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USA 1957
Directed by
Don Siegel
85 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Baby Face Nelson

Tautly directed by Don Siegel, with a punchy script co-written by Irving Schulman and Daniel Mainwaring (a regular Siegel collaborator who had written the screenplay for the director's classic 1956 sci-fi thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers) this loosely fact-based account of the rise and fall of notorious Prohibition gangster and sometime John Dillinger accomplice, Baby Face Nelson (real name Lester M. Gillis) benefits enormously from its low-fi production values. The result is a suitably gritty black-and-white film about, as we are told in the opening titles, “Jazz, Jalopies, Prohibition and Trigger Happy Punks” that looks like it could have been made in the 1930s (although the jazzy score by composer and band-leader Van Alexander is decidedly 1950s).

The Production Code had recently lifted a ban on dramatising the lives of real criminals. Producer Al Zimbalist formed ZS Productions with Shulman to make a film based on the latter's unpublished novel about the mobster. Eventually they partnered with Mickey Rooney's Fryman Enterprises to make the movie with Rooney in the lead role and Don Siegel directing.

Rooney, who had been a huge star in the 1940s thanks to his boy-next-door persona in a series of Andy Hardy movies but whose reputation was fading by this time gives a career-best performance as the sociopathic and increasingly desperate and dangerous gangster, one who makes James Cagney’s Cody Jarrett in White Heat (1949) look level-headed. And yes that is Carolyn Jones (who had been in Invasion) who would later find fame as Morticia Addams in the cult 1960s sit-com, The Addams Family, as Nelson’s devoted moll. Also noteworthy is a winning turn from Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the familiar part of an alcoholic gangland doctor.

Given Siegel's focus on Nelson's viciousness and his ignominious demise it is ironic that J. Edgar Hoover, to whom the film is dedicated as Head of the FBI, denounced it as glamorizing criminal behaviour. The film was a commercial success and gave Rooney a new lease of screen life playing tough guys.




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