NOT Available On DVD – BABY FACE NELSON
Director Don Siegel’s low-budget 1957 crime drama BABY FACE NELSON is a fast -paced portrait of a cold-blooded, trigger-happy sociopath with a memorable mad-dog performance by Mickey Rooney in the title role and is a film that deserves to be rediscovered.
Baby Face Nelson (real name Lester Gillis) was a petty thief who gained much celebrity (and a spot on the FBI’s 10 most wanted list) when he joined John Dillinger’s gang in 1933. BABY FACE NELSON opens with Nelson being approached to kill a union boss. He refuses, is framed for the murder anyway, sent to jail, escapes, and gets bloody revenge on the men who framed him. His loyal girlfriend Sue is with him when he robs a pharmacy and Nelson is shot. Sue drives him to a country hospital run by a crooked underworld doctor. It’s here that Nelson meets Dillinger and joins his crew. The balance of the film follows Nelson’s adventures with Dillinger’s gang robbing banks and shooting people and chronicles Nelson’s ascension as leader of the gang after Dillinger is killed. Nelson’s story comes to an end when two small boys spot him in his countryside hideout and the police close in. Baby Face gets Sue, the only one who ever loved him, to kill him before the cops can. I’m not sure how historically accurate BABY FACE NELSON is, but the pint-sized Rooney certainly looks the part and the movie gets a lot of mileage contrasting the suave, gentlemanly Dillinger (a dapper Leo Gordon) and the twitchy, rabid Nelson.
BABY FACE NELSON boasts a fun B-movie cast. Carolyn Jones (who costarred in Siegel’s INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS the year before and later gained immortality as Morticia on THE ADDAMS FAMILY), never sexier with black bangs, is convincing as Nelson’s devoted moll Sue, the type of woman who’s sweet on the surface but strangely attracted to dangerous men. Their relationship is central to the story and reminded me of that of John Dahl and Peggy Cummins in GUN CRAZY with the genders reversed (the GUN CRAZY comparison is also evident in it’s bleak, table-turning conclusion). Universal Horror alum Cedric Hardwick is superb as the sleazy, drug-addled plastic surgeon Doctor Saunders, doomed when he can’t keep his hands off of Sue. Jack Elam, Elisha Cook Jr., and Dabbs Greer round out a cast of familiar 50′s character actors. But it’s Mickey Rooney, cast against type and completely unsympathetic, who owns BABY FACE NELSON. His Nelson is sneering and hateful, unable to control his ugly temper. This demented desperado neither wants nor receives redemption, and I hope that 1957 audiences, who grew up with Rooney as Andy Hardy, were horrified. (Rooney would play another vicious hood two years later in the harsh prison film THE LAST MILE, another movie nearly impossible to find now)
Shot economically in 14 days, BABY FACE NELSON is more than just a tense little period piece. It moves like lightning, has a finger-snapping wall-to-wall jazz score, and is unrelenting and cynical in its portrayal of violence towards the innocent (not too surprising from the man who would go on to direct DIRTY HARRY). A forgotten mini-masterpiece, I would highly recommend adding BABY FACE NELSON to your Netflix queue immediately but I can’t because it’s…..NOT available on DVD!