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Cinema: Never Less Than Human

4 minute read

There are a few things that come first and easily to mind about Husbands: That it gives a better picture of a kind of lingering desperation than has ever been shown before; that it is John Cassavetes’ finest work; and that it is an important, and a great film. Cassavetes insinuates his movie into the lives of his audience, making viewers laugh or ache as if they were reliving individual memories. Husbands may be one of the best movies anyone will ever see. It is certainly the best movie anyone will ever live through.

There is no plot to Husbands, just a premise. Archie (Peter Falk), Harry (Ben Gazzara) and Gus (Cassavetes himself) are three reluctantly middle-aging men who go off on a bender after the death of a friend. For two days they stay away from home, drinking, horsing around, trying to forget. But the carousing only reinforces their sense of loss and their feelings of entrapment. In a final act of rebellion, they fly off to London, do some gambling, pick up some girls and discover that instead of escaping, they have only come up against another boundary.

Harry stays on, too obstinate and too desperate to admit defeat. Archie and Gus return to the States, back to their families, their jobs, their listless lives. When the cab from the airport drops them off, they stand in their neighboring driveways, sharing a moment of mute terror. Finally, one finds words: “What’s he going to do without us?” They stare silently at each other for a moment more. Then they go home.

Husbands is primarily a film about pain and loss, but it is also boisterously funny. Cassavetes finds some of his most shattering moments of revelation inside comedy, and he is expert at portraying the anguish close beneath each laugh. Harry, Archie and Gus are growing old without ever having grown up. There is a long sequence in a bar, for example, with the three men and a crew of drinking buddies sitting around singing their favorite songs, that abounds with invention and unforced humor sufficient for at least a dozen other movies.

Cassavetes has previously been criticized for indulging himself by allowing his scenes to run on too long and too aimlessly. Husbands’ scenes go on even longer than those in Faces, but they maintain a perfect emotional pitch. Cassavetes lets Gus, Archie and Harry reveal themselves at their own rate. They become by turns boyish, noisy, sloppy, silly, sentimental and obnoxious, but never less than human.

It is convenient to speak of Husbands as Cassavetes’ film, since he is its author as well as director and costar. The contributions made by Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, though, must have been enormous. Cassavetes works in a very personal, freewheeling style that draws heavily on the inspiration of his actors. The performers are so supremely good in their roles that they wipe out any distinction between the actor and the character. The virtuoso feat may be unnoticed by audiences who prefer to assume that the three are merely playing themselves.

Husbands can be at times an ugly film (witness a scene in the men’s room of a bar with Gus and Archie heaving up two days’ worth of booze) and even a cruel one. But it is impossible to keep from smiling at Archie’s dealing with a London cabbie (“He wants some bobs. Give him some bobs”). It is equally impossible to withhold sympathy over Harry’s half-drunken confession: “Aside from sex—and my wife’s very good at it, goddamn her—I like you guys better. I love you.” Cassavetes has gambled on his characters’ own humanity to bring them close and make them true, and he has won.

Jay Cocks

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