This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Machine Gun McCain, directed by Giuliano Montaldo (1969):
San Francisco. Hank McCain (John Cassavetes) is fresh out of jail, having done time for 12 years. He’s been picked up outside the prison by his son, a petty criminal who will soon ask his father to help with a plan to rob a Las Vegas casino. “I need you for a job,” he tells Hank. In this frame, he is leaving his son’s apartment. He hates his son. He mocks him. He uses him. Hank is one of the great unlikeable characters in all of film. He is not unlikable in a seductive way—like Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear or The Night of the Hunter. He is unlikeable in an unlikeable way. Filmed in the Techniscope format favored by low-budget filmmakers in the 1960s, Machine Gun McCain has a grainy, richly colored quality to it. The red here is the red of the blood that will spill later in the film, the same over-heated, over-cooked red. Lit by the sun, everything glows.
Except for Hank. His soul is cold. There is no glow to him. Not even a criminal glow. Machine Gun McCain was first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969, and opened in the U.S. in October 1970, the same month that Husbands, perhaps Cassavetes’s finest directorial effort, premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival. Cassavetes probably made a lot more money staring in Machine Gun McCain than he did for the critically acclaimed Husbands, a film whose hand-held camera work predicted the digital aesthetics of our own cinematic era.
“They’re bums. They’re punks. They’re fags. They’re fringe nothings.” This is what Hank tells his son about the company his son keeps a few minutes before this frame. Hank, in the phone booth seemingly emerging out of the rocks at night, cigarette in hand, the San Francisco skyline in the background, is a hater of humanity. “I need this chance,” his son tells him earlier. “I got tired of being small change.” Hank’s reply? “You’re gonna be small change all your life.” The terrible thing is, you sense he’s right. The son’s a poseur loser.
Hank is as transparent as the phone booth he’s in. He says vile things and he does vile things. There seems, in fact, to be nothing inside him at all. He is a see-through man. His anarchic performance lacks the steely control that Hollywood likes in its criminal types, ranging from Marlon Brando in The Godfather to Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. But those are safe characters. We are not threatened by them in any way. They are caricatures of human beings.
The mafia is on Hank’s trail. He is doomed. In this shot, two thugs are about to enter the “back room” of a laundry mat, where a bunch of guys are tracking Hank’s movements. The men in hats. The woman in pink. The blue machine. The blue painted circle on the laundry scale. The smooth surface of the counter. This is almost a Kubrick-like, photographic image. The film alternates between this sort of careful, classical composition and the uncontrolled spirit of the New American Cinema that emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  There are relatively few long shots in the film; the editing is fast and brutal, which makes quiet moments like this in the laundry mat more weirdly ominous and unsettling. Why is the man to the right looking back over his shoulder? Is he looking at the woman? Does she “know too much?” Will she be killed? Why is it uncomfortable to see well-dressed men (“one well-dressed fuckin’ man knows where your cute little fuckin’ butt’s hidin’! Huh? You stupid F***! F*** with me, man!” Frank says in Blue Velvet) in a laundry mat? In Machine Gun McCain, Hank will die and no one will care, or be relieved, or feel good about it, or feel bad about it. Although the closing (see the video clip above) recalls the shoot-out at the end of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), there’s none of the forced melodrama of that famous sequence. Hank is riddled to death with bullets, falls, dies. Then the thugs look at him. Then they drive away. In his 1959 essay “A Call for a New Generation of Film-Makers,” Jonas Mekas wrote: “Hollywood films (and we mean Hollywoods all over the world) reach us beautiful and dead. . . . And there is no other way of breaking the frozen cinematic ground than through a complete derangement of the official cinematic senses.”