Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The success of the American-International Vincent Price movies transformed Roger Corman from a low budget exploitation upstart to a respected director, and he responded to offers from Columbia and 20th Century Fox as a chance to decide if he'd like to pursue a career as an A-List directing talent. Corman soon found that he wanted no part of the chaos of studio filmmaking -- the overhead, the loss of control -- and retreated to the independent world that he knew so well. As it turned out, the next step for Corman would be to form his own distribution company. For ten years he'd been watching the distributors get rich from his work.
Fresh from his smash hit The Wild Angels, Corman fixated on a violent subject in a year of particularly violent movies: Bonnie & Clyde, Point Blank. Before the breakout of Sam Peckinpah and ubiquitous violence, the machine-gunnings and rubouts in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre were considered the height in screen bloodletting. Film historians also consider Corman's thriller a major step in the development of the gangster film.
Chicago, 1929. Al Capone and Bugs Moran (Jason Robards and Ralph Meeker) compete for "market space" in the booze and vice rackets on the North Side. Both camps formulate elaborate scenarios to assassinate their competition. Moran hopes to weaken Capone by replacing the Mafia chieftain with his own ringer, Aiello (Alex D'Arcy). Moran's sluggers Peter and Frank Gusenberg (George Segal and David Canary) go forward with this plan, not realizing that Capone's lieutenant "Machine Gun" Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) is setting Moran up for a major Hit. Capone doesn't care who else gets killed as long as Bugs goes down for the count.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre starts with both a "this is true" title card and a hectoring narration courtesy of Paul Frees. Passersby react to the ferocious sound of the slaughter on February 14. The chief witness is actress Barboura Morris, who served a similar story-opening function in Corman's biker pic The Wild Angels.
Scriptwriter Howard Browne had mostly worked in television but was also responsible for Portrait of a Mobster, one of the better late-1950s gangland films that starred Vic Morrow as Dutch Schultz. The gangster fare that followed TV's popular The Untouchables was able to name names and recount actual mob history, but were still compromised. Pictures like Murder, Inc. didn't confront the truth that corrupt police departments, judges and other public officials were at least half the problem.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre ignores those rules. Capone's men discuss the inconvenience of buying policemen and suborning judges. His board meeting is no different from any business gathering. The underlings vie for Capone's approval while the more important participants try to turn the boss's attention away from their failures and toward their successes. A voiceover directly compares the gang's competition for booze territory to the rivalry of nations and corporations, implying that despite their PR images, all are greedy systems fighting for dominance Dog Eat Dog.
Corman's gangsters use real ethnic slurs and their nationalities are undisguised. Italians are called wops and spaghetti-snappers. Jack McGurn is shown eating pasta, apparently trying to make himself more Italian for his boss Al Capone. The Moran mob gives broken-down trucker Sorello (Frank Silvera) a hard time for having a Sicilian accent. The script contains an interesting revelation: Al Capone cannot rise higher in the New York-operated Mafia because he merely Italian, and not Sicilian.
Chicago speakeasies operate practically in the open and the newspapers indulge Moran and Capone's outrageous claims that they are ordinary citizens and businessmen. Browne's script also equates the 'anything goes' violence in Chicago to the unrestrained over-speculation in the stock market, which in less than six months would collapse and plunge the whole nation into the Depression. Capone's Chicago isn't some crazy aberration in the American fabric -- it is America. Modern corporations operate almost identically. Instead of breaking the law, the giant companies use their economic might to have laws altered to suit their interests. Thanks to "free trade" concepts, foreign countries can be "pioneered" and conquered just like new neighborhoods in Chicago.
Corman revels in restaging earlier violent episodes in flashback form. Hymie Weiss and Dion O'Bannion (John Agar) are shot down in broad daylight, and Al Capone undergoes a rough lunch break interrupted by a drive-by parade of cars blasting with machine guns. Anybody can murder anybody, with the only problem being How. Capone's enforcer Frank Nitti (Harold J. Stone of "X") is an old-school thug who doesn't even know Bugs Moran's address. The Chicago solution to a "business" impasse is essentially the same one employed in 1930s Japan: Government by assassination.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is a semi-docu that resorts to occasional voiceover to hold its narrative together. We observe the crooks in action while the narrator feeds us their sordid backgrounds. Charles "Bugs" Moran was at one time a horse thief; Peter Gusenberg stole his dead mother's wedding ring. 1 Corman riffs on famous gangster lore, borrowing entire scenes from The Public Enemy. Peter Gusenberg harasses a speak owner, while John Scalise (Richard Bakalyan) and his partner stake out a machine-gun emplacement in a boarding room opposite the Clark Street garage.
Corman sacrifices dramatic depth to the needs of docu realism. Only a scene or two do not directly serve the story, and both involve the Gusenbergs. To generate some sex appeal, George Segal roughs up his moll Myrtle (Jean Hale of In Like Flint) over a fur coat, and the underrated David Canary is robbed by his woman for the night, Joan Shawlee (The Apartment).
While waiting to see how events converge into the famous massacre, we're given a couple more violent and personal murders to savor. Although most of the gore is off-camera, Corman's stagings are confrontationally disturbing -- George Segal is insolent while Jason Robards becomes a Sweeney Todd-like maniac with a straight razor. For the actual massacre to top what's come before, Corman uses jarring cutting to bolster the pitiless slaughter of what we know to be mostly unfortunate bystanders. True to the chaotic history of early gangland, the whole bloody mess is a complete mistake -- the killers have misidentified their key target.
The film was severely critcized for the miscasting of Jason Robards, who looks nothing like Al Capone. Corman had originally envisioned Orson Welles as Capone and Robards as Moran, but Fox vetoed Welles as uncooperative. Robard's dramatic excesses aren't wrong for the character but he lacks the essential physical intimidation factor. It's still an "A" acting job. George Segal throws away the role but has fun adding a cocky gunsel to his acting scrapbook. Ralph Meeker has no violent action and barely has one scene to show his stuff, but when he furrows his brow he looks twice as murderous than either of his co-stars.
Gangsters and their hangers on are played by actors as diverse as Joseph Campanella, Bruce Dern, Kurt Krueger, Joe Turkel, Tom Reese, Gus Trikonis, Alex Rocco and Reed Hadley. With such a big cast of players Corman could reward some of his old acting associates with honest-to-goodness Union jobs. In substantial roles or solid bits are Bruce Dern (The Trip), Leo Gordon (The Intruder), Jonathan Haze (Little Shop of Horrors), Betsy Jones-Moreland (Last Woman on Earth), Dick Miller (Not of this Earth), Barboura Morris (Teenage Doll, A Bucket of Blood),
Jack Nicholson (The Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven) and Joan Shawlee (The Wild Angels).
According to his autobiography, Corman couldn't offer a big role to the unemployed Jack Nicholson because Fox insisted on a contract player. Jack was so broke and down on his acting prospects that he chose his bit part on the basis of how much work was involved. His hood character was carried for most of the 35-day shoot (enough time for Corman to film six of his old films!) and would earn a lot of money. Nicholson is seen only in about a dozen shots and has only one wheezed line about bullets covered in garlic. Corman's perennial replacement-pitcher director Monte Hellman served as a dialogue coach. We can imagine he and Jack going over that one line 500 times, lamenting Nicholson's doubtful future as a Hollywood actor.
Corman's direction is better than ever, with moving cameras and careful attention to details like the creepy puffs of smoke that curl from the barrels of Dick Miller's shotgun as he administers a coup de grace. Corman's failing is that his show lacks style; it's a cheap movie with flat lighting. Many of the costumes and settings look tacky and Corman doesn't worry about things like anachronistic hairstyles. The street sets on the Fox lot were never as phony, even with a few high-angle matte paintings to add some scope. Corman's picture captures the ferocity of his setting, but we'd have to wait for the Godfather movies to see a gangster vision that would fully capture the American imagination.
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is really about the last gasp of a naïve America that bought into the myth that the expanding "economy" of the stock market could go on forever, and that organized crime was essentially harmless. With the hardship of the Depression the Mob became much better organized. Corman never stressed the intellectual content of his films but even his early efforts tend to be thoughtful and well-conceived. The maker of The Trip was attuned to current trends and in Massacre he clearly wanted to comment on the acceptance of mass violence in Vietnam. When his narrator compares gangland Chicago to the policies of nations and corporations, it's no empty statement. 2
Fox's DVD of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is a terrific enhanced transfer with bold color; the cheesy art direction at least looks correct. The movie's been shown pan-scanned on television for decades, sometimes shy a choice bloody close-up or two; I once saw an afternoon telecast that omitted the entire massacre montage. Nobody is credited with the film's interesting, nervous title tune although Lionel Newman's name appears as the conductor. If this were an old Corman picture we could chalk the omission up to a simple mistake in the credits.
There are no extras save for a trailer. That's a shame, for this was such an exceptional film in Corman's career that there are a million questions to be asked. Corman's assistant director was actor-producer Wesley Barry, who made Creation of the Humanoids! It's certainly the closest Corman got to mainstream studio work. Unlike the majority of other independent filmmakers of the time, Corman could not be seduced by the opportunity to work with a bigger budget. He preferred to remain in control of his own destiny.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The St. Valentine's Day Massacre rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 3, 2006
1. Woody Allen spoofed this serious Voice Of Doom narrative style as a deadpan glue to hold together his first film, Take the Money and Run.
2. Corman's The Secret Invasion from 1964 predates The Dirty Dozen and is almost identical in story, characterization and attitude.
A welcome note from Glen Grant, 6.12.06:
Hi Glenn, I really enjoyed your review of St. Valentine's, a film I have always liked and respected despite its miscasting and cheesy look. You nailed everything about the film that works and it is, as usual, a very perceptive and insightful examination not only of the movie, but its reflections of the world.
I have done lots of study of the real massacre and all its players, visited the site of it several times and although I was on this planet when the building of the garage was still there, I never saw it. It's an empty lot now next to a senior citizen's home, residents of which have claimed often that they see ghosts of mobsters there at night and hear the howling dog that originally alerted passersby on the street to investigate what was happening inside. When they were tearing it down, people went there and got bricks from the garage to keep or sell. One tavern owner, I believe in Canada, purchased the entire bullet ridden wall and reconstructed it in his bar. When I was nine, my parents took us to a night in Old Town on Wells Street, the hippie enclave in Chicago in the 60's and we went to the wax museum there. In the Chamber Of Horrors section they had a complete replica of the massacre and it was very chilling. Here's something that always gets a laugh: The site of Dion O'Bannion's infamous flower shop, where all the mobsters bought the flowers for the massive gangster funerals and where O'Bannion was murdered, still stands and is now houses the GIANT BURRITO #2! -- Glen Grant
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson