‘Rome Like Chicago’ (1968): John Cassavetes wields a mean machine gun

Cassavetes... like you've never seen him before!

Rome Like Chicago is an unassuming cops-and-robbers flick from Italy circa 1968, and as such probably isn’t a film to interest the average moviegoer today. What’s funny, though, is that the more of a cineaste you are, the more you might appreciate this workmanlike “B” movie as an entertaining footnote to some notable careers.

The lead bank robber is played by John Cassavetes, of all people; presumably he took the gig and pocketed the dough to help get Husbands off the ground a year or two later. It’s a hoot to see him as a coolly methodical hit man sporting leather gloves, shades, and a machine gun that he has no qualms about whipping out when the cops show up unexpectedly at his door. Heading the police unit on Cassavetes’ tail is the ever-reliable Gabriele Ferzetti, a familiar face from, among other credits, playing Monica Vitti’s lover in L’avventura and the railroad owner in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Unfortunately Ferzetti, like all the Italian actors here, is dubbed into English, typical of the second-rate presentation of Rome Like Chicago on streaming. The movie is so little known that it’s possible there is no decent print with English subtitles available, and maybe there never was. The original U.S. release was called Bandits in Rome, and it wouldn’t surprise me if this dubbed version is that same release — with the added disappointment that the online stream (as of Fall 2010) is not in widescreen but the 4:3 aspect ratio, which makes the film feel even more like an old cop show.

Even with those drawbacks, the movie, while no great shakes, proves watchable. As the title indicates, the story is like an American gangster flick from 30 years earlier transplanted to late-‘60s Rome. Master thief Mario (Cassavetes) unwisely takes on a swaggering sidekick (Nikos Kourkoulos, overdoing the swarthy, cocky stud routine in a way that plays like camp today), and the kill-crazy henchman inevitably brings the heat swooping down on Mario’s action.

How many other auteurs can boast this kind of expertise with machine guns?

It’s all pretty routine, though the movie comes to edgy life with one notably tense attempted robbery midway through. Otherwise the main selling point is the local color, and unexpected period details that have no bearing on the plot, as when a criminal low-life shows up in a Che Guevara T-shirt. (The movie was filmed around the time Guevara was killed; maybe the shirt was someone’s nod at topicality.) The Roman locales and atmosphere make the formulaic story considerably more interesting, particularly when the camera rides along by the front wheels of a police car as it speeds through the streets. (Sixteen years later, this same POV will become one of the signature shots of the Miami Vice pilot.)

The most satisfying aspect of Rome Like Chicago is the score. Just a few minutes in, I notice how the music is not just a pleasure to listen to, with intimations of groovy ‘60s orchestral pop, but it’s also much more evocative and expressive than any other element of this by-the-numbers production. Thus in the end credits it’s not surprising to see the score credited to Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai. Is there any film that isn’t instantly boosted into another league by a Morricone score? Morricone is 82 as of this year. I worry that after he’s gone, movies will never find another composer who is his equal. Where is the next great director-composer partnership going to come from?

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