Stiletto (1969) ***

Tough talking Patrick O’Neal (Castle Keep, 1969) whose “hello” is usually accompanied with a fist enlivens this adaptation of a slim bestseller by Harold Robbins as cop George Baker on the trail of Mafia hitman Count Cesari Cardinali (Alex Cord ). Unusually, Cord was the go-to star for producers of Mafia pictures, his previous movie being The Brotherhood (1968). Equally unusual, Cardinali is a part-time assassin, spending the rest of his time as a fun-loving playboy with a string of women, fast cars and racehorses. Only problem is he wants to retire – and not in normal fashion, weighted down by a block of cement. Unfortunately, his dilemma is hardly one to solicit sympathy from an audience much less Mafia boss Emilio Matteo (Joseph Wiseman) and Cord isn’t enough of an actor in any case to tug at the heartstrings.

Cord made a brief splash as an action hero in the monosyllabic Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson mold after debuting in the John Wayne role of the Ringo Kid in the remake of Stagecoach (1966) and Italian-made A Minute to Pray, A Second to Die (1967). But didn’t have more than half a dozen stabs at making his name on the big screen before disappearing into the television hinterlands. So he’s something of an acquired taste, maybe the small output enough to qualify him for cult status. Here, he’s a decent fit for the violence but saddled with a role that makes little sense and sure enough he soon discovers that Wiseman doesn’t consider him a candidate for a pension while O’Neal bullies witnesses into providing the legal ammunition to bring the gangster down.

One such person is illegal Polish immigrant Illeana (Britt Ekland), Cardinale’s girlfriend when he is not chasing Ahn Dessie (Barbara McNair). This is another thankless role for Ekland (Machine Gun McCain, 1969), there to add glamour, but, surprisingly, she manages to bring pathos to the part. McNair, who is always worth watching and had made an auspicious debut the year before in If He Hollers, Let Him Go, hardly gets any screen time.  But it’s O’Neal (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) as the ruthless cop who holds it all together.

Director Bernard L. Kowalski (Krakatoa, East of Java, 1968) proves better at the action than the characterization, though, luckily nobody needs to be anything other than tough. Three scenes, in particular, are well handled – the opening murder in a casino, a shoot-out at a penthouse and the climax on a deserted island which has more than a hint of a spaghetti western. Wiseman (Dr No, 1962) rustles up another interesting performance and Roy Scheider (Jaws,1975) also appears.

This old-style tough-guy thriller would have been better off had the Cord vs. O’Neal set-up taken center stage, with the assassin on murderous overkill hunted down by the zealous cop. As it is, it’s a missed opportunity for Cord to develop an Eastwood/Bronson persona and enter the action star hall of fame. This was the seventh adaptation of the books of bestseller writer Harold Robbins after Never Love a Stranger (1958), A Stone for Danny Fisher (filmed as King Creole in 1958), The Carpetbaggers (1964) – which also resulted in Nevada Smith (1966) – and Where Love Has Gone (1966).

This isn’t easy to get hold of but you are more likely to find it will find it on Ebay (new) than Amazon.

Machine Gun McCain (1969) ***

Armed robbers lack the finesse of a jewel thief or burglar when it comes to pulling off a major heist. Rather than resorting to the weaponry of the title, they are more inclined, as John Cassavetes does here, to plant bombs, both as a diversionary tactic and within the target building, in this case a Las Vegas casino.

Although boasting Hollywood leads in Cassavetes and Peter Falk and rising Swedish leading lady Britt Ekland (The Double Man, 1967) and wife of star Peter Sellers, this was an Italian-made gangster thriller with the usual abundance of location work. Minus the romantic complications of A Fine Pair (1968), it concentrates on the machinations of the central characters. And it is a pretty lean machine. The robbery takes place against the background of warring Mafia chieftains, West coast boss Falk trying to muscle in on a Vegas casino without being aware it is controlled by the New York hierarchy. Cassavetes does not realize the robbery has been set up by his naïve son on behalf of Falk. Ekland is on board as a kind of mostly mute magician’s assistant, helping Cassavetes.

Little dialogue comes Cassavetes’ way, either, which plays to his strength, that glowering intense unpredictable weasel-face, whose reactions are less likely to be emotional than violent. Falk gets the dialogue and little help it does him, his goose is cooked when he has the temerity to shout at the New York kingpin. 

Yet this slimmed-down documentary-style hard-nosed picture in the vein of Point Blank (1967) manages several touching moments, even more effective for completely lacking sentimentality. When Cassavetes’ son is knifed in the back, the gangster finishes him off with a burst from the titular machine gun rather than see him suffer. His old flame Gene Rowlands, making too brief an appearance, has a wall covered in newspaper headlines of herself with Cassavetes when she was his moll and she accepts without enmity the new woman in his life and she proves the toughest moll of all when confronted with Mafia gunslingers.  

The planning of the heist is well done, no explanatory dialogue, just action on screen; there’s a car chase; and the gangster dragnet is unexpectedly powerful. Gabriele Ferzetti (the railroad baron in Once Upon a Time in the West, 1968) is excellent as the calm authoritative New York boss, Falk a bit too excitable, and Florinda Balkan (The Last Valley, 1971), in her third screen role, has a small part as a traitorous moll. Ekland is surprisingly good with not much to play with, a couple of lines here and there but still emoting with her face.

Cassavetes, who always claimed he was only acting to fill in the time between directing  (Faces, 1968), and as a means of financing them, was at a career peak, Oscar-nominated for The Dirty Dozen (1967) and male lead in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). He had just appeared in another Italian gangster movie Bandits in Rome (1968). Cassavetes and Falk would go on to have a fruitful partnership over another five films. Falk and Ekland had played opposite each other in Too Many Thieves (1967). Falk also had an Oscar nod behind him for Murder Inc. (1961) but his career was about to go in a different direction after the TV movie Presciption: Murder (1968) that introduced Columbo.

Trivia trackers might also note a score by Ennio Morricone. Though not one of his best, a few years later he would deliver one of his most memorable themes for Sacco and Vanzetti (1971) for the same director Giuliano Montaldo.

Point Blank (1967)****

The Man With Half A Name doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as The Man With No Name. Lee Marvin’s professional thief Walker (first name absent) is a close cousin of the spaghetti western’s amoral gunslinger. But where Leone is disinclined to fill in the emotional blanks in his anti-hero’s story, British director John Boorman, making his Hollywood debut, feels obliged to look for redemptive features in keeping with American tradition.

Along with several unnecessary arty elements, that gets in the way of a brilliant character portrait. The movie also suffers from critical assessment, not in the manner of bad reviews, but from an irrelevant and misleading insistence on discovering  the film’s “true meaning.”

However, where Boorman gets it right, the movie is a cracker. The bursts of brutal explosive violence still shock, Walker a force as unstoppable as The Terminator, while representing the Mafia as a faceless corporation is a stunning concept. Walker refuses to recognize the dictum that there is no honor among thieves and expects repaid the money stolen from him by a Mafia henchman. In his mind payment will come either in cash or retribution. There is double-crossing aplenty, but Walker is ready for it.

Boorman’s palette is fascinating, the grey bleakness of early scenes giving way to yellow (even the pillar in a parking garage is painted yellow) and other colors. And he has learned from Hitchcock how to apply silence and use natural sound effects like footsteps.

But there are some changes to Richard Stark’s original novel that the movie can do without. The introduction of the abandoned Alcatraz, for a start, is an illogical nonsense, cinematically stylistic though it is. Walker, as shown in the original novel is far too clever to allow himself to be led to a place so open to ambush. Nor would he allow himself to be emotionally blackmailed into doing the job that caused the trouble; he would have walked away from someone as unstable as the double-crossing Mal Reese (John Vernon).

The ambiguous ending, where Walker appears to fade away, issues unresolved, also attracted odd critical theories when, having spent ninety minutes demonstrating the gangster’s destructive capacity, it seems more likely to me that the two Mafia gents left alone with him on Alcatraz would be in the greater peril.

That said, the rest of the picture has an inbuilt dynamic and Marvin’s laconic menacing performance is mesmeric. By comparison Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen was garrulous. The original novel was called The Hunter and Walker ruthlessly stalks his prey even though they are some of the most dangerous men alive. Angie Dickinson is dropped in to provide some emotional core and a scene of him as a younger man courting his wife is along the same lines. Ignore the arthouse elements and run a mile from critical theories and you are in for one hell of a ride.