The St Valentine's Day Massacre
Three details from Roger Corman's The St Valentine's Day Massacre (1967):
- As each character is introduced into the film, a narrator gives us a quick rundown on their origins and their destiny. One young orphaned punk is encapsulated thus: "When he was nine years old his father was murdered. By the time he was twenty he had personally killed every man connected with his father's death".
- Another, older gangster is given a rather more sombre requiem: "On March 19, 1943, while under indictment for income tax evasion, Nidi will use a gun for the last time, to take his own life".
- In a key scene of the film, Al Capone/Jason Robards struts around those seated at a board meeting, conjuring aloud the struggle of gods between himself and Bugs Moran; Bugs just has to be killed, and pronto. "I don't think that's a good business move, boss", suggests a crony. "Business!", Al snaps back. "I'm talking about staying alive!"
With The St Valentine's Day Massacre we are already deep in a post-genre phase of the crime/gangster film's history. It's an outsize, mythified comic book of a film in which every move, character and event is rendered with obvious and exaggerated iconicity (you've seen, for instance, that heroic strut around the boardroom both before and after 1967 – The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Hammett ). It's thus a film that cuts right to the heart of the genre – to the very reasons why it exists and why it fascinates.
Surveying the history of the gangster genre in all its mutations before and after 1967 can give us a way to understand the resonance of these details cited from The St Valentine's Day Massacre, beyond their vivid generic and iconographic familiarity.
Take the famous motif of revenge, for instance, in the story form of someone methodically, over years, tracking down the killers of a lover or parent (Underworld USA , The Bride Wore Black , or Borges' story "Emma Zunz", filmed in 1992 by Benoit Jacquot), or the various 'rape revenge' films of the past few decades (including I Spit on Your Grave, Ms 45  and Positive I.D. ). What could be more alluring, mythically, to the beleaguered, subjected individual than the idea of someone being able to map and design the plan of their life so exactly as to impose their will upon time (the initial primal moment of murder frozen and revisited, as it were, until it is eradicated, fully 'answered' in the act of revenge), space (the victims are spied upon, their lives and routines calculated precisely in preparation for the deadly intervention), oneself (training in firearms, bodily development, rehearsing fake identities – Legs Diamond or, a bit further out, Taxi Driver ) and, of course, other selves (the moment of being able to raise the gun and intone 'say your prayers' ... or as Nick Nolte puts it in 48 HRS , "you're dead – end of story"). The revenge-narrative allows, then, the veritable creation of a self (sometimes a monstrous self) as a fully empowered individual, often from quite humble or nondescript beginnings (Jeanne Moreau's transformation from Plain Jane to crack killer in The Bride Wore Black ... and note the whole ripe fantasy of becoming-other in Ms 45 and Positive I.D.).
In Corman's film we can also see, summarily, the way the genre plays off reality-based conceptions of power (the tax department, like the bank in De Palma's Scarface, being the ultimate arbiter and wielder of power; the advice concerning 'good business') against fantasising, egoistic self-perceptions of power ("I'm talking about staying alive!" – the phrase 'staying alive' being virtually synonymous in our popular culture with being intensely alive). The play-off becomes particularly intense when the matter of survival is at stake – for, on the one hand, the sense that one is fighting to 'stay alive' can actually increase the individual's sense that he is special, magical, indestructible, living on his incredible wits (Legs Diamond: "the bullet hasn't been made that can kill me!"; Cagney in White Heat : "Look, Ma, top of the world!"; James Remar's disbelief in 48HRS that he is actually bleeding and dying; and, beyond the action genres, Weir's remarkable drama of assumed immortality Fearless ). Or, on the other hand, it can lead, by necessity, to the adoption of other understandings and strategies of power – the individual changing with the game and the rules (by forming alliances, or switching sides, or disappearing, or changing identity – think of Max's strategy as opposed to Noodles' in Once Upon a Time in America, or Gabriel Byrne's fate in Miller's Crossing ).
MORE Corman: Frankenstein Unbound
© Adrian Martin December 1987