THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE joined bloodstained hands with Bonnie And Clyde and The Dirty Dozen back in 1967, upping the ante in portraying violence on screen. It didn’t do the huge business of those two, or gather any awards, but it’s a tight, fast-moving package with a neat cast and tons of action: fans of gangster movies like it a lot. Be warned: if you’re squeamish about seeing hoodlums “rubbing out” their competition, you better “leave the canoli” and stick widd’a stewed prunes. Capeesh?
Chicago, 1929. Tired of having his gangland kingdom interfered with by also-rans, Al Capone (Jason Robards) gives his crew the word to cut George ‘Bugs’ Moran (Ralph Meeker) down to size. That goes for Moran’s pushy punk underlings like Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) who has a bad habit of knocking off Big Al’s pals. Residents will need earplugs. The embalming business booms.
Directed & produced by Roger Corman: if not the legendary guerrilla-warfare independent’s best-made movie, it’s certainly one of them, with upscale studio production values for once, and he delivered with slick, no nonsense direction of a solid cast. Done in documentary style, written by Howard Browne, the gun battles and insult-tossing are framed with narration done by the familiar voice of Paul Frees. The three leads pull out the stops and play it big, but since the real-life thugs and their deeds were over-the-top anyway, their mugging of mugs works like a charm.
The angular Robards looks nothing like Capone (and the facial scar makeup is just adequate) but he delivers some ferocious rages so intense you wonder if he blacked out when “cut!” was yelled. Segal hams it up almost like he’s doing Jimmy Cagney and seems to be relishing it. He gets a couple of the showiest scenes. First is his taking a vicious-but-relaxed part in a multi-car parade that hoses down a restaurant Al’s at with a torrent of tommygun fire like something out of World War One. Then he has a memorable battle royale in his hotel room with his foxy moll, ‘Myrtle’ (Jean Hale), who gives as good as she gets. If this is your idea of an argument, the makeup sex better be tornado scale. *
The tough-guy lingo spat out and the brazen eruptions of gunfire (enough for three movies) are launched by terrific main title music over the opening credits, conducted by Lionel Newman. It’s a sort of deadly serious ‘Charleston’, with the rolling piano punctuated by drums and cymbals announcing the kind of dance that’s going to end with more than a sprained ankle.
Budgeted at $2,500,000, yet the thrifty producer-director, trained in trenches he had to self-dig, brought it in for $400,000 less. Grosses came to $4,200,000, 57th place for the year. Corman: “There comes a time when the public conscience needs jolting and in St Valentine’s Day Massacre this is our intention. It is also certain that the movie will make money – crime is always box office.” Uh, let’s take Roger Corman’s altruism with a grain of hot lead.
Fans of a certain age will recognize and appreciate a host of colorful movie & TV character actors from the period: Frank Silvera, Clint Ritchie, Joseph Campanella, Paul Richards, David Canary, Bruce Dern, Kurt Kreuger, Leo Gordon, Harold J. Stone, Joe Turkel, Richard Bakalyan, Milton Frome, John Agar, Alex D’Arcy, Tom Reese, Gus Trikonis, Dick Miller, Joan Shawlee, Buck Taylor, Russ Conway, Alex Rocco (later ‘Moe Greene’ in The Godfather). 29-year-old Corman pal and struggling hopeful Jack Nicholson is unbilled and has just two lines (he uses a croaked voice for some reason). Wily buffs with super-eagle eyes may spot Betsy Jones-Moreland (Last Woman On Earth) and Corinna Tsopei, a stunning Miss Universe (from Greece,1964) who later turned up as the beauty in A Man Called Horse. 100 minutes.
* It was the last film for sexpot Jean Hale (also in the same year’s In Like Flint), whose career seemed to be on a fast track. She was promptly dumped by Fox after turning down roles involving nudity.