It is tempting to see the title characters in Husbands (1970) as older versions of the trio in John Cassavetes’ breakthrough film, Shadows (1959) – aimless New Yorkers indulging in noisy horseplay, haplessly picking up women, getting into humiliating scrapes and resisting the demands made on them by family and society. Much of the film is spent in bars and cafes or drifting in streets. Like Shadows, the film ends with the most tormented character breaking free, while another goes to buy cigarettes.
A lot had changed in the decade since Shadows, however. Whereas Benny (Ben Carruthers), Dennis (Dennis Sallas) and Tom (Tom Reese) were young in-betweeners – still waiting for, or ducking, the threat of a defining role – Gus (John Cassavetes), Archie (Peter Falk) and Harry (Ben Gazzara) are middle-aged professionals, rooted to their responsibilities. It is 1970, and the swinging sixties have passed these men by; when they escape to London, it no longer swings, pouring with rain instead and virtually deserted. When Archie briefly considers leaving his bothersome life and settling in London with Julie (Noelle Kao), a Chinese woman half his age whom he cannot speak to, Gus recites a list of all that is holding them back: homes and wives and children and houses and garages and cars.
Cassavetes has been posited by his most persistent exegete, Ray Carney, as an artist who attends to the surface of social interactions rather than the subjectivities of individual characters. This is to overlook the expressionist streak in Cassavetes’ work. Just as Benny’s alienation at his brother’s party in Shadows is expressed by heightened music and accelerated montage – formal violence that explodes into physical violence – so a brief but telling sequence in Husbands allows us to access the emotional confusion of Harry, the film’s Benny character.
After a day-long bender to mourn the sudden death of their best friend, Harry stops at home to shave and change for work. This spree has been the last straw for his long-suffering wife, Annie (Meta Shaw), who demands a separation. Her initial, off-screen rebukes, delivered to Harry when he rings from a bar, have already provoked him to smash the telephone booth, and the subsequent confrontation results in even worse violence. Harry sexually assaults his wife, and she brandishes a knife at him; he attempts to strangle his mother-in-law, then chases both women upstairs before being restrained by his friends, who have alerted by the noise inside the house. At this stage, Harry’s desire to escape is not fully formed, limited to a search for his passport and the kind of bluster that marked the previous day’s drunken shenanigans; but, at work, he is shown to be reeling from these events. Suddenly disgusted by his job – hawking other people’s products – he wanders around the suddenly labyrinthine office, staring in at clients made grotesque by a distorted lens. He flees. Earlier social reactions have hinted at Harry’s repressed sexuality; this sequence goes beneath the surface to reveal something of what is going on in his mind, and partially explains his flight to London and his ultimate decision to stay there.
In an essay for a volume on 20th century American modernism, Carney placed two strands of that movement in opposition: the “idealist” narrative Hollywood cinema exemplified by Alfred Hitchcock, which privileged a character subjectivity shared by the privileged audience; and a “pragmatic modernism” represented by Cassavetes, which kept non-privileged audiences on the outside of events, forcing them to negotiate an unmediated flux of “real” experience.1 This simplistic antithesis travesties the work of Hitchcock, but is not a very accurate account of Cassavetes’ either.
Husbands, at any rate, depends as much as any film by Hitchcock (or Fritz Lang, or Luis Buñuel) on the relationship Cassavetes establishes between himself and his audience: between what is and is not shown and heard, and how the audience recognises and processes it; and between the personalities of the characters and the actors who play them (each a well-known film or television figure, if not a superstar in the Cary Grant or James Stewart mould). Husbands’ celebrated opening sequence, still photographs accompanied by characters’ voices and the film’s only piece of non-diegetic music, begins a dialectic – between sound and image, between the visible and the absent and between the present and the elided – that will pattern the movie. The characters’ abrasiveness towards others and one another is matched by a shrill sound mix that over-emphasises each verbal articulation and everyday sound, and accompanies many scene changes with sharp aural cuts that jolt the viewer and auditor – elements that, as in Hitchcock, serve to subliminally articulate characters’ emotions while creating a space for play between filmmaker and spectator. Far from showing an undigested mass of surface ‘stuff’, Cassavetes often radically elides crucial scenes – the death of the friend, most obviously, or the successful sexual experiences of Gus and Archie in London (despite the disastrous beginnings that we are shown). What we ‘see’ is inadequate for a full understanding of what is going on.
Most Hitchcockian is the disconnect and interplay between the charm, charisma, wit and performative playfulness of the three leading actors – whose often uproarious hijinks (and apparent improvisation and corpsing) make Husbands the most purely enjoyable of Cassavetes’ films – and the often vile characters they play. Misogynistic, homophobic, racist, aggressive and boorish, their childish immaturity extends to the bullying of those more vulnerable than themselves. Falk, as Archie, is exemplary in this regard – at once a hilarious, anxious, nebbish, pernickety forerunner of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, and a frighteningly coiled man of violence with deep sexual hang-ups. The opening montage creates an idyll that is at once heavily constructed and irretrievably past; it sets a standard that the protagonists try and fail to recreate and live up to, lashing out when the failure becomes too blatant, criticising their own and other’s ‘performances’, filling the resulting void with increasingly hollow noise. Of all the loud, self-serving, self-pitying soul-searching that is professed in this great, humourless comedy, its most sincere is the round of hacking, spitting, vomiting, dribbling, farting and shitting that takes place in a dim public toilet after a circular journey of elation and deflation, a long night avoiding the soul.
Husbands (1970 USA 131 mins)
Prod Co: Faces Music Prod: Al Ruban Dir: John
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, John Cassavetes
- Ray Carney, “Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism: Notes Toward a Pragmatic Aesthetic” in A Modern Mosaic: Art and Modernism in the United States, Townsend Ludington, ed. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 2000, pp. 357-415. ↩