Bright Lights Film Journal

Cosmic Karma in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

Check out the latest issue of Film Comment, containing an excellent, though regrettably short, piece by Richard Combs praising the formal achievement of Roger Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967).

“About time,” says I. Though film historians occasionally cite The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre as an effective genre piece – it is almost a summation of every gangster film made up to that point! – few cinephiles (with the rare exception of writers like Gary Morris) talk about St. Valentine’s accomplishment on the level of pure filmmaking. Combs refreshingly compares the film to Alain Resnais’s Private Fears in Public Places (2006), both films taking place in artificial studio-enclosed worlds gently caressed by falling snow.

St. Valentine’s was the only film ever directed by Corman with the full resources of a major film studio (20th Century Fox) at his disposal. Apart from the film’s mise-en-scène, its brilliant use of crane shots, camera movement and widescreen composition within a studio-created setting, I have always treasured The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre for Corman’s usage (not discussed by Combs) of what I call “cause-and-effect montage.” A simple example of cause-and-effect montage would be a shot of a gun firing (Shot A) followed by a shot of someone falling down dead (Shot B). The fact that Shot B is perceived by the viewer as the effect of Shot A results in a smooth, almost seamless, cut, the filmic equivalent of a sentence in the active voice (“A killed B”). Reverse the order of the shots (a shot of someone falling down followed by a shot of a smoking gun) and you have a filmic sentence in the passive voice (“B was killed by A”).

In The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, Corman takes the concept of cause-and-effect montage about as far as any filmmaker has ever carried it. Roughly an hour and a quarter into the film, we see a shot of the film’s protagonist, Al Capone (Jason Robards), on the telephone, giving the order to kill his rival, George “Bugs” Moran (Ralph Meeker).

This is the first shot in a 45-minute sequence of shots that follow causatively, one after the other – like falling dominoes – from Capone’s order to the film’s final image, a shot of the real Al Capone’s grave. Almost every shot in the sequence is the result, one way or another, of what preceded it. In narrative terms, Capone’s command leads to not only the massacre of the title (a remarkable montage sequence in itself) but, eventually, to the violent deaths of every one of the gunmen who took part in the massacre, which in turns leads to a public outcry, the final result of which is Capone’s own imprisonment and death.

Corman also relies on camera movement to link many of the shots in this 45-minute tour de force – a slow track, e.g., from left to right, in one shot will be linked to the next shot by a matched camera movement in the same direction and at the same speed. It’s a trick Corman might have learned from watching early Resnais (Night and Fog, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad). A cosmically omniscient narrator (Paul Frees) ticking off the time and circumstances of each participant’s demise contributes further to the film’s sense of kharmic fatalism. Or justice – if you prefer.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a continuation and outgrowth of Corman’s Poe series starring Vincent Price in at least three significant ways: (1) a self-contained studio world, (2) a florid lead performance, (3) an obsession with death – often connected with the color red.

Add to that one of the finest ensembles of character actors ever gathered together in one film – a rogues’ gallery of familiar faces like Robards, Ralph Meeker, Frank Silvera, Joseph Campanella, Richard Bakalyan, John Agar, Joe Turkel, Alex d’Arcy, Leo Gordon, and Harold J. Stone, among many others, intermingling with up-and-comers from the Corman stock company like Jack Nicholson (one line, uncredited) and Bruce Dern – and you have a true landmark in the history of the gangster genre.