Giuliano Montaldo: Transatlantic Legend

“Vera & Giuliano”

“I knew Fellini, Antonioni, Pontecorvo. It was a period of good people, good writers and very good directors.” A pioneering director himself, Giuliano Montaldo is one of the last living greats from Italy’s cinematic Golden Age. At 92, he’s as active as ever, and the pandemic hasn’t slowed him down. Donning his mask, he was one of the first in line when Italy reopened its movie theaters.

Born in Genoa in 1930, Montaldo moved to Rome as a teenager to follow his dream of working in cinema. While attending film school, he was discovered by director Carlo Lizzani. Taking Montaldo under his wing, Lizzani cast him alongside Gina Lollobrigida in his 1951 war drama “Achtung! Banditi!” and then nurtured him as an assistant. Montaldo worked on a string of films with Lizzani, including his acclaimed 1952 murder mystery “Ai margini della metropoli” (At the Edge of the City), starring Giulietta Masina. Montaldo then assisted director Gillo Pontecorvo while continuing to take acting parts during the ’50s, though he had his sights set on directing.

“Tiro al piccione”

In 1960, he made his directorial debut with “Tiro al piccione” (Pigeon Shoot), which recounts the plight of Italian partisans during World War II. It premiered at the 1961 Venice Film Festival to positive reviews and remains a favorite in Italy. Restored in 2019 by the Cineteca Nazionale, it was featured in the Venice Classics program of the 76th edition of the festival.

“I made my debut at the Venice Film Festival and was received very well by the public, so I had enough courage to make another film, which had a very small budget but won two important prizes in Berlin,” Montaldo explained in a recent interview with me via Zoom. “Then, I made two American films: ‘Grand Slam,’ which we shot in Rio de Janeiro, and ‘The Untouchables’ (known stateside as ‘Machine Gun McCain’), with John Cassavetes. So when I returned to Italy, I was more robust, stronger and felt more determined.”

Montaldo’s two American films were made in the Poliziotteschi tradition, a genre influenced by political cinema and crime novels as well as by French noir and American cop movies like “In the Heat of the Night” and “The French Connection.” Scored by Ennio Morricone, both of Montaldo’s entries in the genre are cult classics that remain popular today. 

Watch this clip from our interview in which Montaldo talks about his 1969 film, “Machine Gun McCain”..

Described as gangster noir, “Grand Slam” features a diverse international cast that includes Robert Hoffmann, Klaus Kinski, Riccardo Cucciolla and Janet Leigh. It tells the story of a group of international thieves who have banded together to pull off a complex gem heist during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. 

The film opens on the New York City skyline as members of the group assemble to plan a robbery that has to be completed in 20 minutes, without a second to spare. When they arrive in Rio, they are greeted by Mary Ann (Leigh), whose job is to guard the gems at all costs. “Grand Slam” has all the elements of a classic heist film, from the planning and execution to the aftermath. Watching it, especially the New York scenes, is like stepping back in time. 

Montaldo’s masterful storytelling is spotlighted in “Machine Gun McCain.” Loosely based on the novel “Candyleg” by Ovid Demaris, the film stars Peter Falk and Britt Ekland, in addition to Cassavetes, with a spectacular cameo by Gena Rowlands. 

Charlie Adamo (Falk) and Hank McCain (Cassavetes) are the protagonists in parallel storylines of two low-level West Coast gangsters who think they can outsmart their New York mafia bosses. The recently appointed leader of West Coast operations, Adamo secretly gives McCain’s estranged son $25,000 to bail his father out of prison following 12 years of incarceration for armed robbery. Upon his release, McCain is informed that he has been chosen to plan a heist that requires breaking into a mob-run casino in Las Vegas. The prize is a safe containing $2 million. Realizing he’s been lied to when things go awry, McCain eliminates the middlemen and carries out the heist on his own, then tries to leave the country with the money. When the newly instated mob boss catches up with him, a chase ensues with dramatic, unexpected consequences.

Montaldo and cinematographer Erico Menczer certainly made the most of shooting on location in San Francisco and Las Vegas, capturing stunning footage of both cities in all of their late-’60s glory. Montaldo said he and Cassavetes both approached the project as directors, butting heads at first in what Montaldo described as “guerilla warfare” before making their peace and enjoying their collaboration.

Even though Montaldo’s crime films have earned a dedicated following, his 1971 masterpiece “Sacco and Vanzetti” will most likely be his lasting legacy. “I can’t stand intolerance, so I made ‘Sacco and Vanzetti,’” Montaldo explains. “I heard about these two Italian characters, and I was struck. So I started studying. A good writer friend of mine knew a lot about them, and then together, we built the story, and I must say that it was really a tragic story.”

Montaldo’s film offers a detailed account of how the controversial 1920s trial of Nicola Sacco (Riccardo Cucciolla) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Gian Maria Volontè) played out as well as the emotional toll it took on the men. In addition to the film serving as an educational tool here in the United States, it is regularly shown to students in Italy.

Montaldo directed the 2013 drama “L’industriale” (The Entrepreneur), starring Pierfrancesco Favino. And in 2017, he appeared in Francesco Bruni’s film “Tutto quello che vuoi” (Friends by Chance), playing a poet with memory loss who befriends a 22-year-old and guides him through some family troubles. “I have to be honest, I was a little depressed acting at my age, but it ended up going very well, and we had a lot of success with the film,” Montaldo recalls. The role earned him a David di Donatello Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. 

Montaldo’s personal life has been as rewarding as his career. His six-decades-long love story with Vera Pescarolo has captivated Italians and has been the subject of articles and talk show interviews. “When I met her, it was love at first sight, and now we’ve been together 61 years,” he proclaims. “Luckily, she is a film aficionado like me, but instead of being the wife of a director who goes away for months at a time, she has traveled with me. We’ve been all over the world together, and for this I am grateful. It is a great collaboration and therefore a great love.” 

“Vera & Giuliano”

Last year, documentary filmmaker Fabrizio Corallo made a film about them titled “Vera & Giuliano” that aired on Italian television on Valentine’s Day.

“Machine Gun McCain” and “Sacco and Vanzetti” are available to stream on Amazon. Click on their respective titles for direct links to stream them. “Grand Slam” is available on DVD.

– Written by Jeannine Guilyard for the June, 2022 issue of Fra Noi Magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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