy resolutions each man settles on. Where Gus and Archie accept that there is no exciting life for them outside their families, Harry has sunk completely into the delusion of his youth, deciding to stay behind in London and continue in his pursuit of women. His separation from the group thus formally marks Husbands with a pair of poignant bookends, leaving the remaining men crushingly isolated. “What’s he gonna do without us?” Archie yells to Gus as they both head home, but the question applies in the other direction as well, leaving each husband to wonder what their respective futures look like without their truest companions – not that they would ever admit to such vulnerability.

Cassavetes making the most of a rainy day to shoot the depressing ‘morning after’.

These are messy characters, and while it would be fair to say that they are largely responsible for their own misery, it is evidently the culture of unbearable machismo they have collectively built among themselves which has become their main obstacle to happiness. Somewhere along the way, their friend’s death is lost among the crass humour and toxic aggression of their exploits, and for as long as that grief remains repressed, it will just keep eating away at their minds and egos, all the way to their not-too-distant graves.

A bleak, hopeless ending as two men return to their families without their companion, wondering how any of them will get by without each other.

Husbands is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

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