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The Forgotten: Trigger Happy Punks

David Cairns

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It's not—no, it's certainly not—any kind of criticism or qualified praise, to say that Baby Face Nelson, directed by Don Siegel in 1957, was pretty much as I expected it would be. The thing is, I expected it to be excellent, terse, tense, intense, and uninflected in a way that borders on, but does not wholly migrate into, the terrain of the cold-blooded.

And it shouldn't be inferred that the film is free of surprises: surprise is practically its structuring principal, a series of revelations of character via plot, charting the criminal career of Lester M. Gillis, alias Baby Face Nelson, alias Mickey Rooney.

Don Siegel's defining trait is probably his no-nonsense approach to narrative, refusing to editorialize or indulge in special pleading on behalf of his characters, whoever they are, however good or bad. It's a policy that could cause him difficulties, when the script was a patchwork like that of Dirty Harry, where the combination of Clint Eastwood's star charisma, the script's right-wing tendencies (uncredited work by wingnut John Milius), and Siegel's unblinking straightforwardness resulted in a neo-fascist romance directed by a man who prided himself on being a liberal. Ironically, the modest exploitation vehicle that is Baby Face Nelson lays far fewer traps for Siegel's approach.

Made on a frayed shoestring and at killer pace, the movie emphatically does not offer the pleasures associated with bigger or later crime flicks: period detail is in short supply, factual accuracy is dicey at best, landscape isn't lingered on: all this is necessarily sacrificed in the name of ferocious pace and furious emotion.

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The cast is a delightful rogue's gallery of mean types, but astride it stands Rooney, in a remarkably buttoned-down performance of seething assholery. Initially established by the script as a man with one or two redeeming scruples, Rooney's Gillis is on an express route to damnation, and his psychopathic indifference to human life doesn't take long to come through, and once it does there's nothing can contain it. With his head, not so much like a baby's as like a giant testicle emerging from a shirt collar, Rooney uses his pasty puffball (teeth and eyes crammed into it as with a snowman made of dough) to maleficent effect, but his body does most of the talking. With the legs of Toulouse-Lautrec and the torso of Captain Caveman, Mickey is an unlikely action hero, but his dance training kicks in and he struts, tommy gun in hand, through Siegel's matter-of-fact compositions like Death's stunted twin.

As Gillis's moll, the woman who gives him his nom-de-guerre, Carolyn Jones is almost as impressive. Although we don't quite understand what draws her to the homuncular maniac, she manages to suggest some kind of attraction, an impressive feat of acting in itself when you look at what she's got to work with. Jones (Morticia in The Addams Family) was an astonishingly inventive actress who here must restrain her tendency to have fun, something which just wouldn't work in this tabloid inferno. To see her at her joyous best, you really have to check out her various cameos on Dragnet, where she had some kind of hilarious chemistry going with the usually unflappable Jack Webb.

Elsewhere there is Elisha Cook Jr. (name buried in the credits list, when surely words like "emblazoned," "neon" and "ten feet high" should be inseparable from any appearance of this supreme twitching machine), Emile Meyer as a rotten copper, which again is no surprise but can hardly fail to work, Jack Elam entertains as a piss-elegant criminal mastermind curiously called Fatso, and Leo Gordon is a no-nonsense John Dillinger, no more able to suggest the man's superstar charisma than Johnny Depp's dour performance, but more convincing as a bad-ass killer. The really unexpected presence is Cedric Hardwicke as a seedy, venal doctor, adept at providing facelifts for fugitives or removing bullets without asking questions...but with a fatal proclivity for patting Baby Face's girl's ass.

Oh, and even in 1957 they were still prefacing their gangster movies with moralistic screeds, trying to alibi themselves against charges of glorifying crime. They probably needn't have worried here: despite the red-hot jazz infusing the action with thrill-junkie abandon, the combination of Rooney's vigorous slimeball playing and Siegel's unflinching glower means that armed robbery has rarely looked less glamorous.

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The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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