It’s a well-known fact by now that much of John Cassavetes’s commercial acting career was built as a way of funding his decidedly noncommercial filmmaking career. Of course, films like Rosemary’s Baby, Mikey and Nicky, and The Dirty Dozen needn’t rely solely on Cassavetes’s presence, but for a dozen or so smaller films, not to mention a daunting list of television productions, the most fascinating aspect from the outset was that the famously ungovernable filmmaker had deemed these projects worthy. Fair or not, this was indeed a large part of how Giuliano Montaldo’s Machine Gun McCain, a rough-and-tumble 1969 gangster picture with Cassavetes in the role of the titular gun-for-hire, found a theatrical audience and enough renewed interest for a Blu-ray release.
But the Cassavetes stamp of approval was rarely bestowed on an unworthy film and Machine Gun McCain is hardly an exception to this tested rule. The fact that both Cassavetes’ wife, the great Gena Rowlands, as the erstwhile Bonnie to McCain’s Clyde, and Peter Falk took pivotal supporting roles substantiated the film’s credentials further. Relatively new emotional terrain for the actor, Falk was here asked to play a greedy hood and a ceaseless manipulator at once—a Vegas ideal with outsized ambitions. It is an initial act of brazen aggression by Falk’s character, Charlie Adamo, which opens Montaldo’s film as if already in the rush of things.
Adamo wants to take the reins of a casino in Las Vegas, where he has recently been donned the head of West Coast operations by some Italian fellows from New York. When he is denied permission both by the owner of the casino and by his East Coast bosses, he sets the place up to be robbed by a trio of youthful crooks, the greenest of which has promised the inclusion of his father, Hank McCain (Cassavetes), in the scheme. Fresh out of the clink, McCain accepts his son’s plan but gives most of his time to a cocktail girl, Irene (Britt Eklund), who he quite suddenly marries. As preparations are being made, Adamo calls off the robbery but McCain, vengeful and unconvinced of the mafia’s power, goes ahead with the plan and hits the road with over two million dollars in a sack and Irene by his side.
Haunted by a score by Ennio Morricone, Machine Gun McCain is a to-the-bone genre film and, by extension, few of the actors are really allowed to stretch out conversationally. With the exception of Rowland’s nuanced turn, the performances are effective and efficient but serve at the behest of the film’s predictable structure. But in this, Cassavetes the actor betrays the rigidity of the gangster archetype and pulls a sincerely odd, near-reptilian play on the distanced hood. Physical expression has always been a key to Cassavetes’s process and it’s what separates Hank McCain, with his body twitches and contorting eyebrows, from the laundry list of film-noir gangsters that the character obviously rose from.
An admitted huge fan of Shadows, Cassavetes’s eponymous debut, the Italian-born Montaldo was both blessed and burdened with his leading man. As the director tells it, his star was a backseat driver at the beginning of the production, asking him what lenses he was using and double-checking camera placements; even Montaldo’s easy rapport with Rowlands caused some intentional artistic jealousy from Cassavetes. Montaldo, eventually, took full control and revealed himself as a lean craftsman on only his second English-language production. At a little over 90 minutes, the film is as tight yet rigorous as a crime film could be asked to be.
Throughout the film, Montaldo uses every shot to help convey the paranoia of life in the mafia, arousing a palpable alienation that can be felt even in the mise-en-scène of his group compositions. As much as Cassavetes might have been the reason for Machine Gun McCain having any reputation at all, he registers neither as garnish nor as a standout. There’s no reason to imagine if Montaldo, who co-wrote the script for Machine Gun McCain with Mino Roli, had continued making Hollywood genre pieces for the rest of his life that he wouldn’t have his own B-movie legacy. As it was, however, Montaldo returned to Italy to make movies that he wanted to make, which might suggest that Cassavetes had backed off during the film’s production after seeing a kindred spirit in big-studio clothing.
Blue Underground's 1080p transfer does complete justice to Giuliano Montaldo's vision. A few instances of spots and speckling are somewhat expected. Same goes for some moments where there is negligible softening. But otherwise, colors, textures, detail, flesh tones, and black levels are all well above par and make for a visually engaging watch. Audio, on the other hand, can be called simply serviceable. Atmosphere is largely absent from the DTS HD mono soundtrack, making some of the more crowded seems sound cramped. But the dialogue is generally clear and, with few exceptions, the guns and explosions have adequate pop.
The less-is-more rule factors into most of Blue Underground's recent releases, especially in the extras department, and Machine Gun McCain is no exception. The only real extra here is a 20-minute interview with Montaldo where he talks about a range of topics including his rise as a filmmaker, working with real-life West Coast mobsters, his relationship with Cassavetes, and his reasons for abandoning Hollywood. Montaldo is charming and humble and the interview goes a long way toward explaining why Cassavetes took a shine to him. Both the English and Italian trailers are included as well.
Blue Underground rescues another solid and deserving B movie from the vaults with Machine Gun McCain, giving it one of the finest visual treatments they've produced to date.