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John Cassavetes' artistic legacy is largely built around his role as the prototypical American indie filmmaker with works like Shadows, Husbands, and The Killing of A Chinese Bookie. In spite of his directing prowess, Cassavetes mostly made his living as a film and television actor. He was in a lot of great stuff including Rosemary's Baby and The Dirty Dozen. He was also in a lot of dodgy stuff like Incubus.

One of his more obscure roles was in Machine Gun McCain, a 1969 Italian gangster film directed by Giuliano Montaldo. Blue Underground has pulled this film from the depths of obscurity with a new Blu-Ray release. It's an interesting choice because Machine Gun McCain doesn't have the punishing ruthlessness of similar films by Fernando Di Leo or Sergio Sollima. Ultimately, it is a strong but minor work whose biggest draws are the performances of Cassavettes and his cohort Peter Falk. 

Hank McCain (Cassavetes) is in prison for armed robbery; his partner Rosemary Scott (Gena Rowlands) got out early. Hank's son Jack shows up out of nowhere, waves a wad of cash at prison officials, and gets his dad out of the joint. There is a catch: Jack wants some help in robbing a casino. What Jack doesn't mention is that he works for ambitious mafiaso named Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk) who is trying to expand his mob-approved territory. Unfortunately for everybody, the casino is secretly run by the mob. With a submissive young woman (Britt Ekland), McCain goes up against Adamo and the mob to get in his way.

Machine Gun McCain represents the first time that Cassavetes and Falk, both of whom were good friends, appeared in the same film. Interestingly, they never actually appear in the same scene, which seems like a missed opportunity. Nonetheless, these two actors are the main attractions in the film.  Hank McCain is a crook who, after being imprisoned for a dozen years, is thrust into a brand new world. The girls are freer, the dudes are tougher, and the lights are brighter.  Cassavetes plays this role just right -- mostly cool and reserved, but explosive when the circumstances call for it. After years of seeing Peter Falk as an absent-minded detective in Colombo, it is easy to forget how good of an actor he once was. He brings a tight-faced intensity to the part. Britt Ekland doesn't do much except look pretty. Less of her and more of Gena Rowlands, who only shows up in the third act, would have been welcome. Oh well.

The action in Machine Gun McCain mostly comes in the form of big set pieces, including an inordinately complicated casino robbery. The film isn't particularly violent, especially when compared to other Italian gangster films of the era. It is, however, tough and cynical with the anti-hero flavor that one would expect. 

The direction is stylish and the pacing is brisk. Erico Menczer, who shot films for Lucio Fulci, Franco Prosperi and Dario Argento, delivers a familiar late 60s Italian look: dark and shadowy with a lot of colored lights bouncing off walls and faces. Machine Gun Mccain was filmed on location in the United States so there are a lot of vintage exterior shots of San Francisco, New York and Las Vegas. Ennio Morricone serves up an abstract jazzy score -- think of the music for Four Flies on Grey Velvet andThe Bird With the Crystal Plumage -- as well as a catchy John Barry style theme song. 

Blue Underground's transfer, which is in the 2:35.1 aspect ratio, is pristine. The image is crisp without visible signs of digital trickery. The sole audio track is English DTS-HD Mono. English, Spanish, and French subs are provided. An interview with the director and English and Italian trailers are the sole extras. 

Rarely does a Blu-Ray menu warrant attention in a review, but the menu on this disc deserves consideration. It opens with an animated sequence that presents the film's title and then riddles it with bullets. A series of scenes from the film unfold at the top of the menu screen while film's theme music plays in the background. This fancy menu doesn't add any functionality but it sure does look and sound cool.

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Giuliano MontaldoMino RoliOvid DemarisIsrael HorovitzJohn CassavetesBritt EklandPeter FalkGabriele FerzettiCrimeDramaThriller
BlakeSeptember 19, 2010 12:03 PM

Interesting in that it predates wave of similar films. If this had been made several years later by Di Leo or others doing an Ocean's 11 style riff on what they were doing that would have been far more interesting. I guess they had Mino Roli trying/struggling to adapt the book for the screen but script itself just never seems to come together but as you mention the overall cynicism does seem to work. Roli's only interesting crime film to me (though all over the place) was Master Touch (most notable for its crazy car chase). In other directors or screenwriters hands more adept at this type of film, I can only wonder what could have been... Machine Gun as forgettable as it is does at least boast a somewhat memorable ending (well people at least seem to remember it more for its ending than anything else). They at least get one set piece right but by coming so late in the film doesn't have nearly as much impact as it could have. Don't remember much about Britt Ekland here other than her role seemed to not be underwritten but not written at all, they just brought her in from make up and threw her in random scenes as eye candy.

Rodney PerkinsSeptember 19, 2010 12:42 PM

After I wrote all this, I remember that it played at QT Fest 5. It does come off as weak compared to the top-tier stuff.

This movie has the right actors, look and tone, especially with that downbeat ending. I think it doesn't have enough action to keep the energy up. So, you get a lot of talking about stuff without people doing stuff. The casino heist and the build-up to it are great, but it takes so long to get there.

I think Cassavetes and Falk are the best things here. Britt Ekland is just there. At one point, the Hank McCain character calls her "dummy" as if it's her first name. It's like they knew she was just there to look pretty.

I would like to see some of the better Italian gangster flicks hit Blu-Ray, but I have a suspicion that they aren't as marketable as this one since it has Cassavetes and Falk in it.