Directed By: Roger Corman
Starring: Jason Robards, George Segal, Ralph Meeker
Trivia: Orson Welles was originally picked to play Al Capone, with Robards set to play "Bugs" Moran, but the studio vetoed that arrangement when they deemed Welles "undirectable"
Directed by Roger Corman, who, for the first time ever, was working for a major Hollywood studio (the film was financed by 20th Century Fox), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre recounts the events that led up to Feb. 14, 1929, when seven men were gunned down in a Chicago parking garage. All of the victims had links to the North Side Gang, which, under the leadership of Bugs Moran, was trying to muscle in on the city’s South side, an area that belonged to none other than by Al Capone.
By 1929, the Chicago mob was controlling the flow of illegal liquor throughout the city, supplying thousands of speakeasies with as much booze as their customers could drink. Many of these joints were selling liquor furnished by Capone (Jason Robards), but the North Side gang, led by upstart Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker), had been “convincing” some owners to switch suppliers, and purchase from them instead. The bad blood that existed between the two gangs stretched back several years, and Capone, hoping to end the hostilities, turned to Jack McGurn (Clint Ritchie), a young gunman who claimed he had a plan to settle things once and for all. On Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, McGurn put that plan into motion.
Much of The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre plays out as if it were a documentary. Each time a new gangster is introduced, the film provides background information (by way of Paul Frees’ narration) on their history, from where they were born to a list of criminal activities. Corman went to great lengths to ensure The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was a historically accurate portrayal of both the shooting and the men involved, and his attention to detail served the movie well. As far as the cast is concerned, never, in a million years, would I have thought Jason Robards was a dead ringer for Al Capone, yet the actor does a fine enough job, as does Ralph Meeker (who is perhaps best remembered as one of the three doomed soldiers in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory). But the most impressive turn is delivered by a young George Segal, who slithers and hisses as Peter Gusenberg, Bugs Moran’s chief enforcer. In an early scene, where Gusenberg is pressuring a bar owner, Segal is downright sadistic, trashing the place as he beams a smile at the petrified barkeep. Then, of course, we have the massacre itself, the one sequence where Corman allows some of his exploitation training to shine through (resulting in an appropriately bloody mess).
While The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre may be a bit dialogue-heavy at times, its “true-life” approach to the material makes it an interesting watch, and proves that Roger Corman could work just as well within the studio system as he does outside of it.