There are a lot of people who found success in their mid 20s, and I am usually jealous of them. But even I draw the line at Al Capone, despite admiring how he rose to the top of Chicago’s busiest criminal enterprise by age 26. Something about him holds me back— probably all the murders and the untreated syphilis, which I imagine sucked the fun out of running the town’s swankiest gin joints. Despite being taken down for tax evasion at age 32, cinematic portrayals of the original Scarface have tended to ignore the astounding youth of most Chicago mobsters. It was a cutthroat industry with a high turnover of staff, but you wouldn’t know it from the slew of veteran character actors in Roger Corman’s 1967 The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, most of them old enough to have lived through the 1929 event on which the film is based.
Leading the pack is Jason Robards as Capone, looking about as authentically Italian-American as Trump-backing pizza entrepreneur ‘Papa’ John Schattner. Director Roger Corman wanted him to play Capone’s rival gang leader ‘Bugs’ Moran, which suggests that he was trying for more accurate casting than the studio would allow. Except that his original choice for Capone was Orson Welles. Then again, you know what they say; a rich man’s age 50 is a secondary syphilitic’s 31. Admittedly, I’m being flippant, I don’t really care about casting authenticity all that much, and Welles would have made a great gangster. That said, Corman school student Francis Ford Coppola created the most compelling cinematic mob boss of all time by casting a young Al Pacino. There’s something about the repeated inaccuracy of Capone portrayals that speaks both to the way he was mythologised even at the height of his fame, and America’s idea of what a ‘boss’ looks like— men like Al Capone and his nemesis Hymie Weiss, dead at 28, simply don’t fit the mold.
As I said, Capone was a legendary figure even before his arrest; screenwriter Ben Hecht claimed that Capone sent two men over to make sure that the title of his Scarface (1932) screenplay was just a coincidence. He lied that it was. I’d almost prefer if this dubious story could be proven false, the writer mythologising himself mythologising Capone. Corman’s film is a paradox. It’s thoroughly entrenched in this tradition, putting mean ol’ Mr. Capone in a large mansion (in classic Corman style, recycled from The Sound of Music) from which he bullies his subordinates, showing wise guys roughing up bartenders and putting up ex-prostitutes in swanky apartments, giving what feels like half the film over to shots of squibs exploding during endlessly protracted tommy gun showers.
But Corman, in his debut effort for a major studio, even with all his expertise in narrative (and actual) economy, tries to have his liquor and bootleg it. While the surface aesthetic is all tropes, shortcuts and symbols, in its plotting the film somewhat rigorously pursues factual accuracy, except for a few spiced-up murders (Robards gets to do a few made-up ones, allowing him to take his malevolent grin to new widths). There’s a documentary-style narrator who solemnly introduces each successive event before, during and after the massacre, with the film doggedly illustrating what is known about each of the murderers and their victims. Particularly memorable is the repeated line ‘on the last day of his life’ accompanying the early morning routines and petty squabbles of each victim in turn. Even more interesting are the repeated prophesies of the often imminent deaths of the murderers themselves, stretching the violence out way beyond the confines of the film.
It’s a narrative structure that allows for a lot of fun cameos and a few star turns. George Segal is the abusive, superficially charming North Side hitman Pete Gusenberg, de-aged 10 years by the narrator so that the film’s most active role goes to its most handsome young actor. Ralph Meeker plays Moran with much less scenery-chewing grandeur than his opposite number; both the stress of being in a life-threatening position and the dehumanising madness of orchestrating threats of one’s own comes through much more clearly than it does with Robards. Bruce Dern, as the sensitive mechanic in the wrong place at the wrong time, elicits the most sympathy in the fewest scenes, while Jack Nicholson has a single line as an unnamed assassin; doing an impression of Brando’s Don Corleone before Brando ever played him, he rasps about why to put garlic in the bullets (it poisons the blood). But the most off-beat, surprisingly engaging performance comes from Frank Silvestri, as a Sicilian hijacker and partially unwitting massacre accomplice whose dark skin and broken English adds dimension to the film’s subtext of racial tension and uneven assimilation into American society.
There are so many actors, either instantly recognisable or just on the edge of familiarity, that it occurred to me that an extra layer of narration is now necessary, a voiceover that would give us the origins, and the endings, of each cast member’s own story, on top of the run-down on their character. It’s a film with a lot of curiosity about history that has ended up as a historical curiosity. Its zeal for lurid theatricality clashes intriguingly, if not satisfyingly, with the feeling that it’s a watchmaker’s film, keeping time and ordering a steady flow of events, old-timey (but never old) cars passing and old-timey guns firing and old-timey mouths shooting off at each other. But if there’s one thing watchmakers know how to do, it’s craft the passage of time into a handsome object.