About a decade back, a friend of mine handed me a CD on the occasion of my birthday. “I burned it specifically for you,” he said, as he pressed it into my hand. Then he wrapped the crook of his elbow around the back of my neck, pulled me in for a quick, strong hug, and jumped into his car. I never saw him again.
On the face of the CD, in his inimitable scrawl, he’d written “Manny Birthday Mix.” But it wasn’t a mix at all. It was, in fact, the complete Ennio Morricone soundtrack to the film Machine Gun McCain, starring the great John Cassavetes as the titular Hank McCain.
For years, I’d play that soundtrack on my birthday; speakers turned to the maximum volume, I’d listen to “The Ballad of Hank McCain” as I made my morning eggs, bacon, and toast, before I’d even decided how I wanted to spend my special day. It became my own little tradition, one of those tiny bits of good cheer that many people don’t take the time to find.
It’s difficult sometimes to put into words the way a piece of music makes you feel, but “wistful” comes immediately to mind when I think of Morricone’s music for this sadly underrated film. I think the Italian film industry—in its ’60s, ’70s, and’80s form, anyway, choked as it was with innumerable rips from and riffs on popular American genre films—gets a bad rap, but there is a beauty in many of those films that lives on even after their American forebears slip into sad, concrete Iconography. Faces in the classic American crime pictures are etched into memory, the actors’ names carved into metal plaques that hang forever in the halls of the popular consciousness. But the faces in Italian genre pictures, even the American faces, the ones we recognize, slip into our headspaces and elicit surprise, and then slip away just as quickly, so that we’re left with vague recollections, the soft and hazy memories of a fugue state. Italian genre films are jazz pieces. The standard beats are there; nothing else can really be measured.
It’s interesting to watch a film like Cassavetes’s Husbands and to follow it up with something like McCain, which also features Cassavetes and Falk. While you don’t think of McCain while watching Husbands, the reverse is not true. While McCain was released a year before Husbands, it manages to absorb the cultural capital of Cassavetes’s own film on subsequent viewings. More than simple period curios, these Italian genre films act like sponges floating in a stoppered basin, the years surrounding them engorging them with a level of pathos they might not have achieved on their own. They are anti-auteur in the extreme; instead of being the product of a unifying vision, they are inclusive and collaborative to the point of drawing from other films and associations, eternally unsatisfied with what’s in their own frames, reaching into your head for more. They are ambiguous and opaque and haunting even though you can practically set your watch to their plots.
My birthday was this past Friday. I woke up, I put on the soundtrack, I had breakfast. I felt reasonably content with my life. I watched Machine Gun McCain, and I realized how much I yearned for something to be missing.