Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some like it with voiceovers

I've recommended quite a few of the docudramas made at 20th Century-Fox in the second half of the 1940s. A later docudrama, in color and wide-screen, is showing up tonight at 6:00 PM on the Fox Movie Channel: The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

If you're conversant in history, you should know that the St. Valentine's Day Massacre refers to the February 14, 1929 gangland shooting by Al Capone's (played by Jason Robards) gang of seven members of the rival Chicago gang led by Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker). The actual shootings don't come until the end of the movie, however. At least, not in detail; the aftermath is shown and then what we get is the run-up to the event, and how it was planned in great detail.

I shouldn't bore you with stuff on Prohibition and how this led to gangs taking over the booze racket, as that's all well-known stuff. When watching a movie based on history like The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, what's important is the presentation. Most sources who know more about Chicago gangland than I do claim that the filmmakers tried to get this as historically accurate as they could. It certainly plays as though the filmmakers are trying to do that. One of the techniques used in docudramas is the voiceover, and here it's used a bit differently than in other docudramas. Every time a new character is introduced, we hear narrator Paul Frees tell us who the character is, and a bit of biographical data about the person: date of birth, rap sheet, date and manner of death, and so on. It has the effect of making it easier to keep all the characters separate, but more importantly, it makes them seem more like the real people they were and not just movie characters. As good as James Cagney or Edward G. Robinson were at playing gangsters, you never really know just how real their characters were.

As for the performances, there's nothing much in them to distract from the story. The cast has quite a few recognizable names, such as George Segal as one of Moran's underlings, who kicks off the action by intimidating a speakeasy owner. Reed Hadley, whose name you might recall from narrating all the old Fox docudramas, shows up here in the flesh and not just the voice, as rubbed gangster Hymie Weiss.

If you're comfortable with the voiceovers, you'll probably quite enjoy The St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

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