Machine Gun McCain and the Birth of the Cassavetes Clan

Deep Dives

Machine Gun McCain and the Birth of the Cassavetes Clan

On Film / Features — Jul 19, 2018

A tough, dirty gangster picture that delivers the requisite payload of violence and bastardly behavior, Giuliano Montaldo’s Gli intoccabili (released in the U.S. as Machine Gun McCain) is also a landmark in the story of John Cassavetes and his ragtag repertory troupe. Just like the Rat Pack first coming together on the set of Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958), here was an early, unusual outing for something close to the core Cassavetes clan: Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, and Cassavetes himself. Cementing the connection was Machine Gun McCain coproducer Bino Cicogna, who would largely underwrite Cassavetes’s Husbands, a last good deed before attempting to escape mounting debts by fleeing to Brazil, where he was found dead under shady circumstances in 1971. As Machine Gun McCain ends with an attempted take-the-money-and-run escape to Mexico, we might consider this a case of life—or death—imitating art.

Never exactly a relaxed or amiable screen presence, Cassavetes seemed to take on an especial aggrieved edginess when doing for-hire acting work, which was primarily in genre films—a breed of movie very far from the character-based, emotionally denuding melodramas that were his abiding passion. (1976’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie was as close as Cassavetes ever got to a crime picture, and nobody was about to mistake it for a Philip D’Antoni production.) Even in a high-end horror film by a certifiably brilliant director, like Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Cassavetes brings an anxious, squirming self-disgust to playing the part of an unscrupulous actor prostituting himself for his career—it’s tempting to imagine that stewing over the exigencies of having to sign onto “unworthy” projects in order to finance his own labors of love needled him on in such parts, added an extra layer of bitterness and recriminatory rage to the performances. 

“Hank McCain is one of the coldest, nastiest, most hard-boiled hard-luck S.O.B.s that Cassavetes ever played—and he played a few.”

Case in point, his Hank McCain, one of the coldest, nastiest, most hard-boiled hard-luck S.O.B.s that Cassavetes ever played—and he played a few. Picked up by his gawky son after being sprung from prison following a twelve-year stint for armed robbery, Hank reprimands the boy not to call him “Dad.” Later, he gives a blunt appraisal of the crew that his son has put together for a job: “They’re bums, they’re punks, they’re fags, they’re fringe nothings.” The nearest thing he has to terms of endearment are “Dumbo” and “Baby booby.” Driving down the Las Vegas strip with new bride Britt Ekland, encountered in a go-go bar and wedded in a whirlwind, he gives a no-less-frank summary of the bright lights: “It’s an attraction for sad, fat businessmen begging for more money. For hustlers, for thieves, for pimps. I love it!” (The dialogue is credited to playwright Israel Horovitz, though one wonders if, given his dependence on improvisational exercises in preparing his scripts, a few of these nuggets weren’t Cassavetes’s own inventions.)

That abrupt “I love it!”, along with Cassavetes’s occasional eruptions into bleak, barking hyena laughter, is what makes the character more than a one-dimensional black cloud—there’s nothing phoned-in about Cassavetes’s work here, though he’s doing it in a film that was less than perfectly suited to the loose-looking give-and-go style he pursued in those he directed, which depended on a shared post-Method acting frame of reference among the players and a commitment to pursuing the ragged, raw, and dangerous. The international cast of Machine Gun McCain, mixing Americans and imports who bring to the table variable acting backgrounds and levels of English comprehension, are an odd hodgepodge, like much about the movie. Swedish-born Ekland was a Hollywood habitué since appearing in Elvis vehicle G.I. Blues (1960), and provides her own dubbed voice, but not so for the host of Italian actors like young Pierluigi Aprà, playing the younger McCain, or Florinda Bolkan, a Brazilian actress who’d made her name in Italian genre fare like Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), here playing the arm candy of Peter Falk’s West coast mob big. The then-industry-standard Italian practice of post-dubbing often created unusual results, but rarely will you find quite so disorienting a combination of the naturalistic and artificial as you do here.

Though Cassavetes’s character lends his name to the title, Machine Gun McCain is also devoted to the parallel narrative of a mafia big played by Falk. Falk’s career would soon be inextricable from that of Cassavetes, but at this point he was a gigging actor who’d had difficulty following up on early successes in film—his breakthrough had been a gangster part in 1960’s Murder, Inc., retelling the story of Brownsville, Brooklyn’s fierce and feared Jewish mob. Here he’s doing Cosa Nostra as Charlie Adamo, a recently promoted capo who still hits the boxing gym and does his own head-busting.

It’s Adamo who underwrites McCain’s early release from prison, intending to use him as a pawn in a plan to muscle in on a Vegas casino, something which creates friction with the family heads back East, and puts both Adamo and McCain in the crosshairs. The movie, adapted from Ovid Demaris’s 1961 novel Candylegs, moves back and forth between the two men for much of its runtime, as though setting up a collision, but Falk and Cassavetes never share a scene—something that feels like a dramatic miscalculation in a movie such as this, which doesn’t shy away from the usual inducements of the action film. Sharing a set, however, was enough to cement a friendship that would lead to six future collaborations, including, not long after the Machine Gun McCain shoot, Husbands. Other established Cassavetes mates are also on hand, including Faces (1968) star Val Avery and, in a small but very poignant part, wife Rowlands earning “Special Guest Star” billing as Rosemary, McCain’s onetime moll, who still carries a flame for him. (There is a marvelous bit where he stops to consider the news clippings reporting their exploits yellowing on her wall and appears for a moment to bow his head to cry, before raising it to reveal a raucous laugh.)

The movie’s locations, like its cast, are an ungainly mix. The exteriors testify to the fact that the Italian crew shot quite extensively in the States: The movie opens in rather uninspired fashion looking south down Park Avenue, and contains views of the streets and back alleys of New York, Vegas, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—particularly the strip joints on Telegraph Hill. (McCain, who has been in the cooler since the late 1950s and comes out with a decidedly unhip tan suit as his uniform, must be experiencing the sexual revolution all at once.) Like his countryman Antonioni on Zabriskie Point (1970), Montaldo is agog at American signage, intoxicated with the flash of the strip, which he captures in its retina-searing heyday. Interiors, on the other hand, were largely shot in Rome’s Incir-De Paolis and Dear Studios, and with these the documentary impulse is abandoned for theatrical gel-splashed impressionism—see the lemony yellow light of the Vegas hotel where Adamo goes to lean on a casino boss, or the red of the go-go bar where McCain picks up his new ladyfriend after dropping another would-be Romeo with a flat of the palm to the dome.

This, along with a soft spot for hard-snap zooms and slow, portentous dollies, is the major stylistic exuberance that Montaldo indulges in. A former actor and assistant director, Montaldo at this point in his still-young filmmaking career was moving between politically engaged and genre projects, his most recent in the latter category being the extremely diverting Rio-set Grand Slam (1967), with Edward G. Robinson, Klaus Kinski, and Janet Leigh. For Montaldo, as for Cassavetes, working in pop cinema seems to have been a means to more serious ends, though Machine Gun McCain is in every respect superior to his deathly dull Sacco and Vanzetti (1971), best remembered for its Morricone/Joan Baez theme, and presumably the sort of “important” project he was here trying to earn the leeway to make. Nevertheless, Montaldo shows plenty of dash when setting up his movie’s centerpiece casino heist, while its identifiable high point comes quite early: a sequence of McCain sauntering out of prison using extensive point-of-view shots, all scored by Ennio Morricone’s slow, swaggering, horn-heavy “The Ballad of Hank McCain.” 

“No-one knows better than McCain / How to care for number one, how to take and never give,” croons a male singer to Morricone’s tune over the closing credits, the lyrics shaping the individualist loner McCain somewhat in the mold of the mercenary spaghetti western antihero. As in many of the Italian-set poliziotteschi crime films of the day—Montaldo had worked under genre stand-out Carlo Lizzani in his assistant years—Machine Gun McCain imagines a nation of almost total iniquity and corruption ruled by an inescapable corporatized criminality, in doing so getting out ahead of the American mania for organized crime films that would follow the success of The Godfather (1972).

Montaldo’s movie was afforded nothing like Coppola’s prestige product’s roll-out: The U.S. cut, distributed by Columbia Pictures and featured on FilmStruck, ran some twenty minutes shorter than the Italian, which may account for the awkward employment of a narrator plugging in holes. More puzzling are the absences unrelated to the trimming down, the elision of obvious potential set pieces, such as the anticlimax of the final shootout or the missed opportunity for a Adamo-McCain confrontation—though Cassavetes and Falk (and Rowlands) would have plenty of opportunity to go after one another in films to come. What does survive is more than a curio, though—pulled in different directions by the various imperatives of genre requirement, its director’s artier ambitions, and the disparate approaches of its performers, Machine Gun McCain works at times almost in spite of itself, galvanized by a slightly schizophrenic energy and the mad dog growl of Cassavetes’s performance. Hank, hunted down by the syndicates, doesn’t get far in his bid for renegade independence, but Cassavetes, at least, would keep on plugging.

Machine Gun McCain is available to stream on FilmStruck through August 30, 2018.