Saturday, September 12, 2009
The St. Valentines Day Massacre (1967, Roger Corman)
My dad recounts this film's notoriety upon release, and now the film has been completely forgotten. The brutality of the ending was apparently hyped the same way the bloody squib-laden ending of Bonnie & Clyde was that same year. One was a classy picture pretending to be gritty. This is Roger Corman's gritty crime epic, an imitation of a classy old time picture with far better direction than Arthur Penn, who is a real middlebrow hack. Faye Dunaway and the fact they were really the good guys (read:hippies) stole the gory glory. At the New Bev screening there was a kid of 7 or 8 seated beside me who accepted his mom's hands over his eyes a few times during some of the more violent coming attractions and when the feature presentation culminated in those men being gunned down en mass massacre the kid assured his mom he could take it. You can probably guess the ending of this story; kids today have higher bloodlust threshold. He was digging the old fashioned hard boiled ambience. The most enticing selling line in the trailer is the blood red text crawl warning those of us with faint stomaches to leave the building, did Corman get to design it? The enticingly illicit selling lines are pure AIP and the title alone commits wholly to showmanship of the shocking truth the same way another famous massacre (more famous by now, I guess) in Texas.
For Roger Corman this big time studio deal with 20th Century Fox was his potential ticket into studio sized budgets and the public's apparent indifference to a slickly made old fashioned gangster movie with a great cast in 1967 marked the end of his 1960s silver age. Jason Robards is incredible as Capone, bringing the nuance of modern acting style to the explosive gangster archetype and more or less inventing the way gangsters like Pacino's Scarface have acted ever since. He even does the routine with the baseball bat with David Mamet stole carte blance for The Untouchables.
The movie needs at least one strong central figure like Robards with such a kaleidoscopic cast, packed to the brim with tough guy character actors from 20th Century Fox television and Corman's old b-movies: Clint Ritchie, Alex Rocco, Silvera, Bruce Dern, Dick Miller, and a silently uncredited Jack Nicholson. George Segal has a big part, but it's hard to call anyone aside from Robards a "star" of this film based on screen time. Every single one of them based on real persons, which screenwriter Howard Browne gives equal importance to during the complex double dealings of the plot thanks to the most amazing and occasionally funniest use of voiceover I've ever heard. Especially in a fictionalized historical potboiler. Paul Frees, narrator of George of the Jungle and voice actor in many other classic cartoons, does an uncredited bravura marathon of deadpan Dragnet inspired information on literally almost every new speaking character who appears, no matter how small. As if to constantly reassert the authenticity of the painstaking research behind the scenes, we are told in a police blotter monotone everyone's full name, aliases, crime records and odd personal details of no importance along with how they fit into the scheme. Often Frees gets so excited he cuts off his subjects mid-sentence. The lack of credit and occasionally dry sardonic one-liners added to his script suggest the possibility of a typical Corman stroke of last minute genius in creating the world's most narration heavy drama ever, so that people would know what was going on in a story with a cast the size of an army. Either way the fake authenticity is alternately authoritative and campy it becomes the film's trademark.
Corman lends his two best qualities - making the most of a budget and good casting - and the results when applied to a big budget exceed expectations. Far from being overwhelmed, his earlier experiences making small sets and stage look big and getting maximum camera coverage of his actors when on set turn The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre into a rapidly edited nailbiter even when nothing is actually happening. Freed up in time and budget (he reportedly completed final cut under budget and ahead of schedule) Corman's camera also composes wide, symmetrical framing of giant sets with quasi-Kubrickian precision. Some establishing shots look exactly like Edward Hopper and some aerial matte paintings move like living paintings populated by tiny animated dots. The production design of the world his actors inhabit is lavishly detailed with studio costumes, props and cars. There doesn't appear to be a single real location in the entire runtime, only Corman making full use of studio privilege and experimenting. Many sequences stand out for their elaborate ostentatiousness, like an endless drive-by restaurant shooting for which Corman is at his most playful and leisurely instead of having to rush through or ration such setpieces.
The birth of big studio budget gangster pulp, The Saint Valentine's Day Massacre triumphs like a highly entertaining true crime novel (index included) come to life. The best aspects have been imitated without credit for years and far less imagination. HBO or Martin Scorsese might have amplified the violence to retain the attention of that kid sitting next to me, but no Sopranos machismo is half as interesting as Corman bringing the movie to a dead halt so a gangster and his moll can have the fight of the century while the camera suddenly turns shakily handheld. Changing styles for just one scene! Pretty much every gangster movie owes this one a debt, with interest. Nice place you got here. Be a shame if something were to happen to it.