Sunday, February 15, 2015

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre [1967]

I'm sure my readers have had the experience of re-reading a book or watching a TV show or movie decades later to find that it is not what you had remembered. This weekend, which fittingly includes Valentine's Day, I re-watched the 1967 version of The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and I am happy to relate that oir my money, it still holds up.

I didn't see it when it played in the theatres, but watched it several times on cable back in the day, probably on Turner Classic Movies or some similar channel in the 1980s or 1990s. I had wanted to watch it again, but couldn't find it on Netflix or my local public library. I found it on Amazon Prime instead, and watched it on Friday night.

The movie was directed by Roger Corman, who has two claims to fame in Hollywood history. His primary legacy is producing a remarkable number of films, most of them cheap, many of them awful, but after that, he is remembered fondly for the actors and filmmakers who got their first chances in the movies he financed.

This was not a cheap film. The top of the cast list had Jason Robards and George Segal, both of them had already starred in well-received movies and the third bill, Ralph Meeker, was a well-known character actor. It's a 1960s movie, so anyone who watched TV in the 1960s and 1970s will see plenty of familiar faces, including Joseph Campanella, Charles Dierkop, Harold J. Stone and a few of Corman's favorites, most notably Dick Miller and two future stars, Bruce Dern and Jack Nicholson.

Many reviews I've read note that The Godfather is made only five years later. I don't think it's a fair comparison. Francis Ford Coppola - who got his start working with Roger Corman - was doing everything he could to make his name with big budget, hoping for a blockbuster first and a masterpiece second, while Corman was just trying to make an entertaining film. Both succeeded, though Coppola was obviously aiming higher.

Another difference is that The Godfather romanticizes gangsters, showing Vito Coroleone as a man of honor who wouldn't sell drugs. There is no honor in the hoods presented Corman's film. The society that tolerated them and the politicians and cops they corrupted are presented in a bad light as well. This was a fair comment on the time.

I would say the movie owes more to the TV show The Untouchables. Both presented their material in a semi-documentary style with voiceover narration. Instead of using Walter Winchell, the narration in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is by Paul Frees, a voiceover actor on a par with the great Mel Blanc. In early scenes, Frees introduces characters, gives their birthdates and criminal records if any, sometimes their death dates as well. In the middle of the film, we don't hear from Frees, but near the end, several scenes are introduced "At (such and such) a.m. on the last day of his life, (such and such character) was (doing such-and-such mundane thing)." I have to admit, those little touches are some of my favorite bits of writing in the screenplay, which is credited to Howard Browne, who wrote and edited a lot of sci-fi and crime stories. After the murders, Frees returns to introduce scenes in an epilogue style, telling the final fates of Capone, who masterminded the attack, and Bugs Moran, who was the target who avoided being killed. (Sorry if these are spoilers, but the real events did happen 84 years ago, so maybe you should know them by now. Just sayin'.)

Most of the performance are understated, with the exception of Robards as Capone, a character who probably should be played over the top according to most of the stories about him, and Segal as the Moran thug Peter Gusenberg, who eats a sandwich with all the disgusting verve the method actors of the day were (in)famous for. The other over-actor was Nicholson, who got an uncredited role with only one line, which he hams up horribly. The story goes that he was up for a better role but Bruce Dern got it instead. Corman may have felt bad for him and let him show off a little. Nicholson is still a few years away from his first big break in Easy Rider.

I do not claim this is a classic of American cinema, but it is well made piece of entertainment, tightly paced at 100 minutes long and all the touches that helped define the 1960s, including a justifiably nerve rattling score by Lionel Newman. I give the movie a strong recommendation and if you like gangster films even a little bit, you owe it to yourself to see Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.