By Geoff Stanton
“They called John Cassavetes a cinema-verite director in one of the obituaries. That’s French for ‘the cinema of truth’, the kind of documentary film-making where the director stands back and doesn’t interfere, while things happen naturally. John Cassavetes never made a cinema verite film in his life. He was always in there up to his neck, swimming against life and shouting instructions to those in his wake. But don’t take that as a criticism. Cassavetes made films that gloriously celebrated the untidiness of life, at a time when everybody else was making neat, slick formula pictures.” (Roger Ebert, ‘Awake in the Dark’ 1989)
“He deliberately tried to keep you off-balance, so you wouldn’t bring out old-fashioned technique and old ideas” said Peter Falk. “But it was impossible. I didn’t understand him. I wanted to strangle him.” In 1970 the volatile friendship of Peter Falk and John Cassavetes yielded Husbands; criticised – by Ebert amongst others – for rambling scenes, chaotic turns, infantile meandering. Fair enough. But the story of male friendship remains genuine and true to form – a testament to the friendship that actually broke through the sweat-session improvisations and, for Falk and Cassavetes, endured through to the director’s death.
Pitched against Cassavetes’ creative momentum, Falk’s quiet instinct was not far from Columbo’s own shrewd intellect – the eternal TV detective to whom the great actor remains spliced. But his work with Cassavetes thoroughly wrenched the man from the mac. “There was no character” he later later admitted. “There was me.”
“You never knew when the camera might be going. And it was never ‘Stop. Cut. Start again.’ John would walk in the middle of a scene and talk, and though you didn’t realize it, the camera kept going. So I never knew what the hell he was doing. But he ultimately made me, and I think every actor, less self-conscious, less aware of the camera than anybody I’ve ever worked with.”
Cassavetes’ work was usually about the personal politics of strain; women go mad (or start off mad), men stay lost, dark, rebellious. His story pitch is bare, ripe with alienation and anger. Husbands was the story of three friends – Falk, Cassavetes and Gazzara – fast approaching forty, angrily aging in a fuel of alcohol and frustration, yearning for the freedom and the strength of youth. After a funeral of a friend they go on a bender that takes them as far as London and almost beyond return.
But Falk’s introduction to the idea actually began en-route for a hot dog. Recognising Cassavetes at an LA Lakers game, they began talking respective projects. Cassavetes’ contempt for the Hollywood system was clear – he impulsively agreed to work on Falk’s project because he respected his previous work, refusing to listen to an obligatory pitch. Cassavetes also had an idea about three old friends who went on an epic drinking binge after the death of a friend – he thought Falk would be perfect for a role.
Starting out as a live television star of the 1950s before leading an actors workshop when he made the acclaimed Shadows, Cassavetes had long turned his back on Hollywood and become an outsider. He pitted himself against the system, struggling to finance and distributing his own films at a time when getting a non-studio film into theaters was virtually impossible.
Peter Falk, by contrast, had started with a master’s degree in public administration and worked as an efficiency expert before deciding to take a chance on an acting career. Despite being remembered for Columbo, he had two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor in 1960 and 1961—for his roles in Murder, Inc. and A Pocketful of Miracles.
“Because we keep forgetting that we’re in a bad situation – that’s what make it seem terrific” explains Cassavetes to Falk and Gazzara at one of their intensive work-shops, where they comb through the bar scene in countless ways. The story interested Cassavetes less than the “unguarded moments” he could catch on film, and in many ways the sweat sessions would trace the heat necessary to prep them.
“The only good part about the story was that it served as a basis for us to use for our individual expressions” said Cassavetes. “Actors will put their money where their mouth is, and directors won’t – that’s what it boils down to in my book.”
The alchemy of amateur and professional actors – with some performances from extras that Cassavetes claimed ‘are better than professional actors’ – produced a long, but innovative and genuine film that left Falk (who reportedly even got mugged for real while filming in New York) recharged, invigorated and slightly beweildered. “I had no idea what Husbands was about” he admitted after the shoot was through. “After it, I told him, ‘I’ll work with you as an actor, but not as a director’”.
A scene that may have come straight from a Husbands improv featured on The Dick Cavett Show, where Falk, Cassavetes and Gazarra were invited to talk about the film. The three emerge comfortably scotched and in a cloud of cigarette smoke. True to form, Falk tries to give a serious pitch several times before being interrupted by a dancing Ben Gazarra, a commercial break and an unexpected swizzle upon Cassavetes’ shoulders.
Sony, not sure what to do with it all, labelled the film “a comedy about life, death, and freedom.” Cassavetes meanwhile had to cut it by an hour and a half to get it down to contractual length. Columbia, the studio that produced the film, cut another eleven minutes off it anyway following some negative reviews and audience walkouts.
But the film was also praised for its innovation and genuine sense of camaraderie. Life Magazine featured the three friends – John Cassavetes, Ben Gazzara, and Peter Falk – as its cover story in May. And the friendships endured. Cassavetes subsequently directed Falk on A Woman Under The Influence, regarded as his masterpiece, and the lesser lauded gangster flick Mikey and Nicky. He also appeared with Falk on Columbo.
“Can you recognise a difference between real sentiment, and sentimentality?” Falk ultimately challenged Dick Cavett’s audience. “We made a picture that doesn’t have any sentimentality in it. But has a great deal of feeling in it. It has the kind of emotions that we all experience, but you really don’t see on the screen. The kind of emotions that get lost – but they’re no longer contrived in our film. They’re genuine. Delight, hope, irritation, frustration, anger, friendship, love. Beweilderment, confusion. They’re all there. Go see it.’
Falk may well have agreed with Roger Ebert when he said “I met Cassavetes a few times and then I understood his films in a better way. They were like he was. Now that he is gone his films will have to speak for him, and few directors have left behind work that duplicates more exactly the pleasure of being in their company”.