For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

The Forgotten: Trigger Happy Punks

bfn

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.

cj

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.

mr


***

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

For a good number of years inn th early 40s Mickey Rooney was the biggest star in the entire world. Lord knows he was one of the hardest working. Claude Chabrol has said Rooney’s performance in “Boys Town” is his favorite becuase "I LOVE hysterical actors.’ And hysteria is the key to Rooney. I love him in a great many things, but especially singing “Can You Use Me?” to Judy in “Girl Crazy.”
I recall seeing Rooney in 1932’s BEAST OF THE CITY not too long back, catching a glimpse of him as a feisty tyke in this pre-Code cops vs. gangsters film. Interesting you should mention Elisha Cook Jr., I was thinking of him as the drummer in PHANTOM LADY as compared to Rooney’s drummer in THE STRIP. It’s obvious Cook couldn’t play the drums to save his life, whereas Rooney’s drumming skills in THE STRIP are undeniable, very real. The little guy was a dynamo, I’m guessing he still is.
As you can see from the IMBD http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001682/ He’s REAL busy.
Mike Hodges, who directed the Roonster in Pulp, described him as a ball of energy who couldn’t stop dancing, tapping his feet, just had to be active all the time. Which makes his quiet, still moments here all the more impressive.
Does anyone know where to go to see a decent copy of BABY FACE NELSON? I know it’s been tied up in legal entanglements for decades, and when it finally appeared in 35mm at a rare LA screening several years ago it turned out to be a British print with a BBFC notice on the front and all the violence cut out! I asked Rooney about this once, but since he’s been “born again” he doesn’t discuss or acknowledge his noirish past.
As you can see from the screen caps above, the copy I got my hands on was far from pristine. And it may well have been a censored British print, though it’s hard for me to be sure. There were some weird jump-cuts during the final scene but it was hard to know if they were caused by censorship (of what? Rooney’s too-realistic performance of pain?) or just print damage, or an inability to match shots caused by Siegel running out of time?
Congratulations on tracking down and watching any version of Baby Face Nelson — as with most Siegel movies, what’s worth fetishizing is the experience rather than the object. My most recent Mickey Rooney revelation was “The Comedian” on Criterion’s “Golden Age of Television” set, which also revealed the best work ever seen under John Frankenheimer’s byline. As one might expect, the “well-constructed” storyline blocks what verity it can, but the sheer precision spectacle of Rooney’s adrenaline-drilling characterization and Frankenheimer’s martial-arts-camerawork overcomes all.
That sounds incredible! I rather like Frankenheimer, when he was on form he could do great, bold, splashy stuff.

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features