Intensity came all too naturally to Cassavetes. Even folks who can’t stand him or his apparent indulgences will tend to acknowledge that A Woman Under the Influence, rooted by Gena Rowlands’s incredibly visceral performance as Mabel Longhetti, is a gut-wrenching experience. Mabel and her husband, Nick (Falk), broadcast their pain clearly and directly, and when they settle down to make the foldout bed under the film’s closing credits, we’re ready to crawl right into it with them, exhausted from their sincere, tragic struggles to make sense of each other. Husbands, on the other hand, is soaked in sadness but provides no catharsis, no matter how desperately its characters seek it. The quintessential Cassavetean gesture—a sudden non-sequitur shout, flail, or outburst intended to provoke a response (think Seymour Cassel in 1971’s Minnie and Moskowitz seeming to take himself by surprise by cutting his mustache off)—recurs throughout the film, often from John himself as Gus, and never seems to provide much relief for either outburster or outburstee. Watch the husbands aggressively shout down the amateur singers in a New York bar, to an almost eerie vacuum of consequence—these anonymous fellow travelers in drunken gloom register the abuse but neither bark back nor slink away. Desperation absorbs desperation.
The filmmaking itself also seems to erupt with emotion doomed never to find its context. Why is Harry’s client Ed Weintraub—about whom we know, naturally, zero—cackling and pointing into the camera in his very brief appearance? Is there a single other shot remotely like it in the entirety of Cassavetes’s oeuvre? (And so hot on the heels of the equally expressionistic split-focus diopter shot of Harry dwarfed by family photos on his desk! What alternate movie is this?) Meanwhile, over at Gus’s workplace, what’s the story with his patient Mrs. Hines and her fit of hysterical laughter in his dentist’s chair? John as Gus, so given to a good raspy smoker’s cackle himself, for once seems reluctant to join in the giggles—her kooky upstaging just throws everybody off. Later, in a London casino, we encounter the most remarkable day player of all, Delores Delmar as “the Countess,” whom Archie clumsily attempts to seduce only to find the tables turned, the dowager sexually harrassing him. He pleads with her to let go of his offscreen hand, but until that moment it sure feels like she’s clutching his crotch. It must be the funniest scene in the movie, not for its goofy premise but for Delmar’s thrillingly wild energy, her eyebrows and lips undulating with some ungovernable current.
I went many years between my first viewing of Husbands and revisiting it—it was a powerful experience but not one I was eager to repeat—and while I acutely recalled the terrible feeling of helplessness it evokes, I’d forgotten many of these particular oddities. I also had the structure all wrong in my head. I remembered three guys jetting off to London to lose their minds. I had lost track of the fact that New York is not just prologue but at least half of the movie, and that the halves feel quite distinct. Some of the early New York scenes are mannered and deliberate enough as to feel downright scripted—of course, Cassavetes had written them, but the obsessive focus on performance in his work more typically makes it seem that he’s trying to bury all traces of the screenwriter—and counterintuitively, despite this more writerly hand, in New York we feel less of a sense of differentiation among the three men. Maybe it’s a commentary on suburban conformity, or maybe it just illustrates Cassavetes’s deep seduction of Gazzara and Falk, two seasoned pro actors collaborating with this liberating/terrifying director for this time, but the men seem to express their support for one another by melding into a three-headed beast. (“Gus Could Be Harry, Harry Could Be Archie . . .” was Canby’s disapproving headline in the Times.)
Then in London, thousands of miles from home, personalities emerge and all of the players’ most celebrated strengths as performers become their characters’ downfalls. Gazzara, with his bullhorn voice and puffed-out chest, able to dominate any scene, at last pushes everyone away, Harry’s best friends and strangers alike. Falk, whose adorable hangdog affect would make him a beloved television presence for decades as Columbo, finds Archie’s diffidence curdling into a self-loathing so dark that his fling, Julie (Noelle Kao), is last seen apparently traumatized, the pent miseries of their night together released in a torrent (of unsubtitled Chinese, which floats eerily out of sync) like the rain that drenches her. As for John himself—the hustler, the charmer—this guy who was too short to succeed in basketball sets his sights on the highest mountain, as it were, Jenny Runacre’s Mary, and Gus proceeds to treat her as such: he does not so much make a conquest of as summit her. It’s an intensely, unnervingly physical scene but devoid of sex—wrestling, tugging, and shouting, Gus gets off not so much on her fear as her uncertainty. He needs to hold her attention and remain the seducer even as he is holding her down. And by the next morning, as their relationship ends in a café amid a flurry of his hollow improvisations, he has lost the energy to charm even himself.
In a movie made by subtraction, the most significant absence of all, I think, is reflected in the title. Not Men, or even Midlife Men, or for that matter Fellas, Buddies, Pals, Chums—or Drinkers. Nor is it Breadwinners, and certainly not (despite Xan and Nick Cassavetes’s sobering appearance in the final minutes) Fathers. Look at Gena Rowlands, hiding in plain sight in the opening montage. Just another character we never meet, she’s right in the center of that group shot, a rather conspicuous blonde beauty, and indeed, in 1970, as recognizable a performer as any of the men—not a distraction Cassavetes was obliged to include. As any married person does, John had made extraordinary vows to her, requiring a level of faith we otherwise reserve for religion. And as any married person does, he had surely found himself lacking in his ability to live up to these promises. And so Husbands, I think, is about commitments—how they define us even as we wriggle to loosen their confines. Ultimately, I suspect it is a long, rambling, soul-baring (and occasionally incoherent, as handwriting might struggle to keep up with an elevated heart rate) love letter to Gena. It says: “Look how lost I would be without you.”