An Offer You Can’t Refuse #18: The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (dir by Roger Corman)


On February 14th, 1929, seven men were murdered in a garage in Chicago, Illinois.  Five of the seven men were known to be associates of gangster George “Bugs” Moran.  The other two men were considered to be innocent bystanders, a mechanic and a dry cleaner who just happened to enjoy hanging out with gangsters.  Though no one was ever convicted of the crime, it was well-known that the murders were carried out on the orders of Al Capone.

In many ways, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre was a turning point in America’s relationship with organized crime.  Before the massacre, Capone had become a bit of a folk hero.  He knew how to talk to the press and he was viewed as merely breaking a law (in this case, prohibition) that most people opposed in the first place.  However, after the murders, public opinion soured on Capone.

Some of it was the brutality of the crime.  It’s been said that over five hundred bullets were fired in that garage, all to kill seven defenseless men who were lined up against a wall.  Grisly pictures of the victims were released to the press.  Perhaps if the seven men had been carrying weapons and had been involved in a shootout with their murderers, the public’s reaction would have been different.  But this was a cold-blooded execution.

Personally, I think the fact that the killers disguised themselves as cops also played a role in the public’s outrage.  It was a very calculated move on the part of the killers and it highlighted just how much planning went into the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  As well, it undoubtedly made people paranoid.  If a bunch of killer could dress up like cops, who knew who else they could dress up as?

Finally, I think that Capone’s biggest mistake was carrying out the crime on Valentine’s Day.  You don’t murder people on a holiday.  Anyone should know that.  If Capone had waited until February 20th, he probably could have gotten away with it.

The 1967 film, The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, details the rivalry between Capone and Moran, starting with them fighting for control over the Chicago rackets and ending with the title event.  Moran is played by Ralph Meeker while Jason Robards plays Capone.

Now I know what you’re probably thinking.  Perennial WASP Jason Robards as Al Capone?  That may sound like odd casting and, let’s just be honest here, it is.  However, it actually kind of works.  Robards may not be convincingly Italian but he is convincingly ruthless.  Add to that, one of the major subplots of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is that, even as the head of the Chicago Outfit, Capone still feels like an outsider in the world of organized crime because, while he is Italian, he isn’t Sicilian.  Capone feels as if Lucky Luciano and all of the major New York crime bosses look down on him and one reason why he’s so ruthless about taking over Chicago is that wants to show Luciano that he can be just as effective a crime lord as any Sicilian.  Capone feeling out of place in the Mafia is reflected by Robards initially seeming to be out of place in a gangster film.  By the end of the movie, of course, Capone has proven himself and so has Jason Robards.

Robards isn’t the only familiar face to be found in The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.  Though this film was released by 20th Century Fox, it was directed by Roger Corman and Corman fills the production with members of his stock company.  Dick Miller, Jonathan Haze, and Jack Nicholson all have small roles as gunmen.  Bruce Dern plays the unlucky mechanic who enjoys hanging out with gangsters.  Buck Taylor, Leo Gordon, and Joe Turkel all have small roles.  John Agar plays Dion O’Bannon and is gunned down in his flower store.  Though not members of the Corman stock company, George Segal and David Canary plays brothers who work for Moran.  There’s a lot of characters wandering through this film but Corman makes sure that everyone gets a chance to make an impression.

It’s a good gangster film.  Though he was working with a larger budget than usual, Corman still brought his exploitation film aesthetic to the material and the end result is a violent, melodramatic gangster film that looks really impressive.  The film’s recreation of 1920s Chicago is a visual delight and looking at the well-dressed and stylish gangsters walking and driving down the vibrant city streets, you can understand why organized crime would have such a draw for some people.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a classic gangster film and a classic Corman film.  It’s an offer you can’t refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.

 

A Movie A Day #22: Messenger of Death (1988, directed by J. Lee Thompson)


messenger_of_deathIn rural Colorado, the three wives and all the children of Orville Beecham (Charlie Dierkop) have been murdered.  Veteran journalist Garret Smith (Charles Bronson) discovers that Orville is the son of an excommunicated Mormon fundamentalist named Willis Beecham (Jeff Corey).  Willis, who lives on a heavily armed compound, practices polygamy and wants nothing to do with the outside world.  However, Willis’s brother, Zenas (John Ireland), long ago split with Willis and set up a compound of his own.  At first, Garret suspects that Orville’s family was killed by Zenas.  As Zenas and Willis go to war, Garret discovers that there’s actually a bigger conspiracy at work, one dealing with corporate greed and water rights.  (Forget it, Bronson, it’s Chinatown.)

Messenger of Death was the 2nd to last film that veteran tough guy Charles Bronson made for Cannon Films.  Especially when compared to the other films that he made for Cannon (10 To Midnight, Kinjite, Murphy’s Law, three Death Wish sequels), Messenger of Death features Bronson in a surprisingly cerebral role.  While there is violence, very little of it is actually the result of anything that Bronson does.  For once, Charles Bronson isn’t running around with a gun and blowing away bad guys. If Death Wish‘s Paul Kersey ever did start blowing away muggers in Colorado, Garret would probably be the first to condemn him in a carefully written editorial.  The only time he fights is in self-defense and even then, it’s hand-to-hand combat.  Instead, he spends most of the film doing research and asking questions.  As a result, Messenger of Death is never as much fun as the other films that Bronson made for Cannon but it’s still interesting to see him playing a regular guy.

Lisa Reviews an Oscar Winner: The Sting (dir by George Roy Hill)


Earlier tonight, as a part of their 31 Days of Oscar, TCM aired The Sting, the film that the Academy selected as being the best of 1973.  I just finished watching it and what can I say?  Based on what I’ve seen of the competition (and there were a lot of great films released in 1973), I would not necessarily have picked The Sting for best picture.  However, the movie is still fantastic fun.

The Sting reunited the director (George Roy Hill) and the stars (Robert Redford and Paul Newman) of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and told yet another story of likable criminals living in the past.  However, whereas Butch Cassidy largely satirized the conventions of the traditional Hollywood western, The Sting is feels like a loving homage to the films of 1930s, a combination of a gritty, low-budget gangster film and a big budget musical extravaganza.  The musical comparison may sound strange at first, especially considering that nobody in The Sting randomly breaks out into song.  However, the musical score (which is famously dominated by Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer) is ultimately as much of a character as the roles played by Redford, Newman, and Robert Shaw.  And, for that matter, the film’s “let-pull-off-a-con” plot feels like an illegal version of “let’s-put-on-a-show.”

The film takes place in the 1936 of the cultural imagination, a world dominated by flashy criminals and snappy dialogue.  When con artists Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones) inadvertently steal money from a gangster named Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), Lonnegan has Luther murdered.  Fleeing for his life, Hooker goes to Chicago where he teams up with Luther’s former partner, veteran con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman).  Gondorff used to be one of the great con artists but he is now living in self-imposed obscurity, spending most of his time drinking and trying to avoid the FBI.  Hooker wants to get revenge on Lonnegan by pulling an elaborate con on him.  When Gondorff asks Hooker why, Hooker explains that he can either con Lonnegan or he can kill him and he doesn’t know enough about killing.

The rest of the film deals with Hooker and Gondorff’s plan to con Lonnegan out of a half million dollars.  It’s all very elaborate and complicated and a bit confusing if you don’t pay close enough attention and if you’re ADHD like me.  But it’s also a lot of fun and terrifically entertaining and that’s the important thing.  The Sting is one of those films that shows just how much you can accomplish through the smart use of movie star charisma.  Redford and Newman have such great chemistry and are so much fun to watch that it really doesn’t matter whether or not you always understand what they’re actually doing.

It also helps that, in the great 70s tradition, they’re taking down stuffy establishment types.  Lonnegan may be a gangster but he’s also a highly respected and very wealthy gangster.  When Newman interrupts a poker game, Lonnegan glares at him and tells him that he’ll have to put on a tie before he’s allowed to play.  Lonnegan may operate outside the law but, in many ways, he is the establishment and who doesn’t enjoy seeing the establishment taken down a notch?

As entertaining as The Sting may be and as influential as it undoubtedly is (Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films may be a lot more pretentious — which makes sense considering that Soderbergh is one of the most pretentious directors in film history — but they all owe a clear debt to The Sting), it still feels like an unlikely best picture winner.  Consider, for instance, that The Sting not only defeated American Graffiti and The Exorcist but Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers as well.  On top of that, when you consider some of the films that were released in 1973 and not nominated — Mean Streets, Badlands, The Candy Snatchers, Day of the Jackal, Don’t Look Now, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Long Goodbye — it’s debatable whether The Sting should have been nominated at all.  That’s not a criticism of The Sting as much as it’s an acknowledgement that 1973 was a very good year in film.

So, maybe The Sting didn’t deserve its Oscar.  But it’s still a wonderfully entertaining film.  And just try to get that music out of your head!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #30: The Sweet Ride (dir by Harvey Hart)


The_Sweet_Ride_FilmPosterThe 1968 film The Sweet Ride takes the audience on a ride through Malibu and reminds us all that, in many ways, the 1960s sucked.

The Sweet Ride opens with actress Vicki Cartwright (Jacqueline Bisset) losing her top while swimming in the ocean.  While Vicki panics and tries to figure out how to get back to the beach without anyone seeing her breasts, she’s spotted by a surfer named Denny McGuire (Michael Sarrazin).  Denny hands her a towel and then leads her back to the beach house that he shares with aging tennis player Collie (Anthony Franciosa) and stoned musician Choo-Choo (Bob Denver).

The rest of the film is a 90 minute tour of California beach life in the late 60s.  Despite Collie’s cynical warning against falling in love, Denny does just that, despite the fact that Vicki refuses to tell him anything about her past or even where she lives.  Meanwhile, Collie spends his time hustling on the tennis court and the married Choo-Choo pretends to be gay in an attempt to get out of being drafted.  (Choo-Choo probably could have gotten out of the draft by pointing out that he appears to be 40 years old but the filmmakers decided to have him walk around with a poodle and speak in falsetto.  Just in case you had any doubt that this film was made in 1968…)  It’s a mix of comedy, romance, and drama and it’s features footage of some real bands performing in actual Malibu nightclubs and that’s a good thing for all of us history nerds.

And, since The Sweet Ride was made in 1968, the whole film gets progressively darker as it reaches its conclusion.  Choo-Choo does get drafted and it’s hard to believe he’ll survive a day in Viet Nam.  Collie’s perfect life is revealed to be an empty facade.  Denny realizes that his friends are all immature losers.  And Vicki ends up getting assaulted by a high-power studio executive (Warren Stevens).  It all leads to more violence, disillusionment, and general ennui.

For some reason, The Sweet Ride shows up on FXM fairly regularly.  It’s a strange film because it doesn’t really work and yet it’s also compulsively watchable.  It tries to be about everything and, as a result, it often feels like it’s about absolutely nothing.  And yet, somehow, it remains compelling…

Why is the film compelling despite itself?  It’s not because of the main characters, that’s for sure.  The boys in the beach house are probably some of the least likable film protagonists in cinematic history.  Anthony Franciosa gave some great performances in his career (check him out in A Face in the Crowd and Tenebrae) but Collie is such a smug jerk that you find yourself hoping that someone will just punch him in the face.  Meanwhile, Denny tends to come across like a weak-willed and obsessive stalker and Choo-Choo — well, Choo-Choo often seems to be a character in a totally different movie.  As for Vicki, her character pretty much exclusively exists to be victimized.

Ultimately, I think The Sweet Ride is watchable because it is such an imperfect time capsule.  If I wanted to know what it was like to be alive in the 60s, The Sweet Ride is one of the films that I would watch.  It’s not the best film ever made but it is a chance to look into the past.

(Incidentally, The Sweet Ride was directed by Harvey Hart, who also directed the underrated Shoot.)

 

Lisa Watches An Oscar Nominee: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (dir by George Roy Hill)


Butch_sundance_poster

Should I start this post by ticking everyone off or should I start out by reviewing the 1969 best picture nominee Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid?

Let’s do the review first.  I recently watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when it aired as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.  This was actually my third time to see the film on TCM.  And, as I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for the third time, I was shocked to discover how much I had forgotten about the film.

Don’t get me wrong.  I remembered that it was a western and that it starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford as real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I remembered that it opened and ended with sepia-toned sequences that suggested that Butch and Sundance represented the last gasp of the old west.  I remembered that Butch won a fight by kicking a man in the balls.  I also remembered that they robbed the same train twice and, the second time, they accidentally used too much dynamite.  I remembered that, for some reason, Butch spent a lot of time riding around on a bicycle.  I remembered that Butch and Sundance ended up getting chased by a mysterious posse.  I remembered that Sundance could not swim.  And I remembered that the film eventually ended on a tragic note in South America…

And I know what you’re saying.  You’re saying, “It sounds like you remembered the whole movie, Lisa!”

No, actually I did not.  The thing with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is that the scenes that work are so memorable that it’s easy to forget that there’s also a lot of scenes that aren’t as memorable.  These are the scenes where the film drags and you’re thankful that Paul Newman and Robert Redford were cast as Butch and Sundance, because their charisma helps you overlook a lot of scenes that are either too heavy-handed or which drag on for too long.  You’re especially thankful for Newman, who plays every scene with a twinkle in his wonderful blue eyes and who is such a lively presence that it makes up for the fact that Redford’s performance occasionally crosses over from being stoic to wooden.  It can be argued that there’s no logical reason for a western to feature an outlaw riding around on a bicycle while Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head plays on the soundtrack but Paul Newman’s so much fun to watch that you can forgive the film.

Newman and Redford both have so much chemistry that they’re always a joy to watch.  And really, that’s the whole appeal of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the chance to watch two iconic actors have fun playing opposite each other.  Even though Katharine Ross appears as their shared romantic interest, the film’s love story is ultimately between Butch and Sundance (and, by extension, Newman and Redford).  You can find countless reviews that will give all the credit for the film’s appeal to William Goldman’s screenplay.  (You can also find countless self-satisfied essays by William Goldman where he does the exact same thing.)  But, honestly, the film’s screenplay is nothing special.  This film works because of good, old-fashioned star power.

Now, for the part that’ll probably tick everyone off (heh heh), I think that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is actually a pretty good pick for a future remake.  All you have to do is pick the right actors for Butch and Sundance.  I’m thinking Chris Pratt as Butch and Chris Evans as Sundance…

Oh, c’mon!  It’ll be great!