Hearts and Flowers…and Brain Bits

Taking the “fine line between love and hate” adage to the nth degree, Roger Corman’s 1967 bloodbath THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, is the screen’s ultimate poison bon-bon homage to the celebrated February 14th holiday.

It was indeed on a snowy, romantic, warm and fuzzy morn in 1929 that Al Capone effectively and affectionately butchered (by proxy, he was in  balmy Alibi-land, Florida, at the time) members of the rival Bugs Moran gang in the soon-to-be infamous Chicago sight-seer’s fave murder hotspot, aka the North Clark Street garage.

Of course, the press (and the public) couldn’t get enough of the gory details and the event became the pulp fodder for decades of novels, movies and TV shows.  It even warranted its own wax effigy in Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution.

Considered to be the brainchild of top Capone maniac “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn (aka Vincenzo Antonio Gibaldi, aka Clint Ritchie in this movie), who gleefully participated, the sanguinary shenanigans were heartily approved by Scarface and smacked of his trademark touch of irony.  A Valentine no one would forget.  Gotta admit, he was right.

Natch, there are few more exploitative titles in cinema than THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE.  I mean, it DOES say it all.  So why not hand the plum project over to the (then) most exploitative director in the industry, the prolific and wildly successful Roger Corman?

Taking a crimson-soaked page from The Untouchables series (which had trodden Capone territory with a vengeance), Corman & Co. decided to go pseudo-documentary with Winchell-like narration and as true a depiction of the facts that were entertainingly possible.  To his credit, screenwriter Howard Browne did an admirable job; that said, it caused him some nasty feedback for the occasional comic-book dialog.  Browne should have cited the old “truth is stranger than fiction” dictum, as much of the more colorful lingo (genuine psycho-babble) was lifted directly out of existing Chicago police transcripts.  Suffice to say, the jargon provides a plethora of the fun frolics, salty one-liner breathers between the shocking violence (which, for its time, it was jaw-dropping).  How shocking?  The Fox prop department reported that more blood squibs were used on this picture than in all of The Longest Day.  To Corman’s credit, his obsession to sticking to detail extended to carefully studying police photographs of the murderous aftermath and instructing his victims to fall at various angles so that their bodies be in the exact positions as the 1929 corpses.  Talk about dead-ication!

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE was to be the incident that defined Capone’s empire – his ultimate test of fear.  For Corman, it, too, constituted a test.  After years at American-International and then as the head of his own FilmGroup indy outfit, ST. VALENTINE’S DAY was to be the director’s first foray into the big time.  For Fox, it wasn’t a gamble, as Corman was known to be a master of the quick turnaround (often being compared to a cinematic traffic cop), boasting that he had filmed feature films in as little as two to three days.  Appended to this bold (but accurate) claim was the growing acclaim he was achieving from some serious critics, who had praised his work on the recent pics Masque of the Red Death and The Intruder.

Corman, with ace cinematographer Milton Krasner in tow, wasted no time surveying the existing sets on the Fox lot, taking over and stealthily appropriating a standing bordello mock-up remaining from The Sand Pebbles, as well as other flats and props from concurrently shooting movies and television programs.  This further delighted the local moguls when the action-packed Panavision and DeLuxed colored results came in under schedule, and, more importantly, under budget – to the tune of $200,000.00 (or, roughly, six vintage AIP titles).

Corman was in movie nirvana, assembling the finest cast he ever had.  To be honest, it’s one of the finest casts ANYONE ever had – a mug and rogue’s gallery of class-A performers and B-movie icons thrown together in a mix master like so many guts and entrails.  And it woiks!

Prime thesp cuts included rising star George Segal as Peter Gusenberg, portraying his character as a vicious lunatic, seemingly channeling Jimmy Cagney on smack.  You know, Public Enemy’s Tom Powers, “you buy our beer” with a healthy slice of Cody Jarrett White Heat, plus a smidgeon of Jack the Ripper spiked with a tincture of Bill Cosby.  For added laffs, I suggest viewing this Blu-Ray prior to an episode of The Goldbergs.  Segal’s formidable female counterpart is the luscious Jean Hale, then voted the “girl one most wanted to be caught in a stalled ski lift with.”  There’s a sick irony in this male fantasy (especially after this picture), as Hale’s a duplicitous, gorgeous monster whose dagger-like delivery is supplanted only by her ferocious touchdown kick into Segal’s groin.  Their knockdown, drag-out sex battle is tantamount to a Corman homage to the actor’s appearance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Hale and Segal as the George and Martha of the Herschell Gordon Lewis drive-in set.

Without question, it’s essential to have a dynamic Scarface Al in this movie, and this pic easily presents the weirdest evocation of the gangster kingpin, Jason Robards. Certainly the screen’s most gaunt Capone, Robards attacks the role with venomous machismo, chomping cigars, growling his threats and jubilantly bashing skulls and furniture with equal abandon.  Robards’s taking on this part was the single compromise befalling the otherwise streamlined proceedings.  Originally, the distinguished Broadway star was cast more reasonably as Bugs Moran, with the choice Capone gig being offered to (and accepted by) Orson Welles.  It was the only time during the production that Fox suits put their collaborative expensively-soled feet down.  In a non-negotiable decree to Corman, they indicated that Welles was a notorious pain in the ass and that, in their opinion, he had become totally “undirectable.”  While a bit disappointed, Corman took it in his stride, shrugged, upgraded Robards to Al and Ralph Meeker to Moran.

Again, I can’t state enough what a joy it is to behold the folks who populate this movie.  It’s nothing less than It’s a Mob, Mob, Mob, Mob World.  Movie buffs will have a field day identifying such stalwart punims as Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, David Canary, Harold J. Stone, Kurt Kreuger, Paul Richards, Joe Turkel, Milton Frome, Mickey Deems, John Agar, Celia Lovsky, Tom Reese, Jan Merlin, Alex D’Arcy, Reed Hadley, Charles Dierkop, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon, Mary Grace Canfield, Paul Frees, Ken Scott, Joan Shawlee and Buck Taylor.

And it gets better. Corman didn’t forget his roots, and gave his stock company some juicy bits.  Rubbing shoulders with Robards, Segal and Meeker are Dick Miller, Richard Bakalyan, Barboura Morris (a beautiful early bit), Betsy Jones-Moreland, Jonathan Haze and Bruce Dern.  The one fly in the ointment (for me anyway) is the inclusion of Jack Nicholson, still a couple of years away from his Easy Rider superstardom, but having already racked up points from his two Westerns with Monte Hellman.  In a word, he’s terrible – choosing to slough off the gritty, raw approach everyone else has deemed fit to utilize, and, instead going the Dick Tracy TV cartoon villain route (albeit less animated). Spouting his words like one of the thugs in Jerry Lewis’s The Big Mouth, Nicholson is an anti-Christ textbook of deese, dems and dose awfulness.  Admittedly, I’ve never been a Jack Nicholson fan; the Gene Shalit “national treasure” moniker eluded me, save that some treasure truly deserves to be buried.  I was elated when two viewers of this Blu-Ray, as offended by the Nicholson duh-livery as I was, simultaneously remarked “Schmuck” and “Asshole.”  Ah, vindication.

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE enjoyed a profitable (though short) run (returning almost double its cost) during its early summer release in June 1967.  Fox opted to send it out on a memorable action/comedy double-bill, pairing it with the wacky George C. Scott favorite The Flim-Flam Man.  Both flicks have since deservedly attained cult status and remain high points in the studio’s Sixties output.

The Twilight Time treatment of THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE is up to their usual august standards.  The 1080p 2.35:1widescreen transfer is razor-sharp with excellent restored color and bombastic mono sound.  The score by Fred Steiner (with uncredited assist from Lionel Newman) is accessible as an IST, plus there are a couple of enticing extras, including reminiscence by Corman, the trailer and a Fox MovieTone Newsreel clip.

To call this movie a cult favorite is an understatement.  It is nothing less than a psychotronic psycho tonic triumph!

THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE.  Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/Twilight Time Limited Edition of 3000.  SRP:  $29.95

 Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment:  www.screenarchives.com

 

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3 thoughts on “Hearts and Flowers…and Brain Bits”

  1. One doesn’t have to have seen the movie to enjoy this ‘heartily’ written review but it sure makes me wish I could watch it while massacring a box of heart shaped Red Hots mixed with a bucket of ‘reel’ popcorn! Movie “brain bits” bliss!!

    The paragraph deservedly dedicated to Jack Nicholson is a masterful ‘massacre’ of it’s own!!

    Like

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