REVIEW: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre [1967]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: June 30th, 1967 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Roger Corman
Writer(s): Howard Browne

“I gotta go pay a bill”

Known to me by his “King of B-Movies” reputation, Roger Corman was always a guy I equated with low-budget horror. So, it was a surprise to see him as director of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, a film steeped in the historical fiction of late-1920s American gang warfare. It’s Al Capone versus Bugs Moran, both vying to control the dissemination and profit of prohibition speakeasy alcohol, each looking to rid themselves of irksome competition while acquiring vengeance for body counts accumulated on either side. But besides a few instances of neon red ketchup doubling as blood, all my preconceptions of Corman were thrown out the window upon the opening scene. Reminiscent of “Dragnet”, or other hard-boiled cop dramas with voiceover, Paul Frees’s narration gives us matter-of-fact expository information to set the stage. Characters are introduced with dates of birth, hometowns, rap sheets, and expirations—Howard Browne’s script relaying the facts so the action can speak for itself. And, if you look beyond the horribly acted scream piercing through your speakers just before the opening credits, you may be able to buy a hint of serious drama in what follows.

It is a big ‘if’, but I somehow was able to look beyond a few caricatures to enjoy the tale. Even the most famous actor involved—besides a supposed uncredited Jack Nicholson which none of us watching noticed—Jason Robards as Capone, has his moments of over-the-top pisano, easily falling into goofy territory, especially when delving into a five-minute rant without subtitles. But his cigar chomping tough guy exudes power, something necessary in a portrayal of the real ‘Scarface’, so we believe the fear his men possess. When Al talks, everyone listens. When Al wants Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker) dead, people rise to the occasion and hatch a plan to make it a reality. Mafia life is fickle and cutthroat, though, so it isn’t always the muscle who take it upon themselves to get the job done, sometimes it’s an upstart like Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) that will confidently set the hit into motion. Innocents will be used, innocents will be killed, and the streets will not be safe. Just as Capone looks to take out Moran, the Irishman begins his own scheme to usurp the Sicilian mafia and bump his competitor off before the favor is returned.

As a result, the film is actually quite intriguing. You’ve got the old country guys like Patsy Lolordo and Joe Aiello breaking a brother-like friendship for control of the mafia; there’s Nick Sorello (Frank Silvera), an immigrant supporting his family legally who gets caught up into the feud for quick reward and a naïve sense of non-complicity; we’re given a look into the womanizing brutes these men are with Peter Gusenberg (George Segal), his volatile relationship with a showgirl (Jean Hale), and their highly entertaining quarrels; his brother Frank’s (David Canary) penchant for gunfire and murder, a triggerman through and through; and a sense of familial pride, no matter how messed up, when a guy like Capone decides to get his own hands dirty to achieve retribution. This massacre isn’t a tragedy because of the bloodshed; it’s more because of the people killed in the bungled mess. Somehow the truly bad guys always find fate intervening on their behalf, while the stooges following die. The days leading up to February 14, 1929 aren’t necessarily bloody, but they are riddled with bullets.

And this is where Corman does some great stuff—the chaotic lead up. The Gusenbergs enjoy their fair share of tommy gun action as a duo, but a flashback scene to an assassination attempt on Capone while eating at a restaurant is fantastically orchestrated. Between the entire dining room getting down on the floor, the plaster flying and destruction of everything waist-high and above, and the steady stream of cars driving by the front windows, guns drawn—it’s a ton of fun. Just when you think the wave of ammunition has ceased, and Capone tentatively rises from the ground, the cars circle around and continue their ratatat. When Segal exits his vehicle to stand in front of the restaurant and empty a clip himself, the conflicting reactions of laughing at the absurdity or reveling in the carnage crops up. It’s a lawless time, the cops are nowhere to be seen, and families try in vain to shield children in cars caught in the crossfire. Collateral damage is a non-issue for these criminals, they are slowly killing them with the booze and strong-arming anyway; when one dies another sap will take his place.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is therefore a fun, at times brutal, and, on the surface, historical account of the titular travesty. According to the narrator, this tragedy finally riled the public up enough to vocally make the police do their job, protecting and serving, at least until the 60s. Corman and Browne do their best to humanize characters, giving them all one last redeeming quality on the ‘morning of their death’ or telling of their eventual demise in all their lack of glory—see Capone dying in prison, insane and ravaged by syphilis. There are no cops for the duration of the film, so you won’t be able to align yourself with the good guys. It’s up to you whether you want to get behind either Capone or Moran, choosing the lesser of two horrors when it’s an impossible choice, but I found it worthwhile to just sit back and let the story unfold without allegiances. The voiceover continues through its entirety, teaching little tidbits of fact (maybe?), adding that layer of educational value atop the entertainment. Let it wash over you, ignore the shaky acting, and enjoy the senseless bloodshed.

[1] Jason Robards
[2] George Segal and Jean Hale
[3] Jean Hale

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