The trailblazing independent auteur John Cassavetes pushes his raw, uncompromising emotional realism to its limit in this unflinching portrait of masculinity in crisis. Cassavetes joins Ben Gazzara and Peter Falk—both of whom would become key collaborators of the director’s—playing a trio of middle-aged Long Island family men who, following the sudden death of their best friend, channel their grief into an epic, multiday bender that takes them from Manhattan to London in a desperate, debauched quest to feel alive. By turns painfully funny and woundingly perceptive, this self-described “comedy about life, death, and freedom” stands as perhaps the most fearless, harrowingly honest deconstruction of American manhood ever committed to film.
John Cassavetes’ Husbands receives a new Blu-ray edition courtesy of The Criterion Collection, who are making use of a new 4K restoration conducted by Sony Pictures Entertainment and scanned from the 35mm original camera negative (and “the best available alternate elements” where needed). The film is delivered with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc.
The presentation is striking on the whole. The colours lean warmer, for sure, with that yellow grading that seems to be the go-to now, but I didn’t find it as stifling as other similar presentations I’ve been going through lately and I don’t doubt this is close to how the film was intended to look. Black levels are a bit wonky, though; while inky and bold, details get crushed out in several darker scenes. It’s hard to discern whether it’s a side effect of that warmer push or just something inherent to the source due to lighting conditions during filming.
Outside of that the level of detail is impressive and beyond anything I was expecting. The image is razor sharp throughout its runtime (when the picture is in focus mind you) whether in close-ups or long shots, delivering excellent texture and depth. The film is pretty grainy and is rendered well for the most part, keeping the image film-like, but there can be a bit of noise in a handful of those darker shots.
Despite that warmer grading I was still pleased with colours and the restoration has been incredible in cleaning this all up: outside of some small bits of dirt and a few scratches there’s nothing significant here. It looks impressive, to say the least.
The film comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack. The film is of course mostly talk, sometimes clear, sometimes not, but there’s no harshness to it and there is some decent depth and fidelity. There isn’t much music but what appears sounds fine, and background sounds are clear if a bit flat. Overall it’s fine and serves the film perfectly fine.
Criterion has released a number of Cassavetes’ films, from his completely independent work to studio financed productions like Love Streams, and impressively have always managed to pack them with stuff—for the most part at any rate. Despite all of the material they've rounded up prior Criterion is able to pack on a number of features here, starting with an audio commentary recorded by critic Marshall Fine. The track was first found on the Sony DVD released back in 2009. Fine gives a bit of a primer on Cassavetes’ work, going over the impact films like Faces had on independent filmmaking, before getting into more detail about Husbands. He explains how Columbia Pictures came to be involved and then the long process behind editing the picture, Fine talking about other edits of the film. Another editor had been brought in at one point because Cassavetes didn’t want to deal with it, and apparently that edit was a big hit with test audiences and the studio. The fact audiences liked it drove Cassavetes to sit down with it for a year and bring out the edit we currently have, which is admittedly a love-it-or-hate kinda film, though “love” may still be too strong a word (the studio apparently hated the film, the singing scene in particular). Fine also talks about the production and how newcomers to Cassavetes’ world (like Falk) dealt with it, while also looking at the performances, the film’s construction, and what Cassavetes' intent with the film, along with the themes found therein.
Husbands is not an easy film but Fine does a decent enough job explaining and defending the film, explaining Cassavetes’ techniques and methods, which many will find helpful I’m sure, whether they’re new to Cassavetes or already familiar with his work.
Criterion has then recorded a couple of new interviews: one with producer Al Ruban and another with actor Jenny Runacre, running 25-minutes and 18-minutes respectively. Ruban talks about Cassavetes’ interest in the middle class and how that led to this film, then sharing stories about how the director was able to trick Columbia into giving him money, and then the bit of a fallout that occurred after Cassavetes delivered his final edit of the film. He also talks about how members of the crew had issues with Cassavetes’ style of directing (his focus was more on performances than anything else), and then shares stories about the more difficult sequences to shoot, which were the closing casino and hotel room sequences.
Runacre more-or-less picks up from there (she appeared in those closing moments of the film), and recounts her experience working on a Cassavetes film, which was a different experience from others, like, for starters, the filmed scene would be completely different from rehearsals. She also talks about the rough scene with Cassavetes, which was initially to be a “love” scene but, as she realized later, morphed into a rape scene. She shares her thoughts on the film’s representation of misogyny, and recounts how the film impacted her career in a good way, leading to future roles.
Both interviews are must-watch, the two participants really fleshing out the rather hectic, unpredictable nature of working on one of the filmmaker’s films.
Daniel Raim then puts together a compilation of audio interview excerpts featuring Cassavetes (and Gena Rowlands at one point) for John Cassavetes on Acting. The 13-minute program has Cassavetes explain how he works with his actors (or doesn’t, leaving a lot on them) with a focus on Husbands in particular. It’s a nicely edited feature with a great flow. Criterion also ports over the 30-minute making-of documentary from the Sony DVD, The Story of “Husbands” – A Tribute to John Cassavetes. Featuring Ben Gazara, cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, and producer Al Ruban, they touch on subjects covered in the other features (like how Cassavetes got funding for the film), but the most interesting aspect may be around Gazara, who explains the amount of trust an actor had to put into the director since they’re going to have to not only represent rather despicable characters, but also defend said despicable characters.
The craziest feature on here, though, is the 34-minute episode of The Dick Cavett Show from September of 1970, featuring Cavett trying to interview Cassavetes, Gazara, and Peter Falk, who are all there to promote the film. The three are piss-drunk and what follows is absolute insanity. Cavett isn’t impressed and tries to keep things together, and Cassavetes, to a point, tries to do the same (he thanks Cavett for being a good sport) but Gazara is somewhere else, going on at one point about the mistreatment of Orson Welles by Hollywood (really out of the blue). As I said, it is insanity and it’s just all the more wonderful because of it.
The disc closes with the film’s trailer, and the included insert features an essay by Andrew Bujalski, who writes a wonderful little essay for the film, a film he seems amazed exists at all, commenting at one point he finds it hard to believe there was anything like a commercial film in here somewhere, like studio execs apparently thought (I, for one, would be curious to see that other cut that did well with test audiences).
In all, we get a really strong set of supplements. As I said previously, this film is not an easy one, even if you’ve seen Cassavetes’ other films, but the features do a really wonderful job navigating through it, while also managing to offer wild material like that Cavett interview. You may not come out liking the film any more than you already do, but I think the supplements do help make one look at it differently, maybe even more appreciatively.
A terrific special edition, delivering an excellent presentation and some wonderful supplements. Highly recommended.