John Cassavetes had just scored an unlikely hit with his independent drama Faces (1968), and his producer, Al Ruban, asked the maverick filmmaker what he wanted to do next. The iconoclastic actor-director mentioned he’d been toying with the idea of doing something about male friendship and grief; there were also these scruffy New York actors, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara, whom he’d wanted to work with. From those unformed notions sprang one of Cassavetes’s more complex character studies, in which three middle-aged men go on a lost-weekend bender after a pal prematurely kicks the bucket. Like most of his work, Husbands relies heavily on actorly improvisations, long takes and a rambling free-for-all vibe, but the flaying that Cassavetes gives the male of the species is particularly brutal, even by his standards. This trio drinks with Bukowski-esque fervor, indulges in every a-hole whim and, in an especially nasty sequence, insults a tone-deaf woman’s singing. Sympathetic they are not; in terms of realistic portrayals of emotionally stunted men staring into the abyss, however, these gents are frighteningly spot-on.
Stronger, more daring collaborations with Cassavetes’s costars lay on the horizon—A Woman Under the Influence, with Falk; The Killing of a Chinese Bookie,with Gazzara—but their initial experience together would be the touchstone for every truth-seeking experiment that followed. The fact that this key work has been in home-entertainment limbo has kept fans from appreciating its importance, something Sony’s long-awaited DVD will hopefully alter. Cassavetes biographer Marshall Fine’s commentary is an exhaustive treasure trove of trivia and career minutiae; the supplementary looking-back doc feels regrettably spare and far too short.—David Fear