The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Twilight Time)
Directed by Roger Corman
Roger Corman’s 1967 gangster drama The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre remains as sharp as a punch in the face. Newly released on a fine-looking Blu-ray, the film combines a faux documentary approach (complete with heavy-voiced narration) with bravura set pieces to deliver a vivid portrait of a lovely bunch of murderous sociopaths.
The film is an examination of the circumstances leading to the bloody events of Feb. 14, 1929 in Chicago, when members of a rival gang were gunned down by associates of Al Capone. As the main antagonists, Jason Robards doesn’t look anything like Capone, but he’s appropriately (and effectively) volcanic and threatening; as George “Bugs” Moran, Ralph Meeker at first seems too mild, until the moment he makes the case for killing Capone. It’s one of the film’s great set pieces, punctuated with flashbacks to Capone’s attacks on Moran’s North Side gang. Meeker contorts his face and body in a terrifying rage, making the point that a gang boss doesn’t have to be a madman like Capone to make his enemies—and friends—afraid of him.
Massacre was Corman’s first opportunity to make a film for a major studio (Fox) after a decade of indie success. He didn’t care for the excesses of working for a “major” and went back to being his own boss, but this film shows that he made the most of studio resources.
Corman cheerfully and liberally borrows from the classics, and Massacre seems less of an homage to or update of the original Depression-era gangster cycle than an extension of it. The psychology of the gangsters is much the same: They’re vicious killers who’d steal the wedding ring off their own dead mother’s hand. Ingeniously, Corman and screenwriter Howard Browne (who’d penned a TV version of the events years earlier) even split James Cagney’s Public Enemy character in two: as the brothers Gusenberg, George Segal embodies grinning violence while a brooding David Canary is wracked by doubts. Segal is terrific as he breezes through the picture shooting and smacking people around with a disarming cockiness.
Even with its “voice of doom” narration and docudrama format, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre has amazing energy. It also has the indelible casting of the early gangster films; the actors all look like walked off the page of a Dick Tracy comic strip. What makes this different from those older crime films is that Corman gets to have longer, more violent gun battles—including an epic attempt to kill Capone in which a restaurant is shot to pieces—and use ethnic slurs in a way that even the freewheeling cinema of the early 1930s shied away from.
Budget-conscious Corman re-used sets from other films recently shot on the 20th Century-Fox lot. I immediately recognized one but couldn’t place it; as revealed by Corman himself in the too-short extra Roger Corman Remembers, it’s the bar and whorehouse from Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles. He also redressed a key set from another Wise movie as Al Capone’s house; when I watched Massacre the second time I cracked up at identifying the staircase where the Von Trapp family sang their goodnights in The Sound of Music.
Finally, mention must be made of Alfred Newman’s music, which skillfully repurposes period tunes (for which the studio probably held rights) to maximum effect; the discordant theme music fittingly turns the “Charleston” into a dance of death.
Twilight Time’s handsome Blu-ray has few extras, but the quality of the film itself is reason enough to pick it up.