Cult Movie: Roger Corman's The St Valentine's Day Massacre is criminally good fun

Jason Robards as Al Capone in The St Valentine's Day Massacre
Ralph McLean

AS CLASSIC gangster films go The St Valentine's Day Massacre is no Godfather. There are no sprawling family face-offs or complex portrayals of organised crime syndicates in director Roger Corman's 1967 mini-masterpiece.

What we get instead is a brash and colourful romp in which the story of how Al Capone ordered the gunning down of seven of his enemies in downtown Chicago is retold in almost documentary style.

Truth be told, it feels more like an over-stimulated episode of The Untouchables – that venerable 50s TV series that mythologised the crime-fighting ways of Elliot Ness and his stern-faced cronies – but that's no bad thing.

Released in a sparkling new blu-ray print by Indictator this month, Corman's cinematic retelling of one of the bloodiest days in American gangland history is a fresh and feisty barrel of fun that comes across as a heartfelt love letter to the classic gangster films of Jimmy Cagney and the like. Of course, this being a Roger Corman production, we should expect nothing less.

As a producer/director Corman famously squeezed every cent out of miniscule budgets – his autobiography was called How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, after all – and he always placed drive-in movie entertainment way above any high-minded ideas of art-house glory. He always valued fun over fancy and turned in films that looked way better than they had any real right to.

Here Jason Robards is Capone and plays the role of gangster number one with a relish that's a joy to watch. Ralph Meeker is Bugs Moran, chief competitor to Capone in Chicago's criminal underground and George Segal shines as Moran's head gunman who gets to fire indiscriminately throughout and generally misbehave.

It goes without saying that there is much fun to be had with a film that sprays gunfire like a wedding sprays confetti. Trust me, this may feel like a TV movie at times but it's still relentlessly violent from the very start.

Howard Browne's screenplay is clever and packed with knowing nods to real life while also keeping things firmly rooted in gangster-film history.

There's also a brilliantly serious voiceover from Paul Frees that keeps us up to date with all the gangland goings on and paints little pen portraits of the self-serving thugs we meet around every corner.

This was the director's first big studio film and his budget here – a relatively luxurious $1 million – is spent well, with sets impressing and his keen eye for on-screen composition clear to see throughout. He even finds time to slip in a walk-on part for his old B-movie buddies Jack Nicholson – who plays a hit man – and Bruce Dern.

The extras here include Roger Corman Remembers, a short doc in which the director recalls the making of the film, and more trailers than you could shake a loaded Tommy gun at. It's criminally good fun from start to finish.

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