This is a terrible movie that normally I would not watch but I was desperate. I have no recollection of its being released. It's a 1987 release, and I was reviewing films at that time so possibly it went straight to VHS. Its not even listed under this title on the IMDb but as The Vern Miller Story after the famous gangster. That's right, while I'd never heard of Vern Miller there was a real life gangster named Vern Miller, and this kinda is his story. Not any more inaccurate than most screen biographies, but maybe a little less. But what has me bowels in an uproar about this film is not so much how terrible it is, but how wonderful the visuals are. How can a film be so terrible but look so good? It means virtually writing two reviews for the same movie. Its easy to dissect the shortcoming of the scripted and directed parts of the film but far more difficult to praise the visuals. Actually the excellent visuals highlight the dramatic shortcomings. Action sequences are non sequiturs with succeeding scenes failing to follow up on the action. They're sort of stranded and exist on to themselves. There is no dramatic timeline, no progression, no development of themes. Characters pop in and out of the narrative without much individuality. Its hard to know who these people are and what their connection is to each other and Vern Miller. Miller is talked about as something special but beyond being a cold blooded killer he doesn't seem particularly adept. The opening, pre credit sequence is a good example.
A couple of what are usually described as "jazz babies" are seen on a country road in a roadster. He is wearing what's supposed to be a raccoon coat, he has a silver flask which he places playfully in his girlfriend's crotch. Suddenly a sedan rolls across the road and the roadster hits it and stops. Out steps Scott Glenn and it comes to pass that he identifies himself by taking out two huge revolves from shoulder holsters and shoots his initials in the door of the sedan. Then the movie credits begin. What have we just seen? Was it a robbery? Car hijacking. A kidnapping? Double murder? Who knows, but its never referred to again. Its is visceral and emotional in that it seems as though there is some menace in this highway stop, but its never followed up. This recalls similar scenes in Bonnie & Clyde and Badlands, both with radically different results, but this has NO resolution. What did I just see? It was well photographed, but what just happened?
The rest of the picture is like that. Vern Miller goes to work for Al Capone (not factual), and I guess because of the budget, he is not seen in an elaborate office or swank restaurant surrounded by sycophants, but in a cramped room. The actors surround this Capone are mostly bland and faceless, small town preppy guys with no personalities. In fact all of the actors seem recruited from a college drama department or a dinner theater. No character develops, they just are. I found myself living that old Jerry Seinfeld routine where a guy watching a movie can'r distinguish between the different actors. "Wait, is that the same guy? Oh, its a different guy. Or is it?"
The women are just as interchangeable and act like middle school seductresses. Adventurous crimes are flattened out like a sheet of paper that needs to be folded like origami to resemble something. Its just monotonous and mundane. A mundane gangster film, how did they do that? The thing just dribbles on until the climactic set piece, the raison d'être of the film, which is a recreation of the famous Kansas City Massacre, when a gang tried to free Frank Jelly Nash, a notorious bank robber, being transferred under FBI custody. They made their attack in front of the Kanas City train station.
No doubt the budget was very small, so instead of a big city location, a hick town of the type where looking three blocks in any direction reveals wheat fields was used. It reminds me the Monty Python gag where two groups of housewives stage the Battle of Hastings by attacking each other with handbags. The action is fast and confusing. Maybe as confusing as in real life as its now generally acknowledged that the deaths were mainly the result of wild police gunfire. Four cops and Frank Nash all died. The FBI claimed that Adam Richetti and Pretty Boy Floyd were Miller's accomplices but that was probably one of Hoover's ploys to arm the FBI and give them powers of arrest. Richetti was later captured and executed for the crime. So this is a total botch. You have to figure they could have done better in finding an urban setting for the shoot out. The rest is anti climax.
The real Miller was found dead near Detroit in what has been assumed was a mob hit in retaliation with for the failure of the Kansas City job or more probably killing a New Jersey gangster. Which reminds me there is no sense of geography in this picture. Its all back roads and lonely stores and rural gas stations. people speak with generic drawls. Dialogue scenes are difficult to hear and conversations flaccid. But everything looks great. There are close ups in perfect focus. Medium shots perfectly lit. Long shots artistically framed. They're even reasonably joined together but they're not enough to tell a story.