Sony // 1970 // 142 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // August 26th, 2009
A comedy about life, death, and freedom.
Husbands was John Cassavetes follow-up to his art house hit Faces. However, lightening didn't strike twice. Husbands underwent a convoluted editing process that is the stuff of legends. The first cut of the film was prepared, at Cassavetes request, by producer Al Ruban and editor Peter Tanner. A test audience loved the rough cut, but Cassavetes hated it. So, he went off for six months and edited the film to his liking. That cut was around four hours. However, his studio contract with Columbia required the film to be no longer than two hours and twenty minutes. As a result, Cassavetes cut the film again. The picture was released and greeted by cheers some and jeers by others. The disparate reactions prompted the studio to cut another 11 minutes of footage. This DVD release of the film restores the studio deletions. Added footage or not, count me in the jeers camp. Husbands is an exasperating mess.
Gus (Cassavetes), Harry (Ben Gazzara, The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie), and Archie (Peter Falk, A Woman Under The Influence) are long time best friends, living in the suburbs of New York. The fourth member of their group, Stuart, has suddenly died of heart attack. Following the funeral, the three middle-aged, married survivors go on binge of drinking, athletics, gambling, and womanizing, lasting several days, in an attempt to come to terms with Stuart's death.
The credits of Husbands claims that the film was written by Cassavetes. However, the finished product gives only the slightest hints of any formal script or story. The bulk of the film was improvised. Improvisation can work, such as in Larry David's brilliant series Curb Your Enthusiasm, where the actors have a good idea of what they are trying accomplish and play-off one another. Alternatively, it can be a catastrophe when things don't click. Unfortunately, a catastrophe is what Husbands resembles most closely, as the weak improve, coupled with poor editing, leads to a bloated film filled with barely coherent, repetitious conversations and interminably overlong and meaningless scenes. As Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote in his 1970 review of the film "It's as if someone decided to photograph a tug-of-war and photographed only the rope between the contestants."
At its core, the film is about three men confronting their own mortality and undergoing a form of midlife crisis, in which they are trying to reassert their masculinity. The film is successful in executing this plan, for the first 18 minutes, which captures the three men getting drunk, horsing around, yet haunted by the death of their friend and thoughts about how long they have themselves have left. It's completely plausible, feels natural, and Falk, Cassavetes and Gazzara are fully believable as lifelong friends. After that, the film abruptly loses its way entirely.
The wheels come off during the "singing contest" scene in a bar. That scene, primarily centered on the three men mercilessly harassing a woman, rambles along for 20 minutes without any discernable purpose. Camaraderie, maybe? It's too mean spirited for that. A 10 minute scene in the bar's men's room immediately follows and actually has a point to make about emotional purging, but it is too drawn out with dialogue so inarticulate that it becomes tedious. Some will, no doubt, interpret these faults as virtues, claiming that the film reveals the men as emotionally crippled and pointing-out that Cassavetes is using cinéma vérité style. Perhaps, but that doesn't mean the film must meander on for 142 minutes without any regard for continuity, rhythm, or narrative.
The performances, if one can call them that, are difficult to assess because of the amount of improvisation. Everybody, except for Cassavetes, has a problem thinking up something to say, especially Falk, who appears to be at a loss for words and struggling mightily to figure out what he should be doing throughout the entire film. There's a lot of shouting by Gazzara and annoying laughter from Cassavetes, but it is just sound without meaning. Roger Ebert captures my feelings perfectly in his review, writing "what we see are not performances, but the human beings themselves, photographed while trying not very successfully to improvise."
The picture quality is decent. The film was shot in a gritty way, so the image is not that crisp and there is some grain, but there is nothing horrifying in the transfer. The 2.0 audio is fine. The dialogue is clear for the most part.
There are couple of solid extras, plus the theatrical trailer. Marshall Fine, who wrote a biography about Cassavetes, provides a commentary track. It is a strong piece. Fine supplies a wealth of information about Cassavetes, the development of the film, the production, post-production, and critical reaction. There is also a half-hour featurette, "The Story of Husbands: A Tribute to John Cassavetes," which features interviews with Gazzara, Ruban, and director of photography, Victor Kemper. It provides further details about the unstructured nature of the production and editing process. For example, Gazzara says that his favourite cut of the film ran for four and half hours(!); I shudder at the thought.
Fans of Cassavetes are probably seeking me out with pitchforks and torches. Where I see a lack of focus and flailing actors, they see an attempt to uncover fundamental emotional truths. There's no right answer, I suppose, but if you're thinking about whether to pick-up Husbands or not, decide what style of filmmaking you enjoy and make your choice.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (CC)
Running Time: 142 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Vincent Canby's Review
* Roger Ebert's Review