Blue Underground // 1969 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // August 20th, 2010
Even the Mafia calls him "Mister!"
"No one knew better than McCain
Life's a very dirty game
Very, very hard to win.
No on knew better than McCain
How to disregard the pain.
Never, never let it in."
-- The Ballad of Hank McCain
West Coast mobster Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk, A Woman Under the Influence) wants a piece of the Royal, a hot new casino in Vegas, and tries to shake down the manager. Despite his persuasiveness, the manager tells him the owners would not be interested in partnering with him.
Not too long after, Hank McCain (John Cassavetes, Husbands) is sprung from jail, strangely paroled after serving 12 years of a life sentence for armed robbery. He's picked up by Jack, the son he barely knows, who has become a small-time hood and wants his father in on his latest job: knocking over the very casino that Adamo tried to buy into.
Hank feels no real connection to his son -- having seen him only twice before -- and is suspicious of his plan, particularly since Jack is tossing around lots of money. So Hank heads out to a strip club where he meets a lovely young hooker (Britt Ekland, The Night They Raided Minsky's). They spend the night together, then up and get married. Hank does not return to Jack's place or contact him.
Jack is worried. Apparently, despite telling Hank that the casino heist is his idea, he's working for someone else, and Hank is integral to the plan.
But while Hank might not like his kid very much, he does like the thought of a multimillion dollar heist -- and he has his own ideas of how to do it right.
Flashy, fun, and forgettable, Machine Gun McCain is a pretty nuts-and-bolts late '60s Euro-thriller entry. It's plot-driven, and its story is told in a fairly perfunctory manner, with things like nuance and character development left sleeping with the fishies.
We open with a cool, if sloppy -- by organized crime standards -- gangland killing, and then get a voice over catching us up on a few plot points. The voice over pretty much sets the tone, telling us one thing we could pretty much figure out on our own, and another thing that would have worked better as a late-game reveal.
It's efficient, though, as it means we don't have to spend so much time thinking as to distract from the colorful visuals, the bursts of violence, the wacky but intriguing heist, and the sight of the young, gorgeous Britt Ekland being young and gorgeous, and mercifully not being called on to do too in the way of emoting.
That's OK, because Falk does enough emoting for five Britt Eklands. The man best remembered as Detective Columbo actually made a name for himself playing cheap hoods in cheap movies like Murder Inc., Pretty Boy Floyd, and Pocketful of Miracles, and he continues his streak here with a performance equal parts bombast and intensity, and enough ham to keep it fun. Cassavetes seems more engaged here than in the previous year's Rosemary's Baby -- perhaps he got on better with Director Giuliano Montaldo than he did with Roman Polanski -- but at this point, his acting gigs were merely works for hire that funded his own films. Since here, both he and his wife -- Gena Rowlands -- got paychecks, and he met Peter Falk, it's probably fair to suppose that Machine Gun McCain begat (or helped beget) Husbands.
Florinda Bolkan (Last House on the Beach) is excellent as a conniving gangster wife, but the acting honors go to Mrs. Cassavetes. In a brief bit as a woman from McCain's past, Rowlands brings her game full on -- intensity, vulnerability, and humor. This is a terrific little performance, the kind that in a more prestigious film would have likely garnered serious attention. A decade down the road, Cassavetes would direct Rowlands in her own gangster film, the audaciously entertaining Gloria, that featured Rowlands memorably playing a character who seems eerily like an older version of the woman she plays here.
There are some great shots of the Vegas strip "back in the day," as well as some cool location footage of San Francisco and New York City. Ennio Morricone's score works best when the composer goes for jangly jazz to counterpoint the action; his heroic theme, "The Ballad of Hank McCain," though, is a little too loungy-Western to be effective.
Montaldo directs at a nice, brisk clip. The heist scene is very well done, preposterous without being ridiculous, and the extended chase that takes up the final third -- and, for the clueless, is outlined in yet another voice over -- provides some neat thrills.
Blue Underground has turned out a very impressive Blu-ray. While a few exterior establishing shots are a little rough, the 1080p HD transfer looks overall excellent. This is a clean, clear transfer with vibrant colors, deep blacks, and true flesh tones, and enough grain to maintain a solid "film" look. Audio is a DTS Mono track, which sounds quite good, although the overdubbed dialogue definitely has that "looped" sound to it.
Besides the American and Italian trailers, Blue Underground comes up with a really nice supplement, an interview with Giuliano Montaldo. This 23-minute piece is just great, with Montaldo offering some entertaining insights and stories of his early days in the film industry, the making of Machine Gun McCain, and his relationship with Cassavetes.
Machine Gun McCain is a fun gangland relic that probably looks better now than it did when it was released in 1969. Blue Underground has done a terrific job resurrecting this obscurity with some excellent tech and a terrific supplement. Fans of the stars or the genre will definitely want to check this out.
McCain fares much better with me than with "the mob."
Review content copyright © 2010 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated PG