Review: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)


The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967)

Directed by: Roger Corman | 100 minutes | crime, drama, history | Actors: Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker, Jean Hale, Clint Ritchie, Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, David Canary, Bruce Dern, Harold J. Stone, Kurt Kreuger, Paul Richards, Joe Turkel, Milton Frome, Mickey Deems, John Agar, Celia Lovsky, Tom Reese, Jan Merlin, Alexander D’Arcy, Reed Hadley, Gus Trikonis, Charles Dierkop, Tom Signorelli, Rico Cattani, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon

A large budget and hardly any time pressure; many a filmmaker would rub his hands with so much freedom. Not Roger Corman. He is disgusted by what he believes to be an incredible waste of time and money that is more the rule than the exception in Hollywood and prefers to work with minimal resources and tight deadlines. One of the few films Corman made with a large budget was ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ (1967), a gangster film based on a true settlement in the mafia circuit. But Corman wouldn’t be Corman if he wasted as little time and money as possible while shooting. He had been given a budget of two and a half million dollars, but in the end he still had four tons left. The story of ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ centers on the escalating gangster war between Al Capone and Bugs Moran, which would eventually culminate in a mass killing on Valentine’s Day 1929 that left seven members of Moran’s Northside gang dead. Orson Welles was originally going to play the part of Capone, but the studio bosses at 20th Century Fox opposed that, because they believed Welles was “undirectable”. The role of Capone is now played by Jason Robards; Ralph Meeker portrays his nemesis Moran. Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern can be seen in small supporting roles.

The Roaring Twenties: Chicago has been officially drained, but the booze is flowing there thanks to the illegal trade. Several gangster gangs operate the bars with liquor. The rivalry between the infamous Al Capone and his nemesis Bugs Moran in particular keeps the city in its grip. Capone and his henchmen Peter (George Segal) and Frank Gusenberg (David Canary) threaten and intimidate bar owners, forcing them to do business with them in exchange for “protection.” When Moran orders to take out some of Capone’s buddies, the death toll continues to mount. Moran also enlists two other big bosses – Hymie Weiss (Reed Hadley) and Dion O’Banion (John Agar) to trap Capone, but Capone won’t be fooled. To be rid of his arch-rival once and for all, Capone, who is himself in Florida to provide himself with an alibi, sends his henchmen dressed as police officers on Valentine’s Day 1929 to take out much of the Moran clan. It would turn out to be one of the bloodiest settlements in the history of the city of Chicago.

The film is largely based on historical facts, but screenwriter Howard Browne also shook things up (the names of certain characters, for example). Since many facts did not surface until after the film’s release, Browne has been forgiven his artistic freedom. The events are presented in docu-drama style, with almost journalistic precision. One of the best-known voices of classic Hollywood, Paul Frees, introduces the protagonists and talks the events together, making the comparison with a (Polygon) newscast quickly. A serious approach that you don’t expect from Roger Corman, and although it is clearly not his comfort zone for the director, he does a solid job. The problem with this approach is that the film always remains somewhat distant. There is no real empathy or sympathy with anyone; a touch of personal drama would certainly not have gone amiss here. ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ also suffers from a large amount of characters, most of which are introduced extensively by Frees, giving the impression that they are all equally important in the story, when they are not. The main asset of the film is the cast. With Robards and Meeker, Corman has two strong protagonists, who don’t even have to do their best work here to look good.

With its dry, journalistic approach, ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ is probably not quite what they expect for the average gangster movie buff. Nevertheless, the film offers a nice picture of organized crime in 1920s Chicago and how it can get seriously out of hand due to clashing egos.

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