Husbands (1970) is a fascinating look at director John Cassavetes’s artistic process. Shot in 1969, with a planned release for that year, the film started out as a comedy: three middle-class, middle-aged men played by Cassavetes, Peter Falk, and Ben Gazzara, who do everything but play it cool as they navigate the end of the 60s. After their best friend, Stuart, dies, Gus (Cassavetes), Archie (Falk), and Harry (Gazzara) are in a “three’s a crowd” situation, stuck between the reality of the swinging doors of NYC bars and the fantasy of Swinging London.
But after seeing a first cut by British editor Peter Tanner, who was known for his work on Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Cassavetes changed his mind. While everyone else who saw the first cut, loved it, Cassavetes didn’t love being put in the role of a crowd-pleaser – and he refused to have his instincts about what the film could be overrode by what everyone was telling him the film was: 1969’s smash hit.
Of course, we know what Husbands became after Cassavetes spent nearly a year on the reedit, but how it got there is as significant as how it would have been received a year earlier. During my archival research, I read a shooting script for the NYC scenes, which sheds light on the process by which Cassavetes turned the film from a comedy into something more emotionally complex.
Husbands: the First Cut
The film takes place from the perspectives of Gus, Archie, and Harry who suddenly glimpse the possibilities – which strike them all as utterly terrifying – when their conformist blinders fall away after Stuart, their de-facto leader, dies. A year earlier, Petulia (1968) signaled, through TV images of the Vietnam war, that widespread disillusionment about the state of the world had already reached the demographic that the men of Husbands represent. Without a leader, their suburban lives sink into a social quagmire.
From this viewpoint, the stakes in Husbands are higher than in Cassavetes’s previous film, Faces (1968). The men in Faces squabble over business deals and prostitutes; they are “just getting by,” as Cassavetes puts it, while the men in Husbands “want to live.” The autobiographical aspect is also ramped up. Faces works through Cassavetes’s being fired from A Child Is Waiting (1963) by producer Stanley Kramer, which resulted in Cassavetes’s two-year exile from Hollywood. Husbands constitutes Cassavetes’s response to the sudden and inexplicable death of his older brother, who died at the age of 30. For Husbands, Cassavetes recruited Falk and Gazzara to do the sort of soul-searching members of the younger generation were doing. As Cassavetes elaborates,
Falk, Gazzara, and myself started with ourselves and a kind of simple idea of a guy dying: What it would mean to us if one of us, if one of our close friends, died. How would we handle it? From the very beginning, we made a pact that we would try to find whatever truth was left in ourselves and talk about that. Sometimes the scenes would reflect things that we didn’t like to find out: how idiotic we were or how little we had to do with ourselves, how uptight we were.
The shooting script focuses on a joke that Gus and Archie play on Harry, who appears as the most uptight. Accompanied by Gus and Archie, Harry goes home after the two-day wake – during which he got into a serious argument with his wife – to try and fix things. Harry enters his house, while the other two stand outside, mocking him for not only going home, but cleaning himself up. Harry leaves the house without seeing or talking to his wife. Instead, he tells his mother-in-law to tell his wife that he loves her.
Harry goes to his job at an advertising firm. Gus, accompanied by Archie, goes to his dental practice. Gus makes a few, brief, attempts to see his patients, but his heart isn’t in it, and he closes his office.
Gus and Archie go to an ice cream parlor; the tone becomes slapstick (in both Cassavetes and Falk’s wheelhouse as actors). Archie proposes that they play a joke on Harry: they’ll tell him that they’ve met three women who “like guys who stink,” and call Harry to see if he’ll buy their ridiculous story. Archie says that the women are English. Gus tops Archie’s embellishment by telling Harry that they’re going to fly to London with the women that night. Archie tells Harry that they’ll pick him up in 10-15 minutes.
Meanwhile, Harry, worked up by their story, puts on a screwball performance of his own, and his boss fires him. In the taxi with Gus and Archie, Harry tells them that he’s quit his job and purchased an airplane ticket to London. Archie can’t believe what he’s hearing. He orders the driver to stop and climbs over Harry to get out. Harry violently blocks him, initiating a brawl, with Gus caught between them. After they exit the cab and regroup, Harry says that he’s going to London. Gus and Archie agree to go with him.
The Reedited Husbands: Taking Sides
Ray Carney thinks that the correspondence between the shooting script and the first cut is very similar, claiming that Tanner directly followed the script. In the reedited version, Cassavetes cut the scripted ice cream parlor scene (Harry’s screwball performance/getting fired and the brawl in the taxi are also not in the reedited version). The London trip instead comes about by Harry’s returning to his house a second time, after the scripted return scene. According to Marshall Fine, the second return scene was quickly written and then shot, to feature one of the wives – this scene, of course, would have been part of the footage to which Cassavetes had access, and radically changes the film’s tone.
Upon Harry’s second return, his wife is there, and an intensely physical fight happens among Harry, his wife, and his mother-in-law. As this suburban horror trip unfolds, Gus and Archie’s bragging about their dominance over their wives during their mockery of Harry marks them as guilty by association. They eventually realize what is happening and drag Harry out of his house. While Harry is cooling off outside, out of sheer desperation, he brandishes the passport he retrieved while in the house, and announces his intention to leave, to go to London.
In the editing room, Cassavetes realizes that the film could show what he wanted to get across about the three men, without having to tell the audience as much about them. Andrew Bujalski observes that, in the recut scenes in NYC, “we feel less of a sense of differentiation among the three men.” Thus Husbands becomes a chronicle of their painful, even, half-assed at times, moments to undo the conformity instilled by their leader. Not only is that not very funny; it’s even less funny to see their desperation fully emerge – and the resulting collateral damage.
Granted, the first cut had plenty of prescient observations, both social and cinematic. Husbands documents a life-change among the men: what we would now call their collective “mid-life crisis” wouldn’t come into vogue until the mid-70s. And the ice cream parlor scene would’ve anticipated the famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970).
But Bujalski warns us that the comedy version of Husbands might have been too easily understood by cinematic influencers:
Would we be remembering that version today as ground zero of the man-child comedy that not long thereafter became such a reliable cornerstone of American entertainment? Could it have beaten Animal House to the punch by nearly a decade, providing a font of quotations for generations of frat brothers, all the future dentists and advertising execs like Gus and Harry?
Perhaps, the recut version of Husbands questions the synergy between art and business by asking the audience the uncomfortable question: which side are you on?
Andrew Bujalski, “Husbands: Vows.” Current: The Criterion Collection. May 27, 2020. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/6958-husbands-vows
Ray Carney, Cassavetes on Cassavetes (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001)
Marshall Fine, Accidental Genius: How John Cassavetes Invented the American Independent Film (New York: Hyperion, 2005)