Wednesday, February 11, 2015

V-Day Review: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967)

Different people like to give different gifts for Valentine's Day. Chocolates. Flowers. Colorful cards.

Al Capone? He gave bullets. Lots and lots of bullets.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is a mostly straightforward account of the gang wars in Chicago leading up to the title event on February 14, 1929, at a garage on the city's north side.

Prohibition is in full swing, but the various mobs in the Windy City fight over distribution of illegal booze. Capone (Jason Robards) controls most of the city's speakeasies, but rivals like George "Bugs" Moran (Ralph Meeker) are trying to take a bite or three out of that business with the help of ruthless enforcers like the Gusenberg brothers, Pete (George Segal) and Frank (David Canary), who go to Capone-run bars and force the proprietors into buying Moran liquor instead...or else.

Capone is tired of rivals like "Bugs" muscling in on his territory and trying to bump him off. (One attempt shown on-screen features several hundred bullets fired into a restaurant where "Scarface Al" is eating; remarkably, not one of the bullets found its mark.) And boy, would Al like to return the favor.

So he and his lieutenants plan and plot and maneuver to remove Moran from the picture in a most permanent way with what Al describes as "a great big red Valentine!"

Roger Corman, best known for producing and directing cheap drive-in fare in the fifties and not-as-cheap Poe adaptations in the sixties, made his first big-studio, big-budget movie with The St. Valentine's Day Massacre--and, in the process, made what may be his best overall effort.

Working at a major studio (20th Century Fox) allows Corman to drawer name stars like Robards, whose Capone is a ticking bomb whose detonation is truly frightening, and Meeker, who also excels as Moran, a man who talks big to hide just how afraid he is of Capone. And Segal, a rising star who typically played nice guys, uses his natural charm to very effectively project menace.

Still, Corman keeps a tight reign on the budget (Massacre was shot entirely on studio sets, rather than on location in Chicago) and fills out the cast with familiar faces, many from earlier Corman efforts: Dick Miller, John Agar, Leo Gordon, Bruce Dern, Joseph Campenella, Jonathan Haze, Harold J. Stone, Alex Rocco, Richard Bakalyan (with the flattest nose in cinema history), even Jack Nicholson in a bit part.

Corman also exerts tight control on Howard Browne's adaptation of his teleplay, taking his cast of characters (all based on real people) through their paces efficiently and with little comic relief. (Pete has a brawl with his girlfriend that walks right up to the border of slapstick--she even his him over the head with a radio--and Frank gets money swiped from his roll by a blowsy hooker.)

Corman's "just-the-facts" approach, complete with voiceover narration (by veteran voice actor Paul Frees, who can be heard in damn near every Rankin & Bass holiday special) serves this true story well. It doesn't need dramatic or comedic embellishment.

Bullets--lots and lots of bullets--are more than dramatic enough.

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