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March 1st, 2017

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was director Roger Corman’s first film for a major studio. I know people give him a lot of shit for his low budget movies, but this really shows what he was capable of when given a decent script, a healthy budget, and some fine actors. While far from perfect, there are several engrossing scenes and Corman’s almost obsessive attention to detail makes it stand out from the rest of the pack.

It’s a gangster picture that chronicles the rivalry between Al Capone (Jason Robards) and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker). When tensions come to a boil, Capone plans to murder Moran. Although he misses his target, he guns down several of Moran’s men. It doesn’t seem like much of an ending, but the narrator (Paul Frees) tells us that this senseless loss of life led to a public outcry, which in turn led to a crackdown on mobsters, so there was a happy ending in there somewhere after all.

Corman uses some interesting techniques to keep the story rolling. Whenever things feel like they’re going to get bogged down with a lot talk, Frees busts in and tells us an unending stream of facts about the various gangsters in the room. It works, mostly because the narration is done in a fun, tongue-in-cheek manner, but also because it gives the flick a cool docudrama feel. Even though the structure is heavy on flashbacks, Corman manages to pull it off nicely. There’s always something happening on screen and the while not all the flashbacks were vital to the plot, they at least lend some flourish to the characters.

Although the plot may twiddle its thumbs a bit too much here and there, the cast keeps you fully engaged. Jason Robards is somewhat miscast as Al Capone, but he does exude a modicum of authority. He gets plenty of scenes where he gets to yell and slam his fist on the dinner table and he seems to be having fun chewing the scenery. George Segal is a bit hard to buy as a tough-talking gangster. While he’s more at home playing the easygoing Everyman, he equips himself as well as can be expected here. Ralph Meeker fares better as Moran. While he isn’t painted as an out-and-out hero, he at least doesn’t overact as much as Robards.

It’s the supporting cast that really grabs you. It’s a veritable who’s who of B movie favorites and Corman’s All-Star players. There’s Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, Dick Bakaylan, Joe Turkel, John Agar, Alex D’Arcy, Alex Rocco, and Charles Dierkop, just to name a few. So even if you find the avalanche of factual data, rapid-fire narration, and constant flashbacks a bit much; you can always entertain yourself by seeing which lovable character actor will show up next.

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