A Valentine's Day to Remember
Valentine’s Day has become synonymous with romance, greeting cards, roses, candy, weddings and, as of 87 years ago Sunday, the most notorious gangster rubout in history, leaving seven bullet-riddled bodies of Bugs Moran’s North Side Irish gang members and associates on the floor of a garage of 2122 North Park Street in Chicago. Recreating that bloody incident and the foreshadowing events between the rival Moran and Al Capone South Side Italian gangs preceding it, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) was unleashed in theatres just a month before Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night and very likely fueled that turning-point year’s critical mass of controversial discussion of bracingly adult and shockingly bloody screen content. Before producer-director Roger Corman, taking a rare foray into mainstream filmmaking outside his independent studio comfort zone, was approached by Twentieth Century Fox, this gangster opus was already the hot property of screenwriter Howard Browne, a prolific scribe of science-fiction novels and TV Western series. Browne’s novelization of this material was first produced as Seven Against the Wall, a December 11, 1958 Playhouse 90 episode directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. In the interim, Browne would also write the Dutch Schultz biopic Portrait of a Mobster (1961). With a substantial budget and the cost-efficient collaboration of Corman, Browne could shape his own more expansive and authentic adaptation with an A-list cast and the resources of the full Desilu Studios lot (where The Untouchables TV series was shot) at their disposal to recreate 1929 Chicago. This violent valentine to the venerable gangland movie tradition features Jason Robards as Al Capone, George Segal and David Canary as ill-fated contract killers the Gusenberg brothers, Harold J. Stone as Frank Nitti, Ralph Meeker as Bugs Moran, John Agar as Dian O’Bannion, and as other garage casualties, Joseph Campanella as Al Weinshank, Bruce Dern as John May, Milton Frome as Adam Heyer, Mickey Deems as Reinhardt Schwimmer and Kurt Kreuger as James Clark. Also in the cast are Reed Hadley, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon, Dick Miller and mob henchman Jack Nicholson, whose one line of dialogue when asked what he’s rubbing on his bullets while preparing for the massacre is the reply: “It’s garlic. If the bullets don’t kill ya, ya die of blood poisoning.” Corman (as producer) and Browne would reteam, guns blazing again for Fox, seven years later with Capone (1975) starring Ben Gazzara in the title role, Harry Guardino, John Cassavetes and newcomer Sylvester Stallone as Frank Nitti. Featuring video recollections of the making of the film by Corman, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is hard-hitting in hi-def on Twilight Time Blu-ray for those not into hearts and flowers this weekend.