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Criterion Collection: Husbands (1970) | Blu-ray Review

Husbands (1970), the fourth feature of auteur John Cassavetes, patron saint of American independent cinema, would end up being the first showcase for the filmmaker’s trend during his lifetime. It was the follow-up to the Oscar nominated Faces (1968) his first, and only one of a couple, critically revered receptions, and perhaps was destined to be generally panned, earning him a reputation for which he would oft-be criticized as an over-indulgent filmmaker.

One of the few of his projects not to feature his wife Gena Rowlands, it is indeed a film which demands more than one viewing to appreciate the merit of its discomforts, its unhappiness—and much like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, perhaps such viewings are best broken up by several years. A painful, melancholic and freewheeling odyssey of three suburban white men leaning into a mid-life crisis exacerbated by the death of their old friend, it’s an exercise in futility and mortality in its attempt at mainlining masculine posturing as a means to examine their desperation to close the ever widening gap between the lives they’re leading and the lives they want.

Gus (Cassavetes) and Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Archie (Peter Falk) find themselves reunited for the funeral of their friend Stuart Jackson. As they navigate their emotions following the loss, they end up at a dive bar in New York and continue drinking into the morning. An attempt for each of them to return to their work and their lives is quickly abandoned, and Harry and Archie band together to fetch Gus on his way out the door during a violent domestic squabble. To continue the revelry they’ve sorely missed, they hop on a plane to London, but the promise of escapist debauchery leads only to more hollow thrills.

Husbands received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Screenwriting, even though Cassavetes seemed to erode his own script to showcase what he captured between the words. Like many of his features, improvisation bolsters the authenticity, with some sequences playing out for what seems an eternity. A supposed audience friendly cut from editor Peter Tanner (Kind Hearts and Coronets, 1949) was scrapped, with Cassavetes re-cutting the film himself to employ his despairing vision of men unmoored by forcing the audience to experience the feeling of helplessness right alongside them.

It is an uncomfortable experience, sitting so intimately aside those in desperation and free-fall, and the discomfort is what perhaps clouds initial receptions of the film. Even in 1970, such trenchant discomfort wasn’t embraced, but the dismissiveness of a Vincent Canby or a Roger Ebert seems misleading when it comes to the merit of Husbands, which feels like a sibling, or cousin, to A Woman Under the Influence (1974). One wonders if the audience friendly cut would have played more like the gender reversal of The First Wives Club (1996), which the unfurling narrative initially resembles.

Of course, the film also serves as Cassavetes’ union with two collaborators who would become regulars in his environs, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, with all three men playing characters who are based partially on the actors themselves and then congeal into a certain sickly interchange of miseries. As they come to realize they ‘can’t go home again’ in their reckless London weekend, an ill-advised attempt to reclaim youthful frivolity, they really don’t want to go home again to the responsibilities and commitments which have stifled them (a final sequence with Cassavetes returning home to greet his actual children, Nick and Xan, who would become directors themselves, balances a fine line of catharsis and desolation).

At times funny (a sequence with Delores Delmar turning the tables on Peter Falk at a London casino as a sexual aggressor is beyond priceless) but mostly achingly unhappy, the message of Husbands lies perhaps in the complete title. For in a comedy about life and death and friendship, we must address the detrimental, negative side to each of these designations.

Film Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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