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The years immediately prior to the genre-shaking success of The Godfather saw the gangster movie attempting to reassert itself from under the weight of the waning SuperSpy phenomenon. The big studios became interested in European gangland epics (The Sicilian Clan, 1968) and the occasional European co-production. Director Giuliano Montaldo had begun as an actor in postwar Italian crime pictures with political themes, and broke through to international success with 1967's Ad ogni costo (a.k.a. Grand Slam), a Rio-set caper film that placed Edward G. Robinson and Janet Leigh at the head of a mostly Italian cast.
For 1969's Gli intoccabili (translated, "The Untouchables") Montaldo assembled another all-star cast and filmed with an Italian crew in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Producers Bino Cicogna and Mario Vicario secured the services of John Cassavetes, a hot actor who worked only to fuel his independent directorial efforts. For Gli intoccabili Cassavetes brought along his acting pal Peter Falk, his wife Gena Rowlands and even found a bit part for actor Val Avery. Filmed in English but dubbed in Italian, the film was a big hit on the continent.
Released by Columbia as Machine Gun McCain, the English language version became a modest stateside success. Its strong suit is the jarring, feral performance by Cassavetes as a criminal pro who dares to take on the mob single-handed. American posters promised exploding Vegas casinos and savage machine-gun duels. Thanks to some clever production sleight of hand -- mixing and matching U.S. locations with lavish Italian studio interiors by production designer Flavio Mogherini (Danger: Diabolik), the movie has a polished big-budget look. But the American title is something of a cheat, as the movie doesn't feature any extended machine gun battles, or over-the-top violence. The movie's actual focus is on the politics of the Mafia, an empire of organized crime "too big to fail".
Pardoned from San Quentin after only twelve years of a life sentence, hardened thief Hank McCain (Cassavetes) is surprised to learn that his shifty son Jack (Pierluigi Aprà) has bought his release for the purpose of robbing a Vegas casino. McCain decides not to reconnect with his old accomplice (and lover) Rosemary Scott (Gena Rowlands) and instead recruits and marries inexperienced bar girl Irene Tucker (Britt Ekland). That's when Hank discovers that Jack is secretly fronting for San Francisco mob boss Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk), who has bankrolled the pardon and the caper as part of a plan to force the casino to cut him in as a financial partner. But Adamo has made a fatal mistake: his own Mafia chieftains in New York are the secret owners of the casino. Adamo backs off, but can't recall the fiercely independent Hank McCain, who defies everyone to pull off his $2 million dollar heist.
Machine Gun McCain crackles with a quality missing in gangster pix since the days of James Cagney, a truly electrifying central performance. John Cassavetes laughs and shouts like a borderline maniac yet possesses the self-confidence and know-how to succeed in his daring one-man raid. When McCain asks a trusted underworld contact to procure a machine gun, it's clear that all-pro gangster mayhem is in the offing. Dizzy moll Britt Ekland barely knows what's going on but trusts McCain implicitly. They pull off a top score together but make mistakes when it comes time to elude the Mafia's dragnet.
The other stars play their gangland parts with enthusiasm. As a sleazy, ambitious mobster, Peter Falk foregoes his usual eccentricities. Charlie Adamo doesn't realize that his unhappy wife Joni (notable beauty Florinda Bolkan) has for some time been seeing his New York superior Don Francesco (Gabriele Ferzetti of On Her Majesty's Secret Service). Charlie dispatches his local hoods to eliminate Jack, Hank and Irene, but it's already too late. If McCain's violent robbery is a success, Charlie's life won't be worth a cent.
Machine Gun McCain moves very quickly, with characters traveling back and forth between cities in cars and jets; at one point Hank McCain seems to drive from Vegas to San Francisco, and back to Los Angeles, all in a single day. Highly billed Tony Kendall appears only for a few minutes at the conclusion. Buxom celebrity stripper Carol Doda is listed in full credit sheets but I didn't see her in the film proper; perhaps a visit to her famous San Francisco Condor Club was featured in an earlier European cut of the film. 1
Director Montaldo hasn't many visual tricks up his sleeve but he elicits good performances from most of the actors. Only later do we realize that Cassavetes has no scenes with Peter Falk or any of the Mafia higher-ups. Britt Eklund is much better than usual, and she and Cassavetes generate considerable heat in their love scene. Florinda Bolkan seems to have been largely edited out of the film, but familiar Sergio Leone actor Luigi Pistilli scores as Charlie Adamo's mob assistant. Even with the awkward post-dubbing, Gena Rowlands' ex- bank robber is a striking portrait of toughness and loyalty. Eleven years later, Ms. Rowlands would return to the genre to play the best gangster moll of them all, in Cassavetes' crime thriller Gloria.
Gli intoccabili was adapted from a novel by Ovid Demaris, a specialist in Mafia tales. In the post- Bonnie & Clyde cinematic climate of 'radical chic', loner McCain's war with the mob nails the anti-establishment mantra of "sticking it to the man". This theme is reinforced by the lyrics of Ennio Morricone's dynamic title song The Ballad of Hank McCain. As sung by Jackie Lynton, it presents the bomb-throwing thief as a noble independent determined to fight to the end:
No one knows better than McCain / just how angry you can be / when they cage you in with laws ...
It is therefore something of a letdown that this superior mob thriller should end without a big action sequence. The resourceful McCain evades ambushes and robs the casino with ease, but he never gets a chance to strike back at the big boys. Stylish, colorful and classy, Machine Gun McCain makes us wish that John Cassavetes had found the time to allow himself a second career as a ruthless anti-hero action star.
Blue Underground's Blu-ray of Machine Gun McCain is a superb presentation of this unheralded mob thriller (a standard DVD version is available as well). We're given only the American English language version. Owing to the Techniscope format some scenes are a bit grainy. The image overall is immaculate, far better than the unwatchable pan-scanned prints that showed briefly on TV in the 1970s. Cameraman Erico Menczer gets full value from designer Mogherini's beautiful Vegas-style casino interior.
The disc extras include Italian and American trailers, and a lively interview with director Giuliano Montaldo, who is still active in Italy. Montaldo directed the leftist Sacco and Vanzetti and was a second unit director on Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. He recalls making deals with real Mafia types in Las Vegas. He also remembers John Cassavetes, who by that time had plenty of rough-and-ready producing experience, helping out by negotiating last-minute access to the San Quentin location. Montaldo didn't feel comfortable shooting more movies in America, because he felt like too much of an outsider to the culture.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. The IMDB lists a longer running time (116 minutes) but I also saw that the Hardy Gangster Film Encyclopedia carries that length too, as well as the specs on a European release of Machine Gun McCain. Apparently all these longer running times are false. Disc producer/distributor Bill Lustig informs me that the film never existed at a length longer than the one on this release -- that director Montaldo has confirmed that claims of longer cuts are incorrect. Mr. Lustig added that this Blu-ray has more than a hundred hours of hand restoration and an audio EQ pass that the European disc lacks.
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