Three forty-ish professionals and best friends from Long Island go on a week-long bender in the wake of the fourth of their number dying suddenly of a heart attack. They play sports, go on an endless pub crawl, and eventually flee their wives and kids on an impulsive trip to London, where they set about pairing off with younger women. This is a very conventional sounding story, and director John Cassavetes, operating in the wake of the surprise success of his own film Faces and his acting appearences in two of the biggest hits of the late '60's (Rosemary's Baby and The Dirty Dozen) got studio backing and stars for Husbands, and shot a two hour mainstream male-bonding comedy that he screened to great success for MGM executives. He turned to co-star Peter Falk during the applause and whispered "Remember that version -- because no-one's ever going to see it again."
He then spent a year making a completely different film in the editing room, taking out all the scenes of a conventional buddy comedy and putting in all the messy inconclusive momements in between the laughs and the plot points. What we get is three great actors -- Mephistophelian bad boy Cassavetes, wounded idealist Falk, and in a film-stealing performance, glowering kill-joy Ben Gazzara, get to the truth behind the arrested adolescence of male bonding.
"I've never seen a helicopter explode. I've never seen anyone go and blow somebody's head off. So why should I make a film about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest ways." John Cassavetes.
Cassavetes, even after his posthumous reputation has flourished as the very model of the off-Hollywood maverick independent film-maker, remains a polarizing figure to this day, and likely always will. His messy, plotless, chaotic, grueling actor-centered cinema aimed to present a narrow band of human emotions and a narrow strata of society in deliberately unflattering close-up. They are as exhausting to watch as they must have been to make (a typical Cassavetes film took a year to write, a year to shoot, and a year to edit). Critics accused the films' faux improvised scripts, picking at small agonizing personal interactions like scabs for seemingly endless duration, as being no more than acting class exercises run self-indulgently amok: this is actually true, but this is also the source of JC's greatest insight. Cassavetes understood that social conditioning turns all of us into actors, forced to don a mask or pose to enact the various roles we are compelled to perform throughout our days, and that we are generally very bad actors to boot, full of forced laughter, cruel acts impulsively cracking the facade of niceness, self-pity undermining our cool. The moments in our lives where the mask starts to slip because our social performance has ceased to properly achieve what it was supposed to and we start blowing our lines because we don't actually understand why we are doing whatever it is we're doing are the moments his films are about. That is why they are so truthful and so painful to watch, not because of the sputtering inarticulateness of his characters, and meandering plots, the bad lighting and un-composed shots. Husbands is his toughest, most exhausting film, but if you can take it, it's worth the ride.
What always saves a Cassavetes film from the precipice is that by the time the credits roll, we know his people as we know our own loved ones -- flawed, complex, mysterious. His compassion is like a tidal wave, but without a hint of sentiment. The film is also funny as hell, without a single line that resembles a joke.
Cassavetes was the son of self-made Greek immigrants, and I have always found that significant: all those great Greek works that are thrown around so easily in our lexicon now apply to him: tyrant, democrat, anarchist, demogogue, autodidact, tragedian, comedian, daemon. He was all of these things, and ranks as one of the most important, if difficult of American film-makers.