New York-born John Cassavetes was a versatile actor and filmmaker who no doubt left this world way too early. During the 1960s, Cassavetes never had trouble finding acting jobs, so appearing in exploitation programmers like THE DEVIL’S ANGELS or even higher brow Hollywood productions such as ROSEMARY’S BABY would help him finance his own brand of independently produced cinema verité. An Italian production shot on location in the United States, MACHINE GUN MCCAIN capitalized on having American actors for marquee value, and surely benefited by having Cassavetes in the lead.
Tough-guy criminal Hank McCain (John Cassavetes) has spent the last 12 years in prison for armed robbery. Able to get a pardon thanks to influential, power hungry West Coast mob boss Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk), McCain is set free and immediately recruited by his 20-year-old estranged son Jack (Pierluigi Aprà) to help Adamo pull off a heist at the Royal Hotel casino in Las Vegas. When Adamo learns that the Royal is owned by another mob boss, Don Francesco DeMarco (Gabriele Ferzetti, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) he calls the whole thing off, much to the dismay of McCain whose life is threatened if he doesn’t comply.
Wanting to continue to pull off the planned heist, McCain ends up shooting two of Adamo’s hoods, and son Jack also perishes in the gunplay. In the interim, McCain marries luscious Irene Tucker (Britt Ekland, ASYLUM, THE WICKER MAN), a flousy he met in night club, all too happy to fall in love with him and assist him in any way possible. Working independently, McCain is able to pull off the robbery in a master plan which involves planting explosives in and around the casino, crafting a bogus fire chief’s automobile, and disguising himself as a fireman to go in, blow open a safe and walk of with nearly $2 million in cash. Covering things up by having the press and the police convinced that all the destruction was caused by a faulty air conditioning system, and not letting the theft be publicly known, it doesn’t take long for Don Francesco to pinpoint McCain as the culprit as he attempt to flee to Mexico -- dough and woman in tow -- as a marked man.
Shot in Las Vegas, San Francisco and a little in New York (making ample use of those familiar locations) with some interiors done in Rome, MACHINE GUN MCCAIN is quite different from the Hollywood action fare of the period, despite its homegrown stars and settings. Opening up with a violent sequence where a father drops his little daughter off at school, as she soon witnesses his death by speeding car, the film follows the slick, European example of exceptional Scope photography and an overall mood of “crime doesn’t pay” gloom, allowing for any character to perish unexpectedly. Although the film is not as sadistic as some of the Italian crime thrillers that would follow in the next decade (which were mostly influenced by DIRTY HARRY, THE GODFATHER, etc.) it still features some knockout bits and a colorful cast.
Cassavetes excellently portrays the fearless, loner criminal; something not easy to pull off as the character is not very likable, not even as an antihero. His friend and professional collaborator Peter Falk also does a good turn as the hot-tempered mob boss Charlie Adamo, but unfortunately, the two don’t share any scenes together. Britt Ekland, undoubtedly one of the top international starlets during this period, is basically just on display as her character is practically soulless. The gustier female role goes to “guest star” Gina Rowlands, Cassavetes’ wife, as Rosemary Scott, McCain’s former lover and crime partner, who helps him and his new love to escape. Rowlands makes a grand entrance, and an even grander exit. Euro cult movie addicts will love all the familiar faces on board here, including Tony Kendall (THE LORELI’S GRASP), Florinda Bolkan (A WOMAN IN A LIZARD’S SKIN) and Luigi Pistilli (TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE) whose voice has been dubbed by Mel Welles. Ennio Morricone, the busiest and possibly the best composer in Italian cinema, provides a beautifully eccentric score that truly enhances the grim mood of the film a great deal.
Originally released theatrically in the U.S. in 1970 by Columbia Pictures, MACHINE GUN McCAIN, has never before been available in home video, so this long overdue DVD treatment from the fine folks at Blue Underground is welcomed. The back cover states “in a gorgeous new High Definition transfer,” and gorgeous is an understatement. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the picture looks absolutely flawless, with detail being so vivid and colors stunning, with fleshtones especially standing out. The element that the transfer was sourced from is in immaculate shape, so imperfections are nonexistent. Mono audio comes in the English language track, and compliments the fine visual quality, and optional subtitles are available in English SDH, French and Spanish.
Eighty-year-old director Giuliano Montaldo is on hand for a 23-minute video interview. Speaking in his native Italian with accompanying English subtitles, Montaldo recalls his early days as an actor and then getting into directing, helming the underrated 1967 heist epic GRAND SLAM (which also featured American actors) and his time on MACHINE GUN McCAIN. His experience with and respect for Cassavetes is explored, and he also shares an anecdote about the reaction of the Sands casino’s president when he showed him the script and asked permission to shoot there. An English and an Italian language trailer for the film round out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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