Low budget auteur Roger Corman had visited the gangster genre twice before, with 1958’s MACHINE GUN KELLY (featuring Charles Bronson in the title role) and I, MOBSTER (starring noir vet Steve Cochran ). Nine years later, Corman produced and directed THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, with major studio backing, star power, and a million dollar budget. It’s still a Roger Corman film though, which means it’s a helluva lot of fun!
We’re in 1929 Chicago (as narrator Paul Frees tells us), a time of lawlessness, bootlegging, and mob killings on a daily basis. Two rival factions are battling to control the Windy City: the Southside gang led by ‘Scarface’ Al Capone (Jason Robards) and his Northside enemy ‘Bugs’ Moran ( Ralph Meeker ). Moran sends his top hood Peter Gusenberg (George Segal) to muscle in on Capone’s rackets, but when Big Al’s mentor Patsy is gunned down by Moran’s assassins, the crime boss goes off, vowing revenge, and assigning his torpedo ‘Machine Gun’ Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie) to plot the infamous mass murder.
Robards goes waaay over the top as Capone, a part Corman originally wanted Orson Welles to play (can you imagine?). He bellows, hollers, snarls and growls like a rabid wolverine, pops his eyes, and mugs shamelessly while chomping on a big old stogie. Yet somehow, it all works, since Capone’s such a larger-than-life character anyway. Meeker’s just a trifle more subdued (but not much!) as Moran, whether roaring at his own men with equal intensity, or throwing darts at a picture of Capone in his office.
The rest of the cast is a regular Rogue’s Gallery of Hollywood hoodlums. Segal gets most of the supporting screen time as Gusenberg, and he chews the scenery with the best of them, especially in the scene with his spendthrift moll (Jean Hale). You’ll need a scorecard to keep track of all the Familiar Faces here: John Agar , Richard Bakalyan, Joseph Campanella, David Canary, Mary Grace Canfield, Alex D’Arcy, Mickey Deems, Bruce Dern , Charles Dierkop , Milton Frome, Reed Hadley, Kurt Kreuger, Celia Lovsky , Paul Richards, Alex Rocco, Joan Shawlee, Frank Silvera, and Harold J. Stone all appear, in roles both large and small. Some of Corman’s stock players also make cameos, including Leo Gordon , Jonathan Haze, Betsy Jones-Moreland, Dick Miller (of course!), and Barboura Morris. Jack Nicholson, as a favor to Roger, does a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit as one of the hired killers. When Miller asks what his goombah is rubbing on his bullets, Jack (using a raspy voice), says, “Garlic. If the bullets don’t kill ya, ya die of blood poisoning!”
Howard Browne adapted his 1958 PLAYHOUSE 90 teleplay “Seven Against the Wall” into the screenplay. Browne was an old pro at pulp fiction, a former writer/editor of the magazines “Amazing Stories” and “Fantastic Adventures”. Browne only wrote two other films (1961’s PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER and 1975’s CAPONE, with Ben Gazzara as Scarface), but he was prolific in TV, writing for, among others, CHEYENNE, MAVERICK, 77 SUNSET STRIP, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. His 1954 novel “Thin Air” was adapted as episodes of both THE ROCKFORD FILES and SIMON & SIMON.
There’s plenty of violent tommy-gun action though the actual massacre takes less than thirty seconds. Corman is ably aided and abetted by DP Milton Krasner and Lionel Newman’s period score. The sets were refurbished from films like THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE SAND PEBBLES, and HELLO, DOLLY to replicate 1920’s Chicago, and there’s loads of vintage autos and 20’s slang sprinkled throughout. Corman allegedly didn’t like working in the studio confines, and returned to his home at American-International. The independent filmmaker wanted to remain independent, free of the constraints of big-budget moviemaking and studio politics. But with THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, he proved to the world he could work within those confines just as well as the big boys, and gave fans of his work an entertainingly bloody valentine.