Blu-Ray Review – The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was an unusual film in Roger Corman’s career—it was the biggest-budget film he ever made at that point, and one of the very few times he ever worked for a Hollywood studio. He deliberately made the budget smaller than what he was given (he got 2.5 million, an insane amount for a Corman film,  and came in 400,000 under budget.)

As the title suggests, it’s a version of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre Story, which has been told before but not in the same way. Seven members of Bugsy Moran’s gang were gunned down in a warehouse on the of February, and still no one is certain whether it was Al Capone’s organisation, the police, or both. With this big budget, Corman was able to achieve higher production values than usual, although by this point his films had already become more elaborate, especially the Edger Allan Poe cycle. This film came out the same year as The Trip, which was one of his more visually interesting films.

The film stars several of his go-to young actors, including Bruce Dern, Dick Miler, George Segal and Jack Nicholson in a blink-or-you-miss-it part. Initially he wanted Orson Welles to play Capone, but as usual with Welles, 20th Century Fox claimed he was “undirectable,” so Corman went with Jason Robards, who looks nothing like Capone. Robards is a great actor, despite being a notorious drunk, and despite being wrong for the part he plays it well. Ralph Meeker, one of the greatest film noir actors of all time, plays Capone’s rival Malone with the right tough-guy demeanour. George Segal has the part of Peter Gusenberg, one of Capone’s minions.

Corman wanted to make a sort of docu-drama, and by all accounts it is fairly faithful, with a basis in news reports. It has a cheesy narration going in and out of the action, which was clearly an Orson Welles homage. The voice work was done by Paul Frees, a well-known film narrator and actor who often did Welles-style voiceovers —he also did the voiceover for The Manchurian Candidate.

The film makes good use of matte paintings, and the paintings actually work (not always the case with Corman’s films). They were clearly made for this film, whereas sometimes they are reused in multiple films or very cheaply made. For example, in The Trip you can see some of the matte paintings from the Poe films.

It’s interesting to see what Corman could do with a bigger budget. He took so much care with the realism of it that when they filmed the massacre sequence, they ensured that the actors fell to precisely fit the well-known murder scene photographs.

The disc includes a short, four-minute interview with Roger Corman about the film, a newly filmed appreciation with Barry Forshaw; an appreciation of voiceover actor Paul Frees with Ben Ohmart, who wrote a biography of Frees; a digitised Super-8 version; the trailer; a Trailers From Hell with Corman; a stills gallery; and a booklet with new writing, previously published interviews,  contemporary critical responses, and more.

★★★½

Ian Schultz

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