Top Fifty Films of the 70s — Number Thirty-Two

#32 — Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)
Like most of his very best work, Husbands practically seethes with the enraged creativity of filmmaker John Cassavetes. Notoriously disenchanted with the Hollywood system (or at least whatever splintered remains were left of it at the time Cassavetes was beginning to direct regularly) and everything associated with it, he approached his art in raw, deliberately inexpert ways, striving for storytelling with the artifice stripped away leaving material with the hard smack of real life in its place. The plot is only loosely affixed to the film and any inklings of traditional structure are dismantled as quickly as possible. The actors utilize improvisation with blissful abandon and Cassavetes clearly eggs them on, pushing them to get rougher, clumsier, more strident in sparking off emotions that are fiercely believable even as they keep swelling to heightened, almost theatrical volume.

The sensation of Cassavetes coaxing and coercing the performers to greater intensity is made even more vivid by his presence as an actor, playing one of the three central roles. While he always remains fully in character, there’s often a feel of Cassavetes the creator stirring the drama, flipping the energy of any given scene as an ongoing cinematic experiment. That’s representative of the thrilling irony laced throughout the work of Cassavetes, perhaps most clearly observed in Husbands. His intent, ostensibly anyway, in rejecting standard modes and techniques of filmmaking is to create something that is more realistic. And yet, the chosen techniques of Cassavetes are as completely present as the the clockwork mechanics of an Alfred Hitchcock film or the lush, painterly bombast of a Cecil B. DeMille production. There’s a lengthy scene in a barroom as a large batch of characters are mourning a friend who’s recently died. It’s presented as a long, ungainly, largely unpolished scene, which could and maybe should make it seem like the camera is just another person plopped down, watching the squabbles and criticisms fly, and yet I felt the authorial hand of Cassavetes every moment. That obtrusiveness should be problematic–indeed, it’s precisely what the director is trying to avoid–but it’s not. Instead it has the enervating quality of a creator actively grappling with the limitations and possibilities of his form, and doing so in real time, simultaneous with its actual genesis. There’s nothing meta-fictional about it. It’s simply another way that Cassavetes rips his film open.

With Husbands, Cassavetes was working with some of his most valued collaborators. Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara round out the trio of working stiffs who struggle mightily and recklessly with the loss of their cohort. Their problematic coping methods keep escalating into more and more fraught territory, from excess drinking to flailing stabs at classy debauchery on a spontaneous cross-Atlantic trip. These are guys that were once budding kings and are increasingly staring down a world that doesn’t even make sense to them, especially know that the notion of their own mortality has been introduced into the mix. The men roil, pine, fume as they throw retaliatory haymakers at the existential wrecking ball smashing at their fragile walls. The characters are conceived as highly volatile, giving Cassavetes the opportunity to tug the drama in whatever direction he chooses. From an acting standpoint, it’s like riding rapids, and Falk, Gazzara and the director himself all give it their all, relentlessly plumbing souls that have been all but scraped clean. It’s not often a pretty picture, but then that’s probably about the last thing that the director wants.