A Tommy Gun and a Time-bomb: John Cassavetes, 'Machine Gun McCain' and One of the Weirdest Paycheck Gigs of All Time

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From July 6th to July 31st, the BAMcinematek in New York is presenting a complete retrospective of the films of John Cassavetes, and it probably goes without saying that the series is worth attending in its entirety. But besides luxuriating in the anti-melodramatic delights of the great director’s best films—especially those which remain regrettably unavailable on home video in North America, like “Minnie and Moskowitz” and “Love Streams”—BAM’s astute programming offers certain ancillary pleasures for more adventurous fans and completists, those who’d like to see one of the American cinema’s most stubbornly personal auteurs lend his acting talents to the creative whims of other people. Of course, John Cassavetes figured prominently in enough well-known films, from his stand alongside Charles Bronson in “The Dirty Dozen” to his turn as Mia Farrow’s decidedly unloving husband in “Rosemary’s Baby”, that seeing the results of his reluctant deference to artists other than himself will hardly be surprising—except, perhaps, in one unique case.

In early 1968, John Cassavetes flew to Rome to make some quick cash starring in a low-budget Italian crime picture helmed by Giuliano Montaldo, a pulpy exploitation flick by the name of “Machine Gun McCain”. It’s little-seen even by diehard Cassavetes fans today—though it did see a slight resurgence in interest, if not exactly popularity, when Blue Underground released it on DVD and Bluray in 2010—and is usually only mentioned as a kind of directorial footnote, an insignificant career digression unworthy of serious consideration. (Ray Carney’s book “Cassavetes on Cassavetes”, generally considered to be the definitive book about the director, mentions the film only passingly, and even then only to account for the time Cassavetes spent in Italy shooting it.)

But “Machine Gun McCain”, despite what it’s all but nonexistent reputation suggests, remains a deeply intriguing portrait of a man so in thrall to his own creative powers that he couldn’t help but imprint himself on even the most superficial work-for-hire, more or less proving that Cassavetes could bring method-acting hellfire down on any role whatsoever. “Machine Gun McCain” is very much the straightforward genre film, a European dime-store potboiler of the kind Umberto Lenzi would perfect in the 70s, and yet its every action is inflected with Cassavetes’s distinctive authorial voice. He may be barrelling through Vegas with a tommy gun and a time-bomb, taking out gangsters at the drop of a hat, but he did his own way. The film wouldn’t be the same with anybody else.

Cassavetes, naturally, was not particularly interested in making the picture to begin with, but as usual he signed on in order to pay the rent (and the bills for his forthcoming films, many of which he was eager to get into production). “Machine Gun McCain” was produced by a young Italian millionaire, the Count Ascanio Bino Cicogna, who began investing in the cinema as a kind of overzealous lark. Seeing him, quite rightly, as a fanciful rube with a lot of money to spare, Cassavetes courted Cicogna while shooting the film in the hope of fleecing him further. His plan paid off handsomely: cornering him at a dinner party one night in Rome, Cassavetes pitched this self-styled cinephile and prospective financier on several dream projects, and Cicogna happily signed him up for a lucrative two-picture deal.

The first film, a drama about the Mexican revolution called “A Piece of Paradise”, had been sitting in the drawer since 1960, but the $5 million dollars need to make it happen was contingent on Cassavetes convincing Tony Quinn to star. He failed to do so, leaving Cassavetes and Cicogna to move onto the second of their planned two pictures: “Husbands”, which would of course be made (though, unfortunately for Cicogna, it would fail miserably).

Cassavetes had planned “Husbands” around casting himself, Ben Gazzara, and his good friend Peter Falk, who had happened to be cast as one of the villains in “Machine Gun McCain”. That’s perhaps the strangest thing about the film, and one quality which instantly elevates it above the glut of other for-hire work Cassavetes made during that period: in addition to starring Cassavetes himself as the lead gangster, “McCain” also featured Cassavetes regulars like Falk, his wife Gena Davis (who shows up in the last reel as McCain’s former girl), and family friends Dennis Sallas, Jack Ackerman, and Val Avery.

The end result looks and feels surprisingly like a Cassavetes film: between the roll call of house regulars and the degree to which the star dictated the tenor of the picture, it’s hard to know exactly how much of “Machine Gun McCain” belonged to Montaldo and how much belonged to his difficult lead, whose tendency to command even the smallest details on set as a performer has been widely reported. Either way, “McCain” clearly belongs to the Cassavetes canon even if only on the periphery, a continuing source of intrigue even as its legacy fades away.