Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: 'St. Valentine’s Day Massacre' Blu-ray

An insulting amount of the commentary on the honorary Oscar Roger Corman received in 2009 focused on how he launched the careers of directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Ron Howard, Peter Bogdanovich, and others of their ilk and basically dismissed the man’s own directorial work. Despite that naked gold guy on his mantel, Roger Corman is still considered a B-movie hack by a lot of critics, which is total bollocks. Even when working on super low-budget, abridged-schedule stuff like Little Shop of Horrors he made original and fun work. When he was more artistically invested in his projects, he could make truly audacious, genuinely inventive pictures, such as The Masque of the Red Death and his rarely seen masterpiece The Intruder, a film that dealt with racism in such a head-on way for its time that Corman would have deserved that Oscar even if it he’d never done anything else.

When the independent-minded Corman got the odd opportunity to make St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for a major studio in 1967, he got to work with a bigger budget, schedule, and cast than ever before. Though all the frivolous spending that went down at Twentieth Century Fox repelled him, Corman still made the most of the opportunity. He directed big stars Jason Robards (as Al Capone), George Segal (Peter Gusenberg), and Ralph Meeker (Bugs Moran); shot on sets originally used for such huge productions as The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly; and commanded a camera that swoops around those sets like a bird of prey. Before shooting the climactic scene, he had his actors study photographs of the actual gangland massacre to mimic the positions of the actual corpses. That’s a pretty keen attention to detail for a “B-movie hack” (incidentally, I recently read a great interview with Corman in which he takes issue with that designation for purely semantic reasons; a B-movie, he reminds us, is not any old trashy flick but a lower-budget supporting feature specific to the 1930s and ’40s).

Although Cormans visuals are top notch in St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the film is not without its issues. There is no attempt to empathize with the assortment of hoods, as there was in the same year’s Bonnie and Clyde, so its difficult to care about what happens to these creeps. Beloved voice-over artist Paul Frees’s narration distances the viewer further, introducing each of the film’s many, many characters by stating the time and date of his death. This makes everyone’s actions seem mechanical, a bunch of rats scurrying through a simplistic maze on the way to their inevitable dooms. This could have been done with effective grimness, but Robards and Segal give such over-the-top performances that its hard to feel the gravity of what they do or what is done to them (and keep an eye and ear out for Jack Nicholson, who delivers his one and only line in a silly voice). The closest the film comes to a sympathetic character is Bruce Dern’s mechanic, a loving dad who gets off-handedly swept up in the violence, but only has about three minutes of screen time.

A bit cold and nihilistic, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is still a beautiful looking picture, and Twilight Time’s new blu-ray presents it splendidly. Colors are gloriously vivid (there are a couple of sequences that are a bit pink but its likely this was an aesthetic decision in line with Corman’s use of colors in Red Death), and I noticed no significant blemishes. Extras are slight but neat. There’s a new three-and-a-half-minute interview with Corman created specifically for this release and five minutes of vintage Fox Movietone newsreel footage about the arrest and prosecution of Capone. The picture quality of some of these clips is really strong. As always, there are also Julie Kirgo’s illuminating liner notes and an isolated score track. Get it on Screen here.
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