The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967) Review

Director: Roger Corman

Genre(s): Crime

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre takes a docudrama-like approach to the escalating Chicago gang war between Al Capone (Jason Robards) and George Clarence “Bugs” Moran (Ralph Meeker) in the late 1920s, which would climax with a notorious massacre on Valentine’s Day. Historical accuracy trumps concern for the audience’s ability to follow every single character and deed here.

One of the most notable aspects of this mob movie is its pervasive narration. Almost every semi-important character is given an introduction…one that sometimes spoils whether they will die during the film’s runtime or not. Still, the narration keeps the motion picture from being too difficult to follow, helping the viewer keep track of the plentiful characters (most of whom don’t really make much of an impression, unfortunately).

The film probably could’ve used a stronger overarching plot, as it sometimes feels like a series of scenes depicting underworld activities or action/violence that could’ve been arranged in just about any order. However, the movie is anchored by a wonderfully hammy performance from Jason Robards as mob boss Al Capone, and there are some nice period details. Bullets fly relatively regularly to prevent the audience from nodding off.

This certainly isn’t the strongest movie about organized crime ever made, but it’s better than being merely watchable. There are bland characters here (although Robards’ Capone isn’t one of them), yet it’s overall entertaining enough to be worth recommending. Released the same year as fellow gangster saga Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre isn’t quite as boundary-pushing as that classic, but it still might’ve played a minor role in blowing the lid off of the Hollywood Production Code. Mob movie fanatics will probably enjoy it.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Beast of the City (1932) Review

Director: Charles Brabin

Genre(s): Crime, Drama

Runtime: 86 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The Beast of the City is an underrated police drama that gets a big boost from an attention-grabbing tough guy performance from Walter Huston (as police detective Jim Fitzpatrick). He looks quite a bit like Liam Neeson here, and he plays one of the definitive man’s men of 1930s cinema. The plot of the picture is about Huston’s character’s frustrated attempts at taking down the crime empire of gangster Sam Belmonte (Jean Hersholt) and his dealings with his morally-wayward brother Ed Fitzpatrick (Wallace Ford), who’s also on the police force. Mickey Rooney shows up in an early role as Mickey Fitzpatrick, the Huston’s character’s son.

It’s a tough-talking and tough-acting film, with a main character who resembles a proto-Dirty Harry. It’s short, too, and benefits from the frequently zippy pacing. The Beast of the City was released during Hollywood’s Pre-Code era in the early 1930s (prior to the Production Code being enforced), so it occasionally has a more modern feel than the movies released during the time of the Code. Some of the cops here are willing to bend to law to catch the bad guys.

The characters in the flick are reasonably well-defined, but the individual movie-defining moment is probably the electric, take-no-prisoners finale. There are some bits of action prior to it, but most of the film’s bullets are saved for the ending. It’s a cathartic scene that manipulates the audience successfully. Crime-fighting rarely felt so satisfying.

The Beast of the City could be seen as a reaction to the gangster films that were popular at the time of its release. Here’s a picture for those who worried about the potentially corrupting influence of organized crime flicks on youth. It, too, is a mob movie, albeit one told from the perspective of law enforcement. If you ever come across it, give it a watch. It’s a good one.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

O.S.S. (1946) Review

Director: Irving Pichel

Genre(s): Thriller, War

Runtime: 108 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Despite being produced and written by Richard Maibaum, who also wrote a bunch of the earlier James Bond films (a series I’m not crazy about to begin with), the World War II spy film O.S.S. is a dud, more or less. The picture’s title refers to the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the CIA during the aforementioned conflict. Alan Ladd stars as John Martin, an American secret agent sent to Nazi-occupied France to mess with the Germans. Of course, he’s accompanied by a female spy, Elaine Duprez (Geraldine Fitzgerald), to give the movie some romance.

One of the major problems here is that the picture covers the entire experience an OSS agent might face behind enemy lines, rather than focusing on one particular mission. The way the film is, the heroes tackle two or three assignments during the flick’s runtime, resulting in two or three mini-climaxes, and stuffing the film with some padding. Part of the movie seems to follow our protagonists in between objectives, when they’re not really doing anything, other than simply surviving.

There’s also the matter of the film not building up to a satisfactory climax. It’s a realistic one, and I suppose that’s commendable, but it’s less exciting (well, “exciting” is a stretch) than one of the scenes that preceded it. The action’s clunky, although there’s barely any of it at all (the big explosions and whatnot are provided by stock footage). Rather than fully entertaining an audience, O.S.S. sets its sights on educating the viewer on the importance of the titular organization’s role in World War II and honoring the memory of its fallen. That has its time and place, and probably should’ve been included in the flick, but some changes should’ve been made to tighten the movie up.

A thriller largely devoid of thrills, O.S.S. is not terrible, but it doesn’t come recommended either. The plot’s unfocused and the action is almost non-existent. The romantic angle successfully creates some tension later on in the runtime, but, overall, I can’t help but think of it as a misfire. There are better espionage flicks out there.

My rating is 5 outta 10.

Santiago (1956) Review

Director: Gordon Douglas

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 93 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

If you’ve seen the World War II picture China (1943), also starring Alan Ladd, you’ll know what to expect from Santiago. They’re pretty similar, but both are worth watching. Here, an American gunrunner, Caleb “Cash” Adams (Alan Ladd), is drawn into the Cuban War of Independence while delivering a shipment of arms and ammunition to the Cuban rebels in the 1890s. Despite a few talkier moments, this is a well-told tale with a fair amount of action.

Often resembling a western movie, this is an interesting and atmospheric look at the lives of amoral, greedy gunrunners in the late nineteenth century, set in places like a seedy bar’s backroom, a paddle wheeler’s cargo hold, and the steamy jungles of Haiti and Cuba. The characters are easy to keep track of, and the action scenes are well-handled. Worth noting is an unusually graphic (by 1956 standards) headshot received by one character towards the beginning of the film.

As mentioned in the first paragraph, there are a few dialogue-heavy scenes (mainly towards the beginning), but they’re tolerable. While there is a prominent romantic subplot, it doesn’t subtract from the experience as much as a similar subplot did in China. Also on the down side, the ending is fairly abrupt. Some might even call it anti-climactic (I’m not sure I would, though), concluding just as the flick was starting to heat up.

Santiago, which makes a good double feature with the aforementioned China, is a solid action-adventure picture with a story that has a lot of potential. Does it fully reach that potential? Eh, not quite, perhaps due to some budgetary restrictions. Still, if you’re looking for a movie set around the time of the Spanish-American War, Santiago is a good choice to watch.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

China (1943) Review

Director: John Farrow

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, War

Runtime: 79 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Released during World War II, China serves as an interesting and entertaining piece of American propaganda designed to educate the U.S. populace on the struggles faced by the Chinese people during the Japanese invasion of their homeland. Cynical, tough oil salesman David Jones (Alan Ladd) wants nothing to do with the conflict, despite living in China. He’s content to go about selling his product to the highest bidder, which is frequently the raping, burning, murdering Japanese. With his partner, Johnny Sparrow (William Bendix), he finds himself driving a truck full of displaced Chinese and a teacher of American descent, Carolyn Grant (Loretta Young), across the countryside in an effort to outrun the war.

China works best as a war-based action-adventure picture. The film begins with an ambitious long take that immediately throws the audience into the story and action is relatively frequent after that. Gunfire and explosions are the name of the game here, although the finale isn’t quite as exciting as the sequence where our heroes acquire the explosives used for said ending. Ladd is a convincing action star, and Bendix is excellent as the sidekick.

On the down side, there’s a lot of romance to yawn at. The movie tends to get bogged down in it, with Bendix reminiscing about his old hayrides back in the U.S. and whatnot, when the picture could be focused on the Japanese getting their just desserts. There’s even the threat of a romantic triangle breaking out at one point, but this potential disaster doesn’t fully materialize. Another flaw with the flick is that the Japanese threat doesn’t really feel quite immediate enough at times during the first act. However, it becomes very real after that.

Romance aside, this is probably one of the more effective and cool World War II flag-wavers made during the war. The fascinating, if fictional, plot is enough to absorb the viewer, and the action gets a thumbs-up. The film’s Wilsonian idealism shines through all the carnage and romance to stir the audience into making the world a better place when the war concludes. War and action-adventure movie aficionados will find enough here to make it worth watching.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Verdun: Looking at History (1928) Review

Director: Léon Poirier

Genre(s): Action, War

Runtime: 151 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

One of the most underrated silent films ever made, Verdun: Looking at History (its original title in French being “Verdun, Visions d’Histoire“) is a powerful look at World War I’s critical Battle of Verdun, one of the greatest (and longest) battles ever fought. Told from both the French and German perspectives, this is the story of the 1916 German offensive that intended to capture the fortified French city of Verdun and crush French morale to continue the fight.

Often difficult to take your eyes off of, this cinematic epic usually looks realistic enough to be actual war footage. In fact, it’s often hard to tell what’s stock footage and what was filmed specifically for the movie. Very detailed and authentic-feeling, Verdun: Looking at History transports the viewer to the lunar landscapes outside of Verdun to witness the titanic struggle that lasted most of 1916. There’s plenty of combat, and the explosions are jarringly well-executed, frequently looking like they’re putting the cast in danger. Being silent, there’s numerous stylized touches to make the storytelling more visual.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering its docudrama-like style, the weakest part of the motion picture is its characters. To give the movie a universal quality, the fictional ones aren’t even given names, simply their description. Most of them are soon lost in the shuffle, sometimes making it difficult to tell who’s who. However, that’s not really the focus of the flick, so it’s not a crippling concern. The film’s very brief celebration of Henri Philippe Pétain, one of the major French officers during the Battle of Verdun, hasn’t aged well, considering that he would later become leader of the Vichy France (the French puppet government that collaborated with Nazi Germany) during World War II. Of course, no one could’ve known that in 1928 (the year of this movie’s release), but it still leaves an odd taste in the audience’s mouth.

Verdun: Looking at History deserves to be remembered with the best of the silent films. Few movies have managed to bring the Western Front of World War I to theaters as believably and vividly as here. Human, educational, and idealistic, this is a true docudrama, combining documentary and fictional elements in roughly equal parts. If you’re interested in the First World War, I’d highly recommend this picture, as well as an actual visit to the Verdun battlefield in France (I’ve been there, it’s unforgettable).

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) Review

Director: Richard Donner

Genre(s): Action, Comedy, Crime, Thriller

Runtime: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

The Lethal Weapon film series ends on as perfect a note as it could’ve asked for in Lethal Weapon 4, the best movie in the franchise since the original. This time, Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) and Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) are out to stop a gang that’s smuggling Chinese migrants to Los Angeles in inhumane conditions. Tonally, this is a far cry from Lethal Weapon (1987), and could probably be best described as a heartwarming bloodbath sitcom.

Despite all the touchy-feely stuff, this is still an action picture, and it delivers the big set pieces that fans of the genre crave. Hell, there are one or two moments that wouldn’t feel out of place in an installment of The Fast and the Furious movies. Car and foot chases, shootouts, martial arts brawls…Lethal Weapon 4 doesn’t skimp on the big-budget havoc. Wah Sing Ku (Jet Li) is one of the most formidable baddies in the franchise, perhaps second only to Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey) from the first one.

Of all the Lethal Weapon flicks, the 1987 original did the tough-as-nails, hard-boiled stuff the best, while the fourth entry does the more comedic, family-and-friends-oriented material most memorably. It definitely has the biggest heart of the series. I mean, who could’ve guessed that a film with the title “Lethal Weapon 4” would be so emotional? Despite of all this, it also somehow manages to be the most graphically violent of the four.

Lethal Weapon 4 shows off the evolution that the franchise took. While the first one put action, thrills, and fast pacing in the driver’s seat, the final film displays how the series changed over the course of its duration to balance violence with comedy and shenanigans related to biological and surrogate family. If you’re watching this franchise, make sure you stick around for the fourth installment.

My rating is 7 outta 10.