Inspired by the wonderful Old Spice Commercials with Terry Crews, here's a little series I might do from time to time, double reviews with an actor, director, writer, whatever, since double is better than one.
This week: John Cassavetes - the actor, not the director:
In the book 'Cassavetes on Cassavetes' (or as close to an autobiography we have of him, which is an interview with film professor Ray Carney), Cassavetes mentions that before Faces the only two films he had anything to do with that he was proud of were Shadows- which, naturally, was his first feature and one of the few cinematic examples of something like jazz (true improv)- and this film, Edge of the City. Maybe it was due to the subject matter, being about something simple (two guys from different backgrounds working as longshoreman who become friends just based on getting along and mutual trust and respect) with the more 'topical' stuff (racism, class) being secondary. Or it was because it's a film much like On the Waterfront that gives its characters room to have realism unlike melodramas of the past? Or it's just cause he's that damn good in the film, and knew it while making it.
A scene early on with Axel North (real name Axel Nordman), who seems adrift in the night in New York City and calls up his parents who are in Indiana (though we don't know what at the time), seems to indicate what Cassavetes might have found in the project so worthwhile. Here he gets to behave moreso than traditionally "act", which is like being himself. In this scene with the phone call he covers the phone receiver and speaks, but no one on the other end can hear him, and it's a very sad and tense exchange of words as the son can hear but the parents cannot. It's a scene like this that shows Cassavetes in a sensitive moment, vulnerable, which helps a great deal once he's set against the man he works for, the brutish and unsubtle racist Charles (Jack Warden). Luckily at the job he meets an upstanding guy, Tommy, played by Sidney Poitier, and the two become close friends almost by chance (Tommy trying to get closer and closer to the sorta sky Axel).
Seeing these two actors together, and how well they're able to work with the natural dialog by Robert Alan Arthur that allows them to speak more like regular people from the period than like movie characters, is what really makes this movie. Some of the story gets a little far-fetched in the third act (how simply a key character is laid to waste in a fight), but director Martin Ritt never loses sight of how Poitier and Cassavetes behave around each other. One is more reserved (and for good reason, being a war deserter and with a bad secret from his past with his younger brother, "the only person I ever loved"), and one more outgoing in his friendliness (Tommy being a guy who likes to hang out, talk, romance with the ladies). And for the time period it set an example that other films needed to try and steer towards: not being overtly anti-racism, though the film has some of that, but just showing clearly how people can get along, as people. Poitier would a year later try a little more for this in The Defiant Ones.
Watching Cassavetes is also a key to the film's success; when he tells Poitier the story about his brother, suddenly the film slows down from the pace it has when Tommy is in charge of the conversation as a warmhearted (if sometimes pushy) kind of guy. It's a story that allows Cassavetes room as an actor, the kind which would probably influence him with his own actors. Also another scene that displays how generous he could be and how spot-on (or just effortless) his timing was is when he talks with the girl Tommy tries to set Axel up with, played by Kathleen Maguire. He seems so out of the loop of it, but as a genuine and nice guy he's able to connect with her. As an actor he also lets us know how messed up Axel really is, sometimes without having to say anything - just a look would do, though Tommy sometimes asks for more. And in the last act, it gets to a point that has some of the finest work Cassavetes ever did.
Ritt understands how this world works, how people can either get along together, or not as the case with Jack Warden. He seems to be such a sonofabitch, kind of like Lee J. Cobb in Waterfront only less of a higher-up kind of guy. Even he as a cartoonish villain comes off genuine in how he reacts to things. It says a lot when a director can get a one 1/2 dimensional character to seem convincing. Edge of the City has that, as a kind of character-driven noir film.
As another film in a long-line, much like Orson Welles did for many years, done more-so to pay the bills for the next feature film as director than for any kind of real 'passion' for the project, Machine-Gun McCain acts, walks and talks like a gangster genre picture. And from Italy no less. It has a similar kind of beat to it like Point Blank where you have a real tough guy gangster (Cassavetes) who is out of jail and has some payback to deliver to a super-criminal organization and based more on principle than anything else. He decides to pull a rather crazy casino-heist job, but not with the same kind of crew or expertise that Ocean's Eleven might've had. No, instead, when not laying his hot Euro-girl (Britt Eklund), he's preparing by himself to bomb the shit out of the casino and make off with the cake in a rather twisted premise.
Giuliano Montaldo's film is spare on character exploration - this is not the kind of film that Cassavetes would make himself, not in a thousand years - but is good on making things 'cool' in the heist-movie sense. The little we know about Hank McCain is just enough to keep the story going. There is some supporting character stuff with Peter Falk's gangster who is in some heat over some bad business going on behind the scenes (lots of tense shouting going on in some of these scenes, it looks fun to play but who knows on Italian productions), and absolutely nothing really to Eklund's character. I wondered throughout the film why she would go on with all of this what Hank was doing. Who is she and what is he to her? I guess who cares ultimately except as someone to carry the explosives and drive the car in a clinch.
More interesting in the film, though sadly underused, is a character Gena Rowlands plays (both Falk and Rowlands being Cassvetes regular players) who was an old flame of Hank McCain's way back when, and Rowlands gives this character a lot of unexpected depth in just five minutes of screen-time. She shows up since Hank needs some help in the last act of the story, and their chemistry on screen (notwithstanding being real life husband and wife) is electrifying, and she has a dangerous quality that speaks of being a femme fatale but a really good egg to the right people. A scene right after this when she's being questioned by some hoodlums on the trail of McCain is perhaps the best scene of the movie; how much of this was some decent direction or just Rowlands way about the scene I don't know.
Cassavetes, too, thankfully, helps anchor the film when it could get into a lull. He has some kind of concentration about him, whether he's scoping a joint out or gambling at a casino table or if he's talking with a few lunkhead lowlife criminals who are plotting a caper that they want to include him on, that makes Machine Gun McCain so enjoyable. The story itself is just okay, it moves along at a decent enough pace, but it's mostly just an excuse for the action to take shape (which, admittedly, once you see what McCain has in store in this heist, it's really one of the more incredible and daring scenes in heist movies from the time). But with the star there, it's an odd but compelling presence that makes the film itself much tougher. There's one scene especially where McCain pulls out his machine fun (hence the name), and it's a scene of dark, intense power, mostly from him saying little at all.