Blue Underground // 1969 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // August 27th, 2010
Even the Mafia Calls Him Mister!
Italian exploitation film set and filmed in Las Vegas in the late 1960s? Okay. So far, so good. Italian exploitation film set and filmed in the late 1960s which stars John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Britt Ekland, Gena Rowlands and the guy who played Diana Rigg's father in On Her Majesty's Secret Service? Bring. It. On.
Paroled from prison for crimes he most certainly committed, Hank McCain is greeted by the son he barely knows and quickly offered a job: rob the popular Royal Casino in Las Vegas. Unknown to McCain the plan is being financed by west coast mobster Charlie Adamo, (Peter Falk), as a way to buy into the casino they are planning to rob. Little does Adamo know but the Royal is owned by the same east coast crime family he works for. McCain successfully pulls off the job only to find himself married, richer and on the run from the mob with no where to turn. And they have machine guns as well.
Expectations can be hard on a person. I like John Cassavetes. He was an intense actor who almost always turned in arresting performances that very often helped lift the material he was appearing in. I like exploitation movies. Gratuitous nudity and buckets of fake blood are almost always a sign of good cinematic times. So why was I so let down after finishing Machine Gun McCain? Well, since I asked, Cassavetes doesn't really bring anything fresh or interesting to the table and while I would not say he was just going through the motions in order to collect a paycheck, I don't think he brought his A or even his B game to this project. You could have plugged almost anyone else into the role and Machine Gun McCain would have still been basically the same movie. Cassavetes isn't awful and I'm not saying he sleptwalked through the thing, although perhaps maybe I am, but what he ends up being is unremarkable. If an actor is going to play the anti-hero then there has to be something about that character for the viewer to become invested in and while Cassavetes hints at depths & conflicts within McCain, nothing is ever followed through on or developed in a way to make Hank McCain someone we would want to root for. In the end McCain becomes little more than a plot device in search of a real human being. The other "name" actors fair a little better in their service to the film. Peter Falk is basically doing what he did in those pre-Columbo days and he does it well enough, although it must be noted that the one thing we can thank Machine Gun McCain for was that it was this project that really brought Falk to Cassavetes' attention and the professional relationship they would forge because their experiences together on this film became one of the strongest the modern cinema has ever known. So there is that. Mrs. John Cassavetes, aka Gena Rowlands, offers up what is the movie's strongest work as McCain's former lover and favorite gun moll. It's a pity she spends so little time in the film because Machine Gun McCain became a much more interesting movie when she was onscreen. The way her character exits the movie is in fact its only real surprise and the only act which registers emotionally. It's a beautifully played & directed scene that is kind of shocking in its simplicity.
So being turned away in my hope of finding a great forgotten John Cassavetes performance, the other half of the equation, the one I was sure would not let me down, was the exploitation factor. Britt Ekland was as blonde a 60s beauty as you could hope to find and she was never shy about popping her top and getting naked. Sadly no fully naked Mrs. Peter Sellers here. Or anyone else for that matter. Blood & gore? I mean this is an Italian exploitation film, right? Gangsters & guns everywhere, but sadly the gore content is woefully tame. All of which just makes me question why a movie like Machine Gun McCain even exists. A movie with that title and the main character only picks up a machine gun twice? I mean if you can't count on Italian filmmakers to deliver on the grindhouse material, what's the point? I understand this movie was never going to be art but would it have hurt for Machine Gun McCain to at least be entertaining on a trashy level?
To the film's credit it does move along at a pretty good clip and
Giuliano Montaldo does know how to stage an action sequence, but that isn't enough to make up for lackluster performances, some painful dubbing and a paint-by-the-numbers approach to the screenplay. Even the score by the usually reliable Ennio Morricone is one of his weaker, if annoyingly catchy, efforts. In pretty much every way that matters Machine Gun McCain comes up short.
If the movie itself is slight, Blue Underground's treatment of it gives it more respect than it probably deserves. On this standard DVD version the movie receives a clean looking & progressive anamorphic transfer which maintains the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors and skin tones look to be a little washed out but not in a way that takes away too greatly from the image. Detail & black levels look acceptable and little in the way of edge enhancement was noticed. Considering the age of the movie and the budget I can't imagine the film looking much better.
Sound is of the mono variety and all things being equal, and especially considering the way these things were recorded, what we end up with sounds pretty decent. Pops & hiss are absent and dialogue comes off as clear and easy to understand. The English dub is all that is included, while Blue Underground also provides subtitles in English, French & Spanish.
The disc is rounded out with the movie's English & Italian language trailer and an interview with the film's director Giuliano Montaldo. International trailers are always interesting to me for the way they slightly change focus in marketing to a different audience and this one is no different. The interview with Montaldo runs about a half hour and is worth the time. He is pretty candid about how and why the film was made as well as going into some depth on his feelings of dealing and working with John Cassavetes. Again, worth the time if not earth shattering.
Real men rob casinos the old fashioned way -- with the help of a hot blonde but pretty much on their own the way God intended. George Clooney and his band of 12 or 13 could learn a thing or two from Machine Gun McCain. Anyone else? I'm not so sure. More curiosity piece than good film, Blue Underground does their usual job of cleaning up and showing respect to a movie most people have either forgotten or never heard of.
I sat down with Machine Gun McCain wanting to enjoy it and hoping that perhaps it was some sort of minor classic or missing cornerstone in the career of John Cassavetes but it isn't. The movie is what it is and it rarely rises above that level. It's not a terrible movie but it isn't a very good one either.
Guilty of going through the motions on the way to a paycheck.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Not Rated