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2009 is definitely shaping up as Be Kind to Sony Home Video Year. Warners' classic films juggernaut has been sidelined into their mail-order only Warner Archives program. Universal has announced a few desirable titles but the deep library efforts of Paramount, 20th Fox and others have for the most part been mothballed. After years of neglect for their older titles, Sony Columbia has happily surprised us by striking out in the opposite direction. This year is seeing Sony releasing a number of collections of really interesting fare. Fantasy fans just received an infusion of Japanese classics with the Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho Collection. September brings us a New Hollywood Box Set of BBS films from the early 70s, the pictures that came in the wake of Easy Rider. Following that is a trio of Sam Fuller noirs and a William Castle Film Collection with a new feature-length documentary, Spine Tingler. And November brings two attractive Film Noir Collections, featuring some of the best titles still not available on disc.
John Cassavetes' Husbands happily defies all the current DVD trends. Hungry for relevant disc releases to cover, magazine and newspaper reviewers have flocked to promote it. Sony's disc is not only a reel longer than the original 1970s release, it contains real, substantive extras, the kind that the studios have more or less abandoned.
The disc is an excellent chaser to Criterion's Cassavetes Set of five years ago, that traces the actor-writer-director's independent productions. Cassavetes spent most of the 1960s trying to find his bearings in the commercial industry and coming up dissatisfied with the (still very commendable) Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting due to studio and star interference. Husbands became a Columbia film in mid-production; except for pressure to cut it down to screen-able length, it came out more or less as Cassavetes had planned.
Known as the initiator of the actor-centric American independent film, Cassavetes places the quest for emotional truth above all other cinematic values. Using his almost plot-free script as a starting point for improvisation, the director took two actors he admired, Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk, and improvise-rehearsed the entire movie up to and including the shooting phase. Actors were encouraged to take scenes in whatever direction the truth of the moment led them, a choice that often left the director of photography doing his best to capture whatever happened as best he could. If the chemistry was right Cassavetes would encourage his actors to continue long beyond what was scripted. Focus and lighting are remarkable under the circumstances, with intimate close-ups dominating most scenes. On the other hand it's not unusual for a telephoto shot of the three leads clowning on the street to play entirely in soft focus.
Cassavetes' story places three married men in what would now be termed a standard mid-life crisis. Harry, Archie and Gus (Gazzara, Falk and Cassavetes) become disturbed while attending the funeral of a close buddy; instead of going home to their wives they take off on a two-day drunk. Confronted by an unhappy wife and her disapproving mother, Harry rebels, strikes them both and grabs his passport. Tagging along in the spirit of delinquency, Archie and Gus accompany Harry to London, where they go gambling and pick up a trio of unlikely companions for the night. Predictably, the trio's effort to escape is a mixed bag of forced elation and fumbled depression.
As might be suspected, actors respond enthusiastically to Cassavetes' methods. The actors privileged to work with him consider those projects to be career highlights. At the half-hour mark, the three hooky-playing husbands are only a few minutes into a marathon session in the back room of a bar, getting plastered with other revelers and encouraging the women to sing, "from the heart." The drunkenness is entirely convincing, as is Gus and Harry's merciless criticism of the off-key singers, one of whom plays along with their rowdy "direction" for at least ten minutes.
In keeping with his classics Shadows and Faces, Cassavetes goes for the emotional heart of each scene regardless of what his audience may think about his characters. Harry runs amuck when confronted with his furious wife and mother-in-law, and our three heroes run away on a jet plane delighted to abandon their families for an uncertain future. Gus and Archie's grand idea of rebellion is not to bathe or shave. Their efforts to show off in a London casino fizzle when their spare cash evaporates at the crap table.
Gus picks up a tall blonde (the intriguing Jenny Runacre) who's at least as confused as he is. This results in one of the strangest bedroom scenes ever -- an endless wrestling match that waffles between consensual funny business and statutory rape. Despite the fact that his wife threatened him with a knife, when Harry's given the opportunity to be unfaithful he suddenly suffers an acute attack of fidelity. Even more pitiful is Archie, whose Chinese "date" knows no English and can't interpret his crude pleas for emotional contact.
Cassavetes tells his story from the viewpoint of his confused comrades, who struggle with their emotions as if desperate to be understood. The women are very nicely characterized, from Harry's terrified wife to the London hookers cautiously sizing up their prospective clients. A hilarious sequence in Gus's dentistry office gives us a nervous female client (Eleanor Zee) who can't stop laughing. Viewers expecting these troublemaking husbands to be held to standard morals and ethics aren't going to be so forgiving. It's all too easy to see their infantile behavior as a lame excuse to escape responsibility, regardless of whom gets hurt. Cassavetes would probably agree entirely!
Viewers uninterested in a movie composed of personalities and behaviors are best warned to stay away. Cinephiles that define a movie as "more than acting" and that require structure and formal technique are also encouraged to give Husbands a wide berth. Self-indulgence is a charge that can be leveled at any filmmaker; by following his muse John Cassavetes has produced some powerful, very personal experiences. In other movies he's much more sensitive to his female leads; here I gravitated to Ben Gazzara 's character. Even when free of his leash, Harry remains concerned about things like appearances and hygiene. His anguish over his marriage is fascinating, as are his indefensible rationalizations of his behavior.
The best image in the film, and the one that made me laugh outright, is when Harry storms out of his house in a gesture of escape and rebellion. Archie and Gus, standing on the sidewalk and sitting on the driveway, are patiently waiting to see if Harry "can come out and play" like little boys avoiding grown-up supervision. To me that's a universally recognizable situation.
Sony / Columbia's DVD of Husbands is an excellent transfer of a movie that looks far, far better than it ought to. Few shots have grain issues and the improvised camerawork is nowhere near as noticeable as one might expect -- much cruder film "looks" are now routinely lauded as desirable, stylish. Almost all of the dialogue is clear and easy to follow, something that was more important to Cassavetes -- nobody mumbles in their beer and calls it acting.
An entertaining making-of featurette produced by Greg Carson includes fine interview input from Ben Gazzara and cinematographer Victor Kemper. Gazzara clearly cherishes the experience and dearly loved Cassavetes, who passed away in 1989. Victor Kemper got his break to move up to Director of Photography on Husbands, when other established candidates wanted nothing to do with Cassavetes' mode of filming; his first challenge was to film the three stars congregating in a tiny toilet stall -- painted black. Producer Al Ruban remembers Cassavetes' scheme to get a major distributor for the film. They invited a number of studio representatives to watch the filming, and built a wildly expensive set to impress them, even though it would not really be used!
A busy commentary by Cassavetes biographer Marshall Fine provides a thorough context for the making of the film, which was initially bankrolled by an Italian investor. That links Husbands to a 1969 Italian gangster film that Cassavetes made with Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands, Gli intoccabili, aka Machine Gun McCain. A glaring example of the kind of acting assignment that Cassavetes took to earn money for his independent features, McCain is a fun show in its own right, with a dynamite Ennio Morricone theme song. It's an excellent candidate for disc release by Columbia.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Husbands rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Marshall Fine, making-of featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 16, 2009
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.