29 ST VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE – USA 1967, Director Roger Corman
The movie had the lowest budget of all the films made in 1967 by Twentieth Century Fox yet the highest that had ever been allocated to director Roger Corman. He was not complaining and Corman kept his mouth shut when the studio heads argued that the gaunt Jason Robards would be fine in the part of hefty Al Capone. The original choice of Corman for Big Al had been Orson Welles. The studio heads argued that Welles would have taken over the picture and made it into an art movie. Corman met Welles after his movie St Valentine’s Day Massacre had been completed. Orson Welles told Corman that he would have loved to play the part of Al Capone. It made sense. Welles had already put on film his interpretations of Othello and Macbeth.
Howard Browne wrote the script as he did for the flawed movie Capone which was made sixteen years later. The books of Browne are dominated by science fiction and thrillers. He also wrote television episodes. Twenty years after the Corman movie was released, Browne published Pork City which is a no-nonsense hard boiled novel set in 1930s gangland. Browne used characters that had actually existed, both gangsters and cops. His best book, Halo For Satan, is tough and edgy and also set in Chicago. His hard boiled thrillers were popular and well regarded by British readers and critics. Halo For Satan evoked comparisons with Raymond Chandler. The Twentieth Century Fox studio heads picked Browne because he knew Chicago and its history.
Not everything, though, in the Corman movie is authentic. This is despite the semi-documentary style and a voice over that insists that we are watching history. Browne simplifies what happened and is obliged to distort. The movie gives the impression that conflict existed between Capone and Moran because each of the two men wanted to control bootlegging across all of Chicago. Moran and Capone were members of the cartel created by Johnny Torrio and this is ignored. Conflict did exist between the two men but it was rooted in incidents, mutual antipathy, the provocation and ambition of others and racist hostility. Most of the time territorial rights were recognised and acknowledged. But if events in the Corman movie are shaped as much by imagination as history, the complicated tale on screen is told with remarkable clarity. We have to be forgiving. Historical fiction is where anomalies meet holes in the plot and anachronisms.
The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is less fanciful than either the Brian De Palma version of The Untouchables or Scarface from Howard Hawks. Credit has to be given to how Browne explains the complicated Unione Siciliana conflict in a couple of sentences but Corman and Browne have Capone personally kill and castrate Joe Aiello. This is an imaginative leap too far. The movie also relies on conventional wisdom that has subsequently been challenged. Few writers now believe that the seven victims were waiting for a delivery of booze. We should also be hesitant about accepting the tale in which Capone killed Scalise and Anselmi with a baseball bat. Somehow, though, the movie manages to be informative. Many of the events in the film happened, and via two meetings held by Capone and Moran we are introduced to important protagonists. These introductions are interrupted by flashbacks into the memories of Capone and Moran. This clever device lightens the exposition. The attack on the Hawthorne Hotel, the actual St Valentine’s massacre and the killing of Patsy Lolordo occurred and those scenes or events have the impact in the movie that they should. Gangster aficionados will also note odd details that are present but are not given narrative emphasis. No mention is made of the early boxing career of ‘Machine Jack’ McGurn but we see and perhaps notice photos of boxers in his living room.
There are also comic moments. The protracted domestic abuse by George Segal as Pete Gusenberg will not be as amusing to modern audiences. Fortunately, actress Jean Hale is the pugilistic equal of Segal. The fight scene between Segal and Hale is over-extended but the unashamed reference to Cagney in The Public Enemy is a bonus for not so sensitive cineasts. The opening scene when Pete Gusenberg persuades a barman to take Moran beer and forfeit the Capone alternative is both sinister and amusing, an example of the black comedy that Corman indulged in his much darker crime movie, Bloody Mama, and the controversial Death Race 2000. The racist language of the gangsters in The St Valentine’s Day Massacre is unusual in a 1967 movie. The Italian Americans refer to the Irish Americans as ‘Micks’, and the Italian Americans are called ‘Wops’ by the Irish Americans.
George Segal is cast against type but the urbane actor relishes being an amoral gangster. The performance of Jason Robards is extravagant and makes no attempt to capture the contradictions that defined Al Capone. The actor is, though, entertaining and always watchable. Robards was forty-five-years-old in 1967. The man he plays was under thirty-years-old. This is nit picking. No one does hard-boiled authenticity better than Ralph Meeker. His ability to convey both a narrow sensibility, sullen aggression and yet also something private is perfect for the role of Bugs Moran. The original intention had been to have Robards play Moran. If Orson Welles was a loss to the cast then the addition of Ralph Meeker more than compensates. All the other actors are competent but none reveal the original character. The actor Joe Turkel is slim and elegant whereas the actual Jake Guzik was obese and dishevelled. Clint Ritchie plays ‘Machine Jack’ McGurn as a sycophantic man on the make, a performance that allows Robards to impress as the proud paternalist. The pleasant looking Ritchie, though, looks like an innocent that has just stepped out of a Western which indeed he had. He not only made numerous Westerns in the 1950s and 1960s but at the end of his career retired to his own ranch which had 43 horses. His sagebrush smile belongs somewhere else. Harold J Stone is reliable as a convincing gangster but the film presents his character Frank Nitti as a thug for hire rather than the sharp operator that succeeded Capone. Nitti is the only gangster to have ever committed suicide and the manner of his death is acknowledged by the narrator. The misrepresentation of Nitti that occurs in the St Valentine’s Day Massacre is modest compared to the Nitti falsehoods in The Untouchables movie. If Stone is too coarse for Nitti, then John Agar is too smooth for Dean O’Banion. As with Frank Nitti, the character of O’Banion appears to be beyond the imagination of movie makers.
Many American movie critics were hostile to the movie. Chicago film critic Roger Ebert obliged with a damning review. The British were more approving. American pulp tends to travel well, more so when it reaches France. Albert Camus was a big fan of pulp writer James M Cain. The St Valentine’s Day Massacre has style and bravura performances from its actors but there is another element that is perhaps recognised by British audiences. The recognition of social class is as important to the tone of the movie as the style. This is a tale of the American working class. The Capone that mingles with the affluent and powerful is different from the man that seeks retribution from other gangsters. He is amusing to his social superiors but we also sense he is being patronised. The movie narrator that links the scenes passes judgement not just on the crimes of the gangsters but also their vulgar lives. None of the gangsters in the movie eat elegantly. Segal fills his cheeks with the sandwich that he will later, Cagney style, push into the face of Jean Hale.
The look of the movie remains important. The opening credits sequence is irresistible. The bright red letters of the titles complement the magenta tint and heavy snow of the opening scene. Lionel Newman creates free form jazz for the credits. The aggressive and discordant piano suggests a violence and chaos that exists outside the glib accounts that constitute history. If in the subsequent opening remarks the reference to 638 gangland murders in ten years is incorrect and wildly exaggerated, it echoed what was conventional wisdom in 1967. Corman was delighted to be given access to the Twentieth Century Fox backlot and pick suitable sets for the film. He utilised some of the props that had been built for The Sand Pebbles and the musicals Hello Dolly and The Sound Of Music. The irony of gangsters walking where the treacly Von Trapp family had warbled must have appealed to the cynical Corman. The movie is shot in low budget TV style. The colour film is overexposed, and there are no shadows. But as he proved in his horror pictures and Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, Corman has a good eye for colour images. Even conventional scenes, like those in the Circus Cafe, have colours that without being bright are richer than pastels. Muted but dense colour gives a dreamlike effect to the cavalcade attack on the Hawthorne Hotel. In both this scene and the St Valentine’s Day massacre small details are remembered that could have been ignored. The cavalcade attack ends with a solitary gunman, in this instance George Segal, standing on the pavement or sidewalk and firing his machine gun into the restaurant. This happened, as did one victim from the St Valentine’s Day massacre being left slumped on a chair. The discovery of the victims is, though, simplified into a cinematic cliché. Corman settles for the shot of a startled woman that produces the mandatory scream. The victims were actually discovered by a male neighbour that made valiant attempts to discover what had happened. An opportunity for drama was forfeited. Crime movies made by directors that had the licence and permission to extend scenes and characterization would come later. Frank Gusenberg received more bullets than any of the others but he was the one that lived long enough to make it to hospital. He died observing and respecting his tough guy code. Frank refused to identify any of the assassins or even acknowledge that he had been shot. He died with fourteen bullets inside his body.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book BORIS JOHNSON PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES is now available here.