Film scholar David Bordwell describes – dismisses? – crime films as venues for showy roles, opportunities for actors to break away from their comfort zones and find their bad selves. When false, the proceeds are cringe-worthy, but when one’s ready for a true breakout, what fun it is.
This was the case for John Cassavetes and Peter Falk, co-stars in the 1969 Italian gangster pic, Machine Gun McCain, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Blue Underground. Never onscreen together, and playing criminals in opposition to one another, the two actors explore the extent of their ranges. They embody conviction that can turn intense on a dime. Falk appears focused on his firey outbursts, while Cassavetes – equally known as a filmmaker (Shadows) and an actor (Rosemary’s Baby) – could access a reserve of energy, much like Gene Hackman.
Cassavetes has the title role, a bank robber just released from prison with the suspicious aid of his son. Back in the world McCain is wise but slightly bewildered at new, liberated times – he walks about the streets in a cheap suit, knowing where he’s been more than where he’s going. Soon enough, the kid wants help from his dad at robbing a bank, hardy a fair deal for McCain. His son secretly works for Charlie Adamo (Falk), who wants ownership of a Vegas casino, though the boss reminds him the city’s off his turf. McCain’s getting played transforms the film into an avenger’s tale, as he resists the double-cross and implements an intricate bank heist, full of red herrings, with the help of a girlfriend (Britt Ekland). The plan’s so clever that the casino has to cover up sizable damage as a problem in the temperature system. Though rising again, McCain’s unable to beat a finish familiar to the gangster film. As his last run, it’s a minor, worthy entry in a tradition.