Tuesday, May 30, 2006


Of all the movies raked over the coals by the Mystery Science 3000 crew, the films of Roger Corman probably deserve a special place of honor: he was easily MST's most-ridiculed filmmaker, beating out even such stalwarts as Ed Wood and Coleman Francis.

Fair enough. None of the Corman pictures that played on MST were actually, you know, good, and some (The Viking Women and the Sea Serpent) were stupefyingly bad. Still, all of the MST pictures were early Corman. He really would get better than that.

Corman's best-known and most celebrated work would probably be the loose, florid Edgar Allan Poe adaptations he made with Vincent Price, particularly The Pit and the Pendulum and The Masque of the Red Death. These were stylish, enjoyable pictures which revealed some of Corman's real and considerable talent, particularly his casual mastery of wide-screen composition. But except for Masque, which is a terrific movie by any standard, even the best of his sixties pictures were plagued by all too obvious budgetary considerations. Corman may have been the King of the Bs, but for his fans, there was always the regret that he never quite made it to the A list.

Except once. In 1967 Corman landed at a major studio, 20th Century-Fox, to take his best shot at the big time: the gangster epic The St. Valentine's Day Massacre. This stylish, detached retelling of the events surrounding the most notorious gangland slaying of the 1920s, just out on DVD, really does show what Corman could do. With a keen spatial sense and a perfectly judged sense of just how long to let each scene play, this is one of the best gangster movies ever made, with a rogue's gallery of character actors giving memorable performances right down to the bit parts. The only real drawback is the picture's semidocumentary format, complete with an overbearing narration. Still, there are just enough sidelines, brief digressions from the main narrative, to keep us interested in the people, not just the events.

The efficient storytelling and sharp, easily-read visuals of Massacre recall another low-budget filmmaker of the period, Don Siegel, who was also graduating to the A list at about the same time. Siegel would go on to make Dirty Harry and other box office hits. Oddly, Corman returned to the world of B pictures, making only a few more films before retiring from directing. In the seventies he started his own distribution company, hiring young film school grads to make women-in-prison or monster movies.

And that's probably a good thing, since two of the kids he hired, Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante, would turn out to be among the best directors of their generation. Both of them tend to use Corman in bit parts in their pictures. Demme's (needless) remake of The Manchurian Candidate gives Corman a lengthy scene opposite Meryl Streep.

And he outacts her!