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The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

by Glenn Erickson Apr 21, 2018

 

Roger Corman’s ferocious gangster epic (more squibs!) bounces back in a UK Region B edition, noisier and bloodier than ever. Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker and a couple dozen top-notch hoods replay the ugly events that led up to the notorious 1929 gangland slaying, which now almost seems tame. Where gun massacres are concerned, today ‘Every Day Is a Holiday.’


The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Region B Blu-ray
Powerhouse Indicator
1967 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 100 min. / Street Date April 30, 2018 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £15.99
Starring Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Jean Hale, Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, David Canary, Bruce Dern, Harold J. Stone, Kurt Kreuger, Joe Turkel, John Agar, Celia Lovsky, Tom Reese, Jan Merlin,Alex D’Arcy, Reed Hadley, Gus Trikonis, Charles Dierkop, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon, Russ Conway, Jonathan Haze, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Jack Nicholson, Joan Shawlee.
Cinematography Milton Krasner
Art Direction Philip Jefferies, Jack Martin Smith
Film Editor William B. Murphy
Original Music Lionel Newman
Written by Howard Browne
Directed by
Roger Corman

 

The business model for Blu-rays has changed a lot in the last few years. A limited edition from one company will sell out or time out, opening the door for another limited edition elsewhere. This means that one might have a perfectly good disc of a picture in hand, only to find that a new one coming out has more attractive extras. With Powerhouse Indicator and Arrow films this is often the case. We welcome this particular title back, mainly so new fans of Roger Corman can get a look-see at his biggest studio picture, and in a fine new transfer.

Period gangster pictures still pop up once in a while when somebody thinks of a new angle, like casting the mobsters from young heartthrob actors. Back in 1967 Roger Corman got the idea to tell the tale of Chicago’s most infamous mob rubout in a semi-documentary style, playing with the real names, dates and specifics of the actual events. Were it not for some less than perfect casting, his The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre might have been a great classic. It’s instead just one of the best gangster pictures of the post-1930s era.

The movie’s mostly authenticated account encouraged fans to look more deeply into the true-life stories behind their favorite gangster bad guys. Corman even gets in a cynical/subversive jab, comparing the tactics of bootlegging hoodlums to those of modern corporations, and nations.

The success of Corman’s American-International Vincent Price movies gave him the opportunity 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. When A.I.P.’s Arkoff and Nicholson began to re-edit his movies behind his back, Corman took the next logical step and formed his own distribution company.

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 rub-outs in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre were considered an extreme in screen bloodletting. Film historians also consider Corman’s thriller a major step in the development of the gangster genre.

Chicago, 1929. Mobsters Al Capone and Bugs Moran (Jason Robards and Ralph Meeker) compete for market space in the booze ‘n’ vice rackets on the North Side. Both camps formulate elaborate scenarios to eliminate the competition. Moran hopes to replace Capone by replacing him with a ringer of his own, Mafia chieftain 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 Jack ‘Machine Gun’ 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 the ubiquitous Paul Frees. Passersby react to the ferocious sound of the slaughter on February 14. The chief witness is actress Barboura Morris, who had just served a similar story-opening function for Corman, cringing at the sight of biker Peter Fonda in The Wild Angels.

Scriptwriter Howard Browne had mostly worked in television but was also responsible for one of the better late-1950s gangland films, Portrait of a Mobster starring 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 still shied away from telling the whole truth. Pictures like Murder, Inc. pointedly avoided admitting the role of corrupt police departments, judges and other public officials in the scandals of organized crime. How else could known hoodlums fire machine guns on city streets with impunity?

In The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Capone’s board meeting is not that much different than any business gathering. His executives discuss the inconvenience of buying policemen and suborning judges. Ambitious underlings vie for Capone’s approval while the established participants steer the boss’s attention away from their failures and toward their successes. Paul Frees’ stentorian voiceover implies that all business and political organizations are essentially gangs at war with competitors.

It’s Dog Eat Dog out there. The nationalities of Corman’s gangsters are undisguised. Authentic ethnic slurs are heard, even some that have fallen out of common usage. Italians are called wops and spaghetti-snappers. Jack McGurn is shown eating pasta, apparently trying to be 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: because Al Capone is merely Italian and not Sicilian, he cannot rise higher in the New York-operated Mafia.

Chicago speakeasies operate practically in the open while the newspapers indulge Moran and Capone’s outrageous claims that they are simply 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 nation into a Depression. Capone’s Chicago isn’t some crazy aberration in the American fabric — it is America.

Corman breaks up his narrative with frequent past-tense digressions, restaging earlier violent episodes in flashback form. Hymie Weiss and Dion O’Bannion (John Agar) are shot down in broad daylight. Al Capone is besieged by a drive-by parade of cars that interrupt his lunch break by blasting his restaurant with machine guns. Anybody can murder anybody. The Chicago solution to a business impasse is essentially the same one employed in 1930s Japan: government by assassination.

“At six a.m. on the last day of his life . . .”

Additional voiceovers bind together a fractured narrative. We observe the crooks in action while the narrator Paul Frees feeds us their sordid backgrounds. Charles ‘Bugs’ Moran was at one time a horse thief. Peter Gusenberg stole his dead mother’s wedding ring. The style can be traced at least as far as Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring Twenties, but the viewers of 1967 probably referenced Walter Winchell’s narration in TV’s The Untouchables. 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.

Corman riffs on famous gangster lore, restaging 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 couple of scenes do not directly serve the story. To generate some sex appeal, George Segal roughs up his moll Myrtle (Jean Hale of In Like Flint) over a fur coat. Corman shoots the action with a hand-held camera but it doesn’t come off well, as if Segal and Hale were reacting to what they probably felt was rushed direction. In another scene David Canary is robbed by his woman for the night, Joan Shawlee of The Apartment and Corman’s own The Wild Angels.

The film was severely criticized 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, labeling him as un-directable. Robards’ dramatic excesses aren’t wrong for the character but he lacks an essential physical intimidation factor. It’s still an “A” acting job. George Segal throws away his role as a cocky gunsel, yet comes off well — his Gusenberg brother isn’t just a James Cagney imitation. Ralph Meeker’s Bugs Moran stays away from the violent action. The great actor has barely a scene or two to show his stuff, which is a big mistake — the movie should have established a stronger personal grudge between Moran and Capone. Yet when Meeker furrows his brow he looks twice as murderous than either of his co-stars.

The gangsters and their hangers-on are played by an entertaining mob of familiar actors: Harold J. Stone, Joseph Campanella, Bruce Dern, Kurt Krueger, Joe Turkel, Tom Reese, Gus Trikonis, Alex Rocco and Reed Hadley. The big cast allowed Corman to reward some of his loyal acting associates with honest-to-goodness Guild 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), Leo Gordon (The Haunted Palace) and Jack Nicholson (The Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven).

According to his autobiography, Corman couldn’t offer the unemployed Jack Nicholson a big role because Fox insisted on a contract player. The hood character he finally played is seen only in a handful shots, but Nicholson chose it because it was scheduled for most of the 35-day shoot, and would earn him the most money. Corman’s perennial replacement pitcher director Monte Hellman served as a dialogue coach. Jack had just one wheezed dialogue line about covering bullets with garlic. We can imagine Hellman and Jack going over the line five hundred times, lamenting Nicholson’s doubtful future as a Hollywood actor.

While waiting to see how events converge on the infamous massacre, we’re given more violent murders to savor. Although the gore is off-camera, Corman’s stagings are confrontationally disturbing. George Segal walks into Patsy Lalordo’s parlor and shoots him without emotion, while Jason Robards becomes a Sweeney Todd-like maniac with a straight razor. To make the actual massacre 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. After Dick Miller and another thug administer a coup de grace, Corman emphasizes the brutality by lingering on the creepy puffs of smoke curling from the barrels of their shotguns.

Corman rushes the finish, a quick wrap-up of the fates of the participants in the massacre. Several thugs just turn up dead, without a clear explanation. Years later in Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese would illustrate how natural it is for a gang to wipe out its own just for insurance, to eliminate potential witnesses.

Corman uses his higher budget to move his camera more than usual, yet his show lacks an overall style. The lighting is flat and some of the costumes and settings are on the tacky side. Corman doesn’t worry about details. Flappers wear off-the-rack dresses, but with modern hosiery and very modern shoes; the women’s hairstyles are jarringly anachronistic. The street sets on the Fox lot are underdressed and under-populated, and look phony even after the addition of a few high-angle matte paintings. During the restaurant shooting we can see off the set onto the tall trees on the Pico Blvd. side of the studio. Corman’s picture captures the ferocity of his setting, but we’d have to wait for the Godfather movies to see a gangster vision fully capture the American imagination.

Corman never stressed the intellectual content of his films but even his early efforts tend to have a strong message or two. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is really about a naïve America that bought into the myth that organized crime is essentially harmless, and that the stock market bubble could go on forever. When Paul Frees compares gangland Chicago to the policies of nations and corporations, it’s no empty statement.


 

Powerhouse Indicator’s Region B Blu-ray of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is essentially the same transfer we saw on a 2015 disc from Twilight Time. Region B capable Fans will want to think about this disc seriously, but the extras probably aren’t special enough to merit a double-dip by those who bought TT’s equally fine disc.

The brief Roger Corman interview is a repeat. Corman skips some of the too oft- repeated stories but drops one about his inability to convince Fox to hire Orson Welles — Fox had more or less blackballed Welles as ‘un-directable.’ On one hand they were right; I’ve reported on Harry Kümel’s horrible time trying to work with Welles on his horror fantasy Malpertuis. As an actor Welles routinely chewed up directors and, if he could get away with it, directed himself. It’s hard to know what would have happened had Orson gotten the job. I have a feeling that he only pulled those stunts when he was bored or when he perceived his director was a pushover. If Welles was in a bad mood he might certainly give Corman grief about making crab monster movies, etc. But Corman was neither a dummy nor a doormat. I can also see him corralling Welles by refusing to be intimidated or tolerating tantrums. And who says they wouldn’t have gotten on famously, trading sneaky tricks on how to film on the cheap? Anyway, three years later John Huston hired Welles for Fox’s The Kremlin Letter and things seemed to work out fine.

The disc has two new extra items. A video essay by Barry Forshaw spits out much the same general information that most fans already know well. Biographer Ben Ohmart’s long interview about voice talent Paul Frees offers a lot of detail on an impressive career. But Ohmart drops several hints about productions and ‘mysterious facts’ without following through — he’ll approach a topic like it’s big news, and then say, ‘but we really don’t know anything.’

Indicator comes up with another excellent insert booklet. I long ago thought I’d exhausted all the good criticism of this show in print, but they found some new articles and interviews. One story about the George Segal – Jean Hale donnybrook is a bit suspicious, in that the injuries incurred sound like a publicist’s exaggeration — the scene in the movie does not look that reckless. Another article referencing the fictionalized Capone killing of Aiello on a train talks about the scene cutting when Capone brandishes his straight razor — which makes me think that the razor killing and other gory details may have been excised in Great Britain.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
Region B Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good / Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Roger Corman Remembers (2014, 4 mins), a director interview; Scenes of the Crime (2018, 14 mins): a critical analysis by author Barry Forshaw; The Man of a Thousand Voices (2018, 11 mins): a talk by Paul Frees biographer Ben Ohmart. Super 8 version, trailer, Roger Corman Trailers from Hell commentary (2013, 3 mins), Image gallery: promotional photography and publicity material.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2018
(5706mass)
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Here’s Mr. Corman himself on his 1967 gangland thriller:

About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.