Sunday, April 3, 2011

MACHINE GUN MCCAIN (Gli Intoccabili, 1969)

No relation to the future Senator then stewing in a POW camp, Hank McCain (John Cassavetes) finds himself suddenly pardoned after twelve years of a life sentence and greeted outside San Quentin by a son he barely knows. The apple didn't fall far from the tree, though; the son is a criminal who tells Dad that he was sprung with a well-timed bribe so he could take part in a plan to rob the Royal casino in Las Vegas. McCain is wary. The plan looks good, but his boy's associates are "Hollywood fags" and he can smell a set-up a mile away. Still, he may as well take the money they're giving up front and live a little. Casing Vegas, he falls fast for Irene Tucker (Britt Ekland) and marries her practically on the spot. But as he continues to ponder his options, the plot is already collapsing around him. His boy was put up to it by Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk), who runs six western states for the Syndicate but wants a piece of Vegas. Rebuffed by the Royal, Charlie puts the robbery plan into motion, only to abort it when he learns that the New York dons own shares in the casino. Eager not to offend, no matter how he resents his subordinate standing, Charlie wants all trace of the conspiracy wiped out, and that means wiping out McCain and his son.

Cassavetes and Ekland cruise Vegas, and their luck looks good at first.

Trusting his instincts, Hank McCain escapes a death trap but loses his son in the process. Then, as if on general principles, and with only Irene to help him, he carries out the Royal robbery plan. It involves a lot of explosions: several throughout town to divert the fire department, then several inside the Royal to justify his arrival disguised as a fire marshall. Against the odds, he cleans the place out single-handed. Adamo and his right-hand man know that this is McCain's handiwork, and when they discuss him within earshot of Adamo's unfaithful wife (Florinda Balkan), she rats them out to Don Francesco (Gabriele Ferzetti), who deals with them as if they were still in on the plan. Now all the Syndicate's resources are focused on tracking down McCain, who hopes desperately to flee the country. With the escape routes closing fast, he and Irene have to turn to his former lover and partner in crime (Gena Rowlands) for their last chance at freedom....

I don't know if the explosions were part of the original casino caper plan, but Peter Falk takes the fall for them anyway.

Gli intoccabili ("The untouchables") is the second of two movies John Cassavetes made in Italy after The Dirty Dozen made him bankable there. While making Italian films was usually a mark of American career decline, for Cassavetes it was a fundraising venture for his independent directorial projects. One imagines that he was instrumental in getting Falk and Rowlands (Mrs. Cassavetes) cast in Giuliano Montaldo's film, and that all their salaries went into funding Husbands, which came out the following year, shortly after Machine Gun McCain itself reached the U.S. Montaldo tells us on the Blue Underground DVD that Cassavetes was clearly champing at the bit, second-guessing the director for the first week of shooting and growing jealous when Montaldo directed Rowlands. Nevertheless, the Cassavetes gang seem fully committed to the project, with the man himself striking the right hard-boiled tone and Falk playing especially intense as the volatile Adamo. Rowlands has only a "guest star" role but her scenes prove to be the key to the picture.

Montaldo (who remains active at age 81 and has a new film coming out this year) explains on the DVD that, like many other filmmakers, he was fascinated by the idea of organized crime operating like a big business, the more ruthless for being increasingly impersonal. Hank McCain is supposed to represent an older, virtually obsolete criminal type -- hence the machine gun, presumably. When he reunites with Rosemary, the Rowlands character, we learn from news clippings that they'd been notorious years earlier as the "Machine Gun Lovers" until they'd been caught and imprisoned, him for life, her for 18 years (she was presumably paroled). While the chronology suggests the time period of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, Montaldo probably wants us to think more along the lines of Bonnie and Clyde. Whatever his intention, Hank and Rosemary are clearly meant as criminals from another epoch, a more honorable and romantic era for Montaldo's purposes. While Hank didn't exactly rush back to her once freed, we see clearly enough that she still carries a torch for him, and that their feelings for each other remain mutual. Rosemary exemplifies this romanticized oldtime criminal chivalry when she kills herself rather than rat out Hank, and Hank finally lives up to the dubious ideal when given an ultimate choice between flight and fight for Irene's sake. Seen this way, Hank's story becomes faintly reminiscent of Roy Earle's from High Sierra: an old-guard criminal freed only to take part in a questionable robbery and run away with a much-younger girl. When you compare Machine Gun McCain to High Sierra you see how Montaldo makes his point about the deromanticization of crime. Roy Earle and Hank McCain have somewhat similar ends, but unlike with Earle there's no sense that McCain has "crashed out" and is now "free." There's no one left with empathy enough for McCain to even suggest the notion.

Montaldo made his name internationally with his previous film, Grand Slam. Like that one, Gli Intoccabili is a caper film, though the caper doesn't dominate the story this time as it does in Grand Slam. It's more perfunctory about its caper because it ends up being a one-man operation, but the caper format gives Machine Gun McCain a different feel from other Italian crime movies. It really feels more American, not only because of the Cassavetes infiltration and the extensive location shooting in Vegas and elsewhere but because the story is more plot and character-driven and less sensationalistic than the typical shoot-and-chase film. McCain may disappoint as an action film (and many more violent Italian crime films are brilliant works in their own right), but Montaldo and co-writer Mino Roli compensate with their attention to character, while the Cassavetes gang hold up the acting end admirably. Their presence makes McCain a film-historical curiosity as well as an entertaining relic of a Vegas milieu that has itself largely vanished since it impressed Montaldo with its cold, merciless modernity.

BlueUndergroundInc has released an outstanding DVD of the film, and has uploaded a trailer for it to YouTube.

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