Steely. No nonsense. Blunt. Lethal. These adjective describe both Hank McCain (John Cassavetes), a mob enforcer and his weapon of choice, a machine gun. McCain, whose determined independence lands him in the middle of a mob power struggle when he’s freed from jail and prompted at his son's, who he’s only seen twice in his life and has no fatherly compassion for whatsoever, behest to take part in a Las Vegas casino heist. A heist he decides to take on by himself when news of it ruffles the mob establishment’s feathers.
Machine Gun McCain an Italian production, shot in America (mainly Vegas, Los Angeles and San Francisco) was directed by Giuliano Montaldo, who brings the stylistic flair and workmanlike quality of European exploitation to American soil. It's always intriguing to see America through the eyes of foreign directors, and you can sense Montaldo’s wonderment in the way he films the neon lights in the bars of San Francisco and the Vegas strip as well as the richness exuded in the criminal aphorisms. The film is reminiscent of such work as Sergio Sollima’s Violent City (aka The Family aka Citta Violenta) in that regard as well as in casting notable English speaking actors as the lead (and then dubbing their voices for European audiences and vice versa for the European actors).
While Sollima’s film may be the better, more skillfully crafted piece from a cinematic and narrative standpoint, the casting in McCain is superior and deepens what on the surface are narrowly sketched archetypes. In addition to Cassavetes, the film stars Britt Ekland, Gabriele Ferzetti (of Once Upon a Time in the West), Peter Falk and Cassavetes’ wife and frequent co-star Gena Rowlands. Rowlands’ casting as an old flame of McCain’s whose fortune and association with the mob dwindled as she aged, in particular is potent, as the relationship between husband and wife results in Cassavetes’ characters only real emotional display in the entire film. One can even draw a parallel between Cassavetes’ fiercely independent McCain and his work as an independent filmmaker, both caught somewhere between the establishment (the mob and/or mainstream movie studios) and the up and comers whose work he influenced that are looking to overtake him in the game he created (the son and his posse who he tellingly refers to as “Hollywood fags” and/or the 60’s/70’s American New Wave filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, who to Cassavetes’ credit he acted as a father figure to). I know that Machine Gun McCain probably just offered him a payday that he would use to finance his next film as writer-director, but Cassavetes brings such an off-kilter intensity that I love to his “paycheck roles” like this, Rosemary’s Baby and The Dirty Dozen, that his presence is always welcome even if you know he thought the work was below him.
So why hasn’t this film been released?
Good question. The film airs from time to time on TCM, where unfortunately it shows up in an non letterboxed version (the film was shot in scope), leading to the conclusion that American distributor, Columbia Picture just doesn’t know or care what it has on it’s hands, if they even own the film‘s rights still. It’s lack of DVD release is part and parcel to Columbia’s seemingly low ratio of classic releases, providing further evidence they still have the rights, I can’t believe if they lied in a more independent owner’s hands that Anchor Bay or Blue Underground wouldn’t of long ago snatched them up and released a special feature laden edition. I do know that Quentin Tarantino owns a print of the film, which he showed at his Grindhouse festival at the New Beverly back in the Spring of 2007 (where I saw the film for the first time), but alas, like another film he showed, Rolling Thunder, it’s still unavailable for (re) discovery for other genre fans.
Although selected for the 1969 Cannes Film Festival, Machine Gun McCain is probably nowhere near classy enough (like something along the lines of The Friends of Eddie Coyle) nor is Montaldo’s reputation that of say Samuel Fuller to the point that Criterion would ever show interest, so one hopes either Midnight Blue or Severin will be able to wrangle rights for the film eventually or, heck, maybe Columbia will do a Falk-Cassavetes box set that’ll include Husbands, Big Trouble and McCain.
Like any European genre film of the era worth its salt, Ennio Morricone provided the score including a staccato jazz piece as well as the character’s theme music, "The Ballad of Hank McCain", included below is the version of that song with vocals by Jackie Lyton that plays over the end credits.