ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) Blu Ray (Indicator)
1920s American gangsterism
This fact-based gangster drama set in Chicago during the “Roaring Twenties” chronicles the lengthy rivalry between Al Capone (Jason Robards) and the Northside Gang, led by Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker), for control of city’s illicit trade in liquor. When Moran’s enforcers, brothers Peter and Frank Gusenberg (played by George Segal and David Canary respectively), start muscling in on Capone’s “speakeasies”, the Italian mob boss calls in his deputies for an angry meeting to see what they can do about the situation. When a promising young upstart named Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) claims that he knows where Moran hides out, Capone assigns him to mount an operation to take him down.
The ongoing battle between the two mob kingpins ultimately leads up to the infamous mass gangland slaying of the title which occurred on the 14th of February 1929.
Watch a trailer:
Roger Corman with more money
With financing courtesy of 20th Century Fox, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was producer-director Roger Corman’s first big-budget, major-studio production. While it’s far from being the best period gangster movie ever made, it still succeeds as solid rat-a-tat entertainment. It takes a rather matter-of-fact, docudrama approach as it runs through a succession of significant events and dramatic vignettes which are intermittently accompanied by a voiceover courtesy of Paul Frees. While I’m no expert on this period in America’s tumultuous history, a quick browse through the internet reveals that the film’s recreation is, for the most part, historically accurate.
Deep down, however, Corman stays true to his exploitation roots as he tends to dwell over the more violent aspects of the tale. There are also some occasional dashes of unexpectedly deadpan humour here, such as a snippet of dialogue following one scene involving Frank and an ageing, light-fingered prostitute with whom he (it is implied) has spent the night. Frees’ narration notes that:
“Frank Gusenberg is wondering if he shouldn't go back to one of his wives.”
The scenes that work best here are those that involve action. Of course, the massacre itself is appropriately brutal, as well as being historically accurate to the point where there actors fall “dead” in the correct positions according to photographic evidence. However, there is also a memorable Tommy gun assault on Capone’s headquarters which results in just about every fixture and object in the place being energetically perforated with gunfire. A smaller but no less entertaining sequence partway through revolves around a heated scuffle between Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) and his moll Myrtle (Jean Hale) over an expensive fur coat.
A stellar cast
The cast functions very much as an ensemble, with several major characters getting a roughly equal share of the screen time each. At the same time, it’s Jason Robards as Al Capone who makes the biggest impression on the viewer. However, this is a double-edged sword; while he clearly inhabits the character with a passion and focus, he tends to overdo the shouting and desk-thumping to the point where it just wears thin. A little more controlled menace (in the manner of Robert De Niro’s portrayal of the same character in the later Brian De Palma adaptation of The Untouchables) would have been more effective. George Segal is better as the slimy, creepy Peter. If you are a film buff and pay close attention, you can also play a game entitled “spot the actor who would later become better-known”. Oddball character-actor Bruce Dern plays a mob driver-for-hire named Johnny May. Joe Turkel (whom you may recognise from his memorable roles in The Shining and Blade Runner) plays one of Capone’s advisors. Dick Miller (who popped up in countless Roger Corman productions) has a small role as a rank-and-file mobster. There’s even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance by Jack Nicholson, who was apparently originally earmarked for Dern’s role.
Unfortunately, the fact that the film jumps back and forth between so many characters means that it can be difficult to follow and lacking in a central focus to engage the viewer. It also feels curiously cheap at times, despite Roger Corman being enabled to work on a relatively large budget by his standards (which he quoted as being $1 million in one source and $2.1 million in another). Sure, some of the more expansive street scenes look like they had some money thrown at them, as do the lavish sets representing Capone’s headquarters. However, many of the shots are static and tightly-framed, a technique typically used by low-budget filmmakers to avoid revealing threadbare sets and a shortage of extras. Corman was apparently so accustomed to working cheaply that he maintained his economical shooting style here. It’s a shame that he didn’t cut loose a bit more!
Overall, however, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is an enjoyable slice of bloody gangster warfare backed up by a decent cast.
Runtime: 100 mins
Dir: Roger Corman
Script: Howard Browne
Starring: Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Jean Hale, Clint Ritchie, David Canary, Bruce Dern, Dick Miller, Joe Turkel, Jack Nicholson, Paul Frees (voice)
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The colour palette seems to be a little too yellow at times but otherwise it’s very pleasing to look at. Sound-wise, everything is spot-on, with the ragtime-influenced main theme being the most richly memorable aspect here.
Gunfire and Fury: Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre! is analytical essay by Neil Sinyard. He discusses the production, noting that Corman reused sets from The Sand Pebbles (1966) and even The Sound of Music (1965) in order to save money. He also looks at some themes and ideas which were brought up by the film, including its emphasis on outlining the respective ethnicities of the various characters and its association of gangsterism with capitalism.
Roger Corman on The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre! features an excerpt from his autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime related to his memories of making the film. He reveals that he originally wanted Orson Welles to play Capone and for Jason Robards (who was ultimately cast in the former role) to play Moran. However, 20th Century Fox refused to allow Welles to be cast for fear that he would try to take over the picture. Although Jack Nicholson ended up appearing in just two shots in the film, these were filmed seven weeks apart and he had to be payed for the duration in between due to SAG rules.
An Interview with Roger Corman is an extract from a 1969 interview conducted by Joseph Gelmis. Interestingly, here he quotes the final budgetary figure as being $2.1 million (he was allocated $2.5 million by the studio but managed to cut costs), whereas in his autobiography he said that it was $1 million. He also mentions that he could have shaved considerably more off the figure if he was allowed to shoot on-location in Chicago instead of on a studio backlot.
Incitement Against Violence is an excerpt from a 1967 Sight & Sound article by Philip French which examined both The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde which came out that same year.
Finally, Archive Review features Tom Milne’s contemporary critical analysis of the film from the Monthly Film Bulletin. While wholly positive he expresses some reservations, noting that “Jason Robards is rather uncomfortable as Capone”.
On the disc itself are the following:
Roger Corman Remembers
A brief but pleasing interview with the infamous director. He talks about the fact that he was unable to hire Orson Welles as Al Capone as the studio feared he would be impossible to direct. However, when he met Welles for dinner some years later and mentioned this, the latter replied: “I’m the easiest actor in the world to direct, I would have loved to have played Al Capone!”
The massacre itself was a complicated piece of choreography as it was captured by three simultaneous cameras and the actors had to fall in specific positions. In the event, however, it only took one take.
Scenes of the Crime
An enjoyable video essay by journalist Barry Forshaw, who discusses Roger Corman, Al Capone on film and, of course, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He notes that its documentary approach came from writer Howard Browne’s background in journalism - and that the film is mostly accurate in its details apart from the killing of Joe Aiello.
The Man of a Thousand Voices
Ben Ohmart, author of Welcome, Foolish Mortals: The Life and Voices of Paul Frees gives us a fascinating whistle-stop run-through of the incredibly prolific career of the voice actor who narrates The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. You name it, he was involved with it: a Fruit Loops commercial, The Beatles cartoon series, Rocky & Bullwinkle, radio shows and even some Disney World ride soundtracks (including the Pirates of the Caribbean ride). He also apparently enjoyed accompanying the local sheriff on stakeouts. Sadly, he passed away in 1986 after an overdose of pain medication.
A Super-8 version, trailer with Trailers from Hell commentary courtesy of Corman himself and an image gallery complete the extras here.
The film provides solid, if imperfect, proof that Roger Corman was capable of directing films that weren’t Vincent Price-starring Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. While the extras aren’t as numerous as they are on some other discs out there, the quality makes up for quantity. The involvement of Corman himself in a couple of them adds a lot.