With a colossal cast of Hollywood A-listers, up-and-coming young stars, and repertory players who go back to director Roger Corman’s early days of shoestring drive-in monster flicks, THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY is Corman’s first stab at the gangster genre since 1958’s MACHINE-GUN KELLY. As a filmmaker, Corman had been largely associated with independents American International Pictures (AIP); this was one of his few efforts for a major studio, in this case 20th Century-Fox, and his biggest budget and longest shooting schedule to date (35 days).
In late 1920s Chicago, hundreds of unsolved gangland slayings have occurred over the decade with over $350 million amassed by their illegal activities. This is an era of prohibition, extortion, and police corruption, with the kings of the criminal underworld being “Scarface” Al Capone (Jason Robards, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE) and his Irish-American rival George “Bugs” Moran (Ralph Meeker, KISS ME DEADLY). In a bid to take total control of the city’s bootlegging and gambling, Moran orders a hit on Capone confidant Patsy Lolorado (Michele Guarini) by two of his fierce lieutenants, Peter Gusenberg (George Segal, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT) and his brother Frank (David Canary, JOHNNY FIRECLOUD). Capone, whose own life has been threatened by Moran and his gang, orders his ace “thinking” strong-arm Jack McGurn (longtime “One Life to Live” star Clint Ritchie) too off the opposing mob in an intricate plan which will entail posing whiskey hijackers, the boss’ alibi (Capone resting in his luxurious Miami home while all this occurs) and a fatal line-up of men up against a warehouse wall who happen to have their backs turned to bogus policemen and rampant machine-gun fire.
THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE might have been the most expensive project Corman ever worked on as a director, but it was Fox’s least expensive film for the year that it was produced. Corman was hired due his industry credentials of making back huge profits on smaller budgeted films (his landmark biker flick THE WILD ANGELS had just made a killing at the box office), and if this film proves anything, it’s that he certainly could direct and benefited when he was allotted much better resources. The near-perfect film is packed with action, late 1960s cinematic violence and bloodshed, some odd casting choices that somehow work, and Corman gives the fact-based proceedings a semi-documentary feel. This is amplified by the continual narration (marvelously done by the familiar voice of Paul Frees) which introduces and gives bio information on many of the mostly male characters, and fascinatingly enough, sometimes forewarns when they’re going to be bumped off. The script was penned by veteran police reporter and Hollywood screenwriter Howard Browne, who meticulously researched his subjects (and would later write the screenplay for the Corman-produced CAPONE which also used stock footage from this film) and delivers smart and literate dialogue while keeping true to the gangsters’ slang-filled diction and frequent racial slurs. With the amount of opposing gangland members and various incidents thrown in, most viewers would likely fail a test if one was to be given about the film at the end, but everything shown on screen neatly and entertainingly culminates into the notorious events which occurred on February 14, 1929, as well as the aftermath.
Although Corman had to suffer a few studio budgetary problems (believing the majors wasted far too many dollars) and SAG rule headaches, once he was shooting the film, he apparently loved the subject matter, working with the excellent cast and the freedom of the Desilu studios and its elaborate sets. Corman (who labeled the film “the most accurate, authentic gangster movie ever”) was able to utilize the standing sets from past big-budgeted Fox productions such as THE SAND PEBBLES (a bar in a Chicago brothel), THE SOUND OF MUSIC (Capone’s house) and most importantly, HELLO DOLLY, in which the exterior sets were convincingly transformed into the 1920s-era Chicago streets. In his autobiography How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, he says about MASSACRE, “Physically, it is one of the best films I ever directed, because I was able to walk around a lot and pick those fantastic sets. But I had plenty to learn about budgeting at the majors, especially since this was the only studio production I ever directed on a studio lot. When I shot for UA (THE SECRET INVASION) I was on location and in charge of the costs myself. Here Fox’s own accounting department was in charge of the costs.”
Although the great Robards, being slight in build and as far from Italian as anyone can look, is physically miscast as Capone, he fully throws himself into the meaty role, chewing as much scenery as cigars. Playing it like a 1930s Hollywood movie gangster without overacting, Segal is great as the classless, trigger-happy hood who spits out whiskey after tasting it, preferring a cold glass of milk. There’s an unforgettable scene when Segal’s Peter Gusenberg recklessly massages a sandwich in the face of his former showgirl moll (Jean Hale, IN LIKE FLINT) after an argument over the price of a fur coat (the entire scene and their interaction plays out like an homage to the similar shenanigans of James Cagney and Jean Harlow in THE PUBLIC ENEMY). The cast also includes the likes of Frank Silvera, Joseph Turkel, Joseph Campanella, Charles Deirkop, Paul Richards, Alex Rocco, Alex D’Arcy, Reed Hadley, Jan Merlin, Mickey Deems, Buck Taylor and Harold J. Stone (whom Corman had previously directed in X: THE MAN WITH THE X-RAY EYES) as Frank Nitti. John Agar shows up in a walk-on as Dion O'Bannion, which has him immediately shot to death. Although Corman had to use a number of Fox contract players, he was able to cast a number of his usual stock actors, some that went back to his B movies of the previous decade, including Dick Miller, Leo Gordon, Jonathan Haze, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Bruce Dern (who had just worked with Corman in THE WILD ANGELS and would be cast in his next film for AIP, THE TRIP). An uncredited Jack Nicholson is seen briefly, as Corman wanted to use him in a key role, but he was forced to use another Fox-contracted actor in the intended larger role. As Gino the hit man, Nicholson, in the most gravely put-on ethnically stereotypical voice, says one line: “It’s garlic: if the bullets don’t kill ya, ya die of blood poisoning”.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE is a significant improvement over the standard DVD (which was the first time the film was presented on home video in widescreen). The film’s original Panavision 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is rendered beautifully in this 1080p transfer which boasts superb sharpness, vibrant colors and natural fleshtones. The source elements are in impeccable shape, with grain being under control and black levels and shadow detail being very good, and for the uninitiated, several scenes are purposely rose-tinted (such as the death of Hymie Weiss), so that’s not picture fade you’re witnessing but rather creative effect. The audio is provided in an English 1.0 DTD-HD Master Audio track which delivers the music and sound effects nicely, retaining perfectly discernible dialogue. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.
The Blu-ray’s case encloses a booklet with excellent liner notes by Julie Kirgo and the music score by Lionel Newman can be found on an isolated track. Other extras include the new brief but engaging featurette “Roger Corman Remembers” (3:31) as the director recalls this first picture he shot on a studio lot with his biggest budget, and how he was able to give it a big look with a budget of around $1 million. Corman also mentions that he originally wanted to cast Orson Welles as Capone and Robards as Moran, but the studio was totally against it knowing Welles’ reputation as being impossible to direct (and that he and Welles later had a laugh over the studio’s protest). Also included are four different Fox Movietone Newsreel pieces (4:41) centered around “Public Enemy Number 1” Al Capone’s exploits (including him going into prison in Atlanta) and Fox’s original (and spoiler-filled) theatrical trailer and a listing of all Twilight Time’s current and past releases rounds out the extras. (George R. Reis)
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