It seems like it should be the happiest day of his life. After years in prison, Hank McCain is unexpectedly pardoned. Alas, it is not destined to last. The resulting tragedy of Hank's life is told with flair and bombast by Italian director Giuliano Montaldo
McCain (John Cassavetes) soon finds out his adult son whom he barely knows secured the pardon through bribery, and wants some help with a casino robbery in return. McCain is happy to oblige, though he's suspicious that his not too bright son could have come up with either the money or the wherewithal to plan the operation. And he's right to be chary, as his son was put up to it by middle management mobster Charlie Adamo (Peter Falk), who is trying to muscle in on the Royal Casino in Las Vegas, against direct orders from the mobster higher ups, even though he does not yet know that his target casino is actually owned by his bosses.
This all might sound a bit confusing, but it is unraveled effortlessly in between scenes of McCain's violent wooing (he literally wins her heart through physical violence toward both his romantic rivals and her own person) of his soon to be wife Irene (Britt Ekland), classic caper preparations, and sordid wranglings for power in the mob. McCain is a cynical operator and a career criminal. And though he seems to have a sincere affection for his wife Irene, his ex-lover and co-criminal Rosemary (Cassavetes' real life wife Gena Rowlands), his friends and even his son, who he knows set him up, he can't seem to avoid bringing misfortune and even death to all around him. He's the stereotypical anti-hero: distant, determined, rarely showing emotion. And yet, we grow to admire and even like this fellow who doesn't seem to worry too much about who might be maimed or killed by the explosives he plants to aid his planned robbery.
While the viewer holds out hope that McCain and his young bride will win through and avoid being sucked into the power struggles of mobsters they don't even know, and there is a lot of fun to be had watching the over the top violence and crime film clichés, Machine Gun McCain is essentially a tragedy. The deliberately bombastic performances, aggressive violence, gritty nod toward reality without actually stepping into realism, and peppy score by Ennio Morricone all serve to highlight the tragic, almost operatic themes of the film. The story is not particularly nuanced, but enthusiastically paced, constantly moving forward, sweeping the viewer up and not allowing too much time for meditation on possible flaws. And the cast is fantastic. How often do we get to see Cassavetes, Falk, Ekland and Rowlands in the same movie? Montaldo brings all these threads together and weaves them into a confident, enjoyable, late sixties crime film. Recommended.
The video is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, and looks pretty good for a film from 1969. The colors are a tad weak, and there is some graininess, but the look is typical for this era. The action is always clearly visible, and there are no obvious or distracting defects.
The sound is mono, but still comes across pretty good, considering. The dialogue is always clearly audible, and no hiss or other problem can be detected. English, French and Spanish subtitles are included, but no alternate language tracks.
The extras consist of two trailers, one English and the other Italian, both of which are a bit overlong, and a twenty three minute interview with director Giuliano Montaldo. On occasion, this type of interview can be self serving and boring, but in this case Montaldo's engaging personality and the spritely gleam in his eye make it a treat. He speaks at length about his career, working with Cassavetes, and interesting events during filming. While they butted heads at first, he and Cassavetes grew to be friends during the production, and Montaldo's respect for him is manifest. This is an informative and interesting interview.
While Machine Gun McCain is indeed a tragedy, and can by no stretch be described as having a happy ending, in its own way it is quite an enjoyable film. From the brutal mob killings, to the casino heist, to the shapely Britt Ekland, and the Ballad of Hank McCain sung over the end credits, the film is an exercise in controlled hyperbole. Everything is larger than life: the loves, the crimes, the mobsters and the sorrows. But it never descends into parody or vulgar overstatement. This is an excellent example of genre filmmaking. Fun without being silly. Confident without being condescending. Recommended.