Chicago February 14th 1929. Al Capone finally establishes himself as the city's boss of organised crime. In a north-side garage his hoods, dressed as policemen, surprise and mow down with machine-guns the key members of Bugs Moran's rival gang. The film traces the history of the incident, and the lives affected and in some cases ended by it.
Naturally when you hear the name Roger Corman - you don’t automatically think “classic filmmaker,” you’re probably more likely to think of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, or “Drive-in Double Feature” before you think “classic.” The man’s notoriety as a writer, producer, and director of quickly and cheaply made B-movie fodder sadly outshines his reputation as a talented filmmaker and a discoverer and mentor to talent the likes of James Cameron, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. And most people certainly don’t think of one of the best gangster films ever produced, ‘The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.’
Based on the historic 1929 mass mobster killing in Chicago, ‘The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre’ unfolds like a perfectly recreated documentary complete with omnipotent narrator giving us the names of the key players, they’re history of crime, and whether or not they meet an untimely end. We watch as Al Capone, played incredibly by the always great Jason Robards as he plots to wipe his Northside Chicago competition George Clarence “Bugs” Moran, played by Ralph Meeker off the map.
The film opens with Peter Gusenburg played by a slick George Segal as he muscles one of Capone’s speakeasies into buying from the “Bugs” Moran gang. It’s a scene that sets the stage for Al’s demand for vengeance. At Al’s behest, his number one gunman Jack McGurn, Clint Ritchie, sets out to track Moran’s movements and put the plan for retribution into motion. Conversely, Moran has his own schemes rolling to knock off Capone once and for all.
History has a way of ruining movies like this. We already know by the climatic act who wins out, Capone or Moran, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a fascinating piece of entertainment. Blow for blow we get to see and learn how the parties involved triumphed, or met their grisly untimely ends. Its documentary-style structure works like you’re watching an old Movietone News Real offering a uniqueness to the genre. While at times the narrator dispels some of the mounting tension, it does work to maintain a grounded, gritty sense of authenticity to the reenactment. It’s easy to see this movie’s influence on shows like “Unsolved Mysteries,” because it works so well to keep the story moving forward and build anticipation for a dramatic end.
Also working well for this movie is the confident talent of Roger Corman himself having directed nearly forty-four movies prior to ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.’ Here, given a modest budget of a million dollars, he uses his cost effective and efficient practices to fine order managing a massive cast of top-tier talent and his rogues gallery of returing players while recreating a time period that had long since vanished. Using sets that were already constructed for ‘Hello, Dolly!,’ ‘The Sand Pebbles,’ and ‘The Sound of Music,’ Corman masterfully brings the late 1920’s to dirty, bloody life.
You can’t go far in appreciating this movie without taking a look at the fantastic cast. Jason Robards, while probably ten years too old and a bit lean for the role, brings real gravitas to Capone’s violent, manic personality - including a wonderful scene with a baseball bat that would later be cribbed in ‘The Untouchables.’ Like Capone, he dominates every scene he’s in with intermittent charm and deadly ferocity. Ralph Meeker’s “Bugs” Moran is also a fun watch. He’s a determined character, a man who wants to survive the world he lives in, but Meeker plays him with the slightest reservation presenting a man that deep down probably knew he was way in over his head. This movie is also a who’s who of familiar faces, including Harold J. Stone, Joe Turkel, Bruce Dern, John Agar, Alex D’Arcy, and a very young Jack Nicholson who gets to explain why you rub raw garlic on your bullets. These fleeting familiar faces make the movie all the more fun to watch today.
One also needs to appreciate the place this movie holds in the Gangster genre. ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ was released just a scant two months ahead of ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ creating a violently visceral cinematic one-two-punch. Given the bloody body count of this film and what was to come in later movies, it should come as no surprise that the ratings board of old died quickly giving rise to the current rating system. ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ is often overshadowed by later genre entries, but it remains a must see for the fantastic direction, crackling script, and its amazing cast. It may not be the most historically accurate movies of all time, but it’s certainly entertaining and a fine entry in the Gangster genre.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ arrives via Twilight Time on a BD-50 in a traditional keepcase limited to a run of 3000 copies. Inside are the expected liner notes featuring a fantastic essay about the film by Julie Kirgo. The disc loads right to the menu without any lag time for trailers or other frivolities.
Twilight Time maintains it’s strong history of working with 20th Century Fox by releasing this beautiful 2.35:1 1080p presentation. For a film that is nearing 50 years old, it is a marked improvement over the previous muddy-looking 2006 DVD release. Grain is alive and well in the darker scenes but it’s never overpowering and a welcome presence since there is no apparent DNR tinkering. Detail is spectacular - just look at the clothing and the fine details in the upholstery and wallpapering. Also, you get to see the subtle makeup work used to recreate Capone’s infamous scar on Jason Robards’ face. Color's are also wonderfully replicated here. From the bright lights of Capone's homes in Chicago and Miami, to the cold grey recreated Chicago winter streets, to the deep blood red gunshot wounds - everything has a lively pop. There are a couple of extended flashback scenes with muted colors but that's by intent.
There are a few soft spots here and there, but those seem to be part of the source, as softness is only seen in optical zooms and in the background during the opening credits. During some of the more dimly lit scenes, there are slight instances of crush, particularly if a character is wearing dark clothing, but otherwise black levels are nice and inky and the fine shadows give a decent sense of depth. All in all I found this to be a pretty great transfer for a film of this vintage.
If you have skittish neighbors, you might need to keep the volume low. The English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Mono track is magnificent. It puts real power behind the gunshots, and roaring car engines. The dynamic range of your sound system can go from soft low voices to booming gunshots quick and with little warning. Voices have no trouble being heard, particularly since the movie has persistent dialogue. If a character isn’t taking, chances are the narrator is, but levels are well balanced so you shouldn’t need to adjust the volume, unless you have neighbors that are rattled by loud booming gunshots!
Also per Twilight Time’s modus operandi - an isolated score track featuring the work of Lionel Newman is provided. This usually is marked up as a special feature, but since it’s found in the “Audio” options of the main menu, I felt it deserved mentioning here. The score for this movie harkens back to popular 20’s jazz while bringing to life it’s own chilling themes. It’s a great listen, but there are long gaps where there is little to listen to. All around a nice addition.
For a modestly well remembered movie, Twilight Time did a pretty decent job of assembling extras for this disc. A Commentary Track with Corman would have gone a long way, or a longer “Making Of” would have been fantastic. As it stands, this is a pretty solid assortment in its own right.
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre Essay By Julie Kirgo - Found in the liner notes with the disc, this four page essay is a must read if for nothing else to gain some added perspective on the genre at the time. Gangster movies were long dead and no one wanted to fund them. But then a few short years after this movie’s release comes ‘The Godfather.’
Original Theatrical Trailer (SD 2:32) If you want something to help you appreciate the restoration effort of the feature, watch this piece of entertaining marketing
Roger Corman is a bright light in the history of American Cinema. While most people want to focus on the B-movies of his career, people should remember him for the incredible talent he brought to the screen. They should also fondly remember him for ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” a movie that arguably helped revitalize the long dead gangster movie genre. Featuring a stellar cast in fine form, grisly action, a beautifully restored picture, a bombastic audio track and a smattering of ok extras, Twilight Time’s release of ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre’ is highly recommended.