Director: Roger Corman
Script: Howard Browne
Cast: Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Jean Hale, Clint Richie, Frank Silvera, David Canary, Bruce Dern, John Agar
Running time: 90 minutes
For those expecting a typical sort of lightweight Roger Corman vehicle, with the emphasis purely on entertainment and escapism, you will be somewhat disappointed by this more mainstream and serious feature, which plays out more like a docu-drama. Somewhat unusually this sees Corman with a decent budget working for a Hollywood studio, with all the bells and whistles that go along with that.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is essentially a factual rendition of events leading up to, and resulting from, one of the most violent days in US history, brought about by feuding mobster gangs in New York, in 1929, just before the Great Depression.
Bugs Moran’s gang are starting to try their luck and invade Al Capone’s territory and businesses. After Moran takes over 28 of Capone’s speak-easies, Capone decides to teach the usurper a lesson and declares all-out war on the Northside gang leading to horrendous acts of violence on both sides, culminating in the infamous massacre of several men on St Valentine’s Day in 1929.
Paul Frees narration explains who everyone is, as a vast cast of characters are rapidly introduced, and frequently just as quickly killed off in one shoot-out or another. In fact the Tommy gun features regularly throughout the film, as gang members spray bullets at one another in public places, not caring if they hit innocent bystanders or not. When things seem to be going Capone’s way Moran hooks up with a Sicilian mobster to get the edge. But Capone is a survivor, and reckons to have the last laugh…
I have to admit that although I enjoyed The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre I often found myself somewhat confused as to who was who, who had just killed who, and who everyone was working for, despite Frees best narrating efforts.
The acting is uniformly excellent, with everyone upping their game, although special mention has to go to Jason Robards who plays Al Capone very straight, and George Segal as Peter Gusenberg, one of Moran’s enforcers. There’s even a nice short-lived role for Bruce Dern (Silent Running), who always improves whatever scene he’s in.
The production value is very high as the designers and costume departments have really gone to town on the sets and wardrobes to make for a thoroughly authentic looking period piece.
Unfortunately, all this quality doesn’t extend to the script, which, in its overly earnest way to be true to the facts, has forgotten to provide any characters we can relate to or care about, resulting in a movie with almost no characterization, beyond rudimentary. This leaves the viewer just to spectate, as if from afar, in the way we do watching most documentaries; in fact, many documentaries create more personal engagement than this fictional feature does.
If you’re interested in American social history, and in gangsters, then you’ll still appreciate The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, but if you prefer your films to have ‘heart’ and ‘soul’ it’s probably best to avoid this one.
Powerhouse Films are distributing The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on Blu-Ray. As per usual, Powerhouse have done a great job with the transfer and there are plenty of special features including:
– Roger Corman remembers (3.5 mins) – a brief interview with the great man himself where he informs us that he originally wanted Orson Wells for the part of Al Capone, and that Al Capone’s house was also the house from The Sound of Music!
– Scenes of the crime (13 mins) – Barry Forshaw talks about Corman’s career and explains how this film marked his first ‘real’ budget. He also points out that Jack Nicholson has a brief role in a garage scene.
– The man of a thousand voices (11 mins) – Writer Ben Omat talks about narrator Paul Frees, who had an interesting career, but who is largely forgotten now.
– Super 8 Version (7.46 mins) – a badly damaged but still watchable cut-down version of the film for the Super 8 screening format. Weirdly, at the end, it reminds us that Al Capone eventually died of Syphilis!
– Trailer (2.32 mins) – This sells the film on its savagery and realism.
– Roger Corman trailer commentary (2.58 mins) – Corman explains that they had five weeks to shoot the film, and that it was written by Howard Browne, who was a newspaper man.
– Gallery (58 images from the production, and posters too)