John Cassavetes

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Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802

Husbands, directed by Cassavetes, extends the faults of his last film, Faces; one might even say that Husbands takes those faults into a new dimension. It is, as Faces was, semi-written by Cassavetes and semi-improvised by the actors. This time, the film is about three suburban husbands—Cassavetes (a dentist), Gazzara (a Peter Max sort of commercial artist), and Peter Falk (profession unspecified)—who go on a bender after attending the funeral of a fourth…. One assumes they are meant to be searching for themselves, their lost freedom, and their lost potentialities—and one can guess that Cassavetes believes that their boyishness is creative. But the boyishness he shows us isn't remotely creative; it's just infantile and offensive.

The three leads are like performers in a Norman Mailer movie, role-playing at being lowlifes. Despite the suburban-commuter roles they have chosen, they punch and poke each other like buffoonish hardhats. When one cries, "Harry, you're a phony," the riposte is "Nobody calls me a phony"—and this sort of exchange may be followed by gales of laughter. In fact, they act very much like Gazzara, Falk, and Cassavetes doing their buddy-buddy thing on the "Dick Cavett Show." They horse around, encouraging each other to come up with dialogue like "The man is right. When the man is right, he's right." Since their performances don't have enough range for a full-length film, they become monotonous; Cassavetes apparently deceives himself and others into taking this monotony for fidelity to life. He replaces the exhausted artifices of conventional movies with a new set of pseudo-realistic ones, which are mostly instantaneous clichés. As a writer-director, he's so dedicated to revealing the pain under the laughter he's regular Pagliacci. To put it in the puerile terms in which it is conceived, Cassavetes thinks that in Husbands he has stripped people of their pretenses and laid bare their souls.

Cassavetes' method was originally, back in the Shadows days, to combine a group of actors' improvisations into a loose story; now he writes and stages sequences to look improvised. (pp. 222-23)

His approach to filmmaking is an actor's approach, and when it's effective it has certain resemblances to Harold Pinter's approach to theatre. The three men interacting onscreen are like the basic Pinter stage situation. We don't know anything about the supposed characters or their connections to the world—when they're throwing up their past lives we don't know what they're throwing up—but the actors have occasional intense and affecting moments, going through emotions that they set off in each other. We're glued to the acting in this movie, because that's really all there is, and maybe the best clue to the chaos of Cassavetes' method comes from the subsidiary players. The three leads are, after all, successful actors who have chosen to do what they're doing; they seem to be having a good time, and it's their psychodrama and their picture. (p. 223)

Husbands is a messy synthesis—a staged film with a documentary-style use of professional performers. We don't know what to react to: we can't sort out what we're meant to see from what we see. We know that the people around the table in the bar wouldn't sit there while these clowns bully them unless they were paid for it, but we also know that the sequence is supposed to reveal something that "ordinary" movies don't. But what does it reveal except the paralysis and humiliation of the bit players?… Cassavetes' camera style is to move in for the kill, like those TV newsmen who ask people in distress the questions that push them to break down while the...

(This entire section contains 802 words.)

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camera moves in on the suffering eyes and choking mouth. In the past, Cassavetes has given some erratic evidence of being a compassionate director; I think he forfeits all claims to compassion inHusbands. A long closeup scene in a London gambling club in which an elderly woman is approached by Peter Falk and coyly propositions him is perhaps the most grotesquely insensitive movie sequence of the year. It's hideous not because this is truth that the spectator seeks to evade but because this is bad acting and a gross conception. It reveals nothing more than a sensitive director would reveal by a look or a gesture, and at a discreet distance. Since Cassavetes conveys no sense of illusion—since he's after the naked "reality"—we don't think about the role, we think about the actress, and we wonder if she could ever get enough money to compensate for what is being done to her. (p. 224)

Pauline Kael, "Megalomaniacs" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. XLVI, No. 46, January 2, 1971), in her Deeper into Movies (© 1971 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1973, pp. 220-24.∗


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