Deep Dives

Machine Gun McCain and the Birth of the Cassavetes Clan

<em>Machine Gun McCain </em>and the Birth of the Cassavetes Clan<em></em>

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.”

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