The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre

I grew up in Chicago so I love just about everything in the Windy City, all the sports teams, the downtown area, all that great food from Chicago style hot dogs to Chicago style pizza. But that Chicago history? My goodness, there are some dark moments from the Black Sox scandal to the Chicago Fire, the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention and generally all sorts of political corruption and deception. One of the most violent incidents in the city's history? That's told in a 1967 B-movie, The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

It's early 1929 and the streets of Chicago are filled with warring gangsters from two rival gangs. On one side is Al Capone (Jason Robards), a brutal, possibly maniacal Italian gangster with Mafia ties, who rules Chicago's South Side with an iron fist. Running the city's North side is George 'Bugs' Moran (Ralph Meeker), his Irish gang trying to hold onto their territory.  Things across the city are building to an unavoidable confrontation as both sides fight for control of thousands of speakeasies, Prohibition still raging. Capone has grown tired of Moran's gang trying to build up their power and has put into work a plan to execute his rival gang leader. Can one gang win out over the other? Can anyone win with the city's streets riddled with bullets and blood?

Everyone's heard of producer/director extraordinaire Roger Corman? He's one of Hollywood's all-time greats at getting movies made on the cheap so basically the King of B-Movies. That's not a bad thing, and I say it as a compliment. This generally forgotten 1967 gangster flick is one of his best, telling the true story of one of Chicago's darkest moments. It was filmed on studio streets -- cheaper than Chicago's downtown area -- but it works, giving the city a closed in, wintery and claustrophobic effect. This is a flick that works almost like a quasi-documentary, like something you'd see on The History Channel...but darker, much darker. With narrator Paul Frees and his perfectly gravelly voice laying things out, introducing dates, people and times, it all fits together like puzzle pieces.

Where 'Massacre' separates itself from the quasi-documentary feel is that darkness, that gangster world we're thrust into. Low budget though it may be, the movie looks great with countless gangsters wearing impeccably cool suits with fedoras, rocking vicious tommy guns and 1920s boats of cars that look as cool as ever now in 2014 as they would have in 1929. As for the real life gangsters, this isn't The Godfather where you kinda sorta maybe sympathize with the Corleones, however vicious and murdery they are. There ain't a single sympathetic character anywhere in sight. These are nasty, brutal, violent folks interested in making money and killing some rival gangsters in the process. You're not rooting for anybody. You're not hoping these guys come out unscathed. You just wanna see how it all shakes out and who's gonna make it. Let me tell you...not many do.

One of the coolest aspects of 'Massacre' is its ridiculously deep cast. We're not talking a disaster flick type of cast full of aging A-list stars. We're talking a couple very solid movie stars/actors at the top and a cast backing them up absolutely packed to the guts with familiar, recognizable character actors. As for the leads, Robards is terrifyingly hammy as everyone's favorite Chicago gangster, Al Capone. He's got that look in his eye, you just never know what he's going to do next. Meeker is excellent too in a more understated but just as sinister part, Bugs Moran, an Irish gangster and Capone's main rival for power. Also look for a young George Segal in one of his best early roles, playing Peter Gusenberg, one of Moran's enforcers/lieutenants working closely with his brother, another enforcer, Frank (David Canary) while constantly fighting with live-in girlfriend (Jean Hale).

Okay, brace yourself because you're about to get hit with a whole lot of links to actor's IMDB pages. These are all the real-life people involved in the 1920s world of Chicago gang wars, an extremely interesting historical time if you're interested in the subject matter. On the Capone side keep an eye out for Clint Ritchie as the massacre's mastermind, Frank Silvera, Harold J. Stone, Paul Richards, Joe Turkel, Alex Rocco, Leo Gordon, John Agar, and Richard Bakalyan and Jack Nicholson (Yes, that Jack Nicholson) as two hired mafia killers. On the Moran side of things, watch for Bruce Dern, Kurt Kreuger, Tom Reese. Some appearances are quicker than others, but it's cool to see so many people in one movie, even if it is only for a scene or two.

Just an entertaining dark and dirty movie. If you're a fan of history whether it be Chicago or gangsters or anything in between, this gritty, cynical, particularly vicious flick is for you. I loved it.

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (1967): *** 1/2 /****


  1. i found this an incredible letdown given the talent involved. it all seemed like scenes set up and didn't flow with me. i was sad.

  2. Something really clicked for me. I think it did try to accomplish a lot/too much and would have been better suited with a miniseries, but I nonetheless enjoyed it a lot.