Baby Face Nelson (1957)

“The prison authorities and parole board were confident they had succeeded with Lester N. Gillis — soon to be better known as Baby Face Nelson.”

Baby Face Nelson Poster

Synopsis:
Famed Depression-era gangster “Baby Face Nelson” (Mickey Rooney) robs and kills while accompanied by his beautiful moll (Carolyn Jones).

Genres:

Review:
Baby Face Nelson received negative reviews upon its release, but has since been lauded by critics as a “vigorous crime thriller” with “anarchic energy” (see the Time Out review link below). On the whole, however, it remains a minor disappointment. While director Don Siegel handles the multiple action scenes well, they’re not particularly unique; and while Mickey Rooney does a fine job as Nelson, not nearly enough time is spent establishing the root of his character’s neuroses. In one nicely-done scene, Baby Face refrains from killing a bank manager simply because he’s just as short as him, offering an intriguing hint of the “little guy complex” which may have driven Nelson’s actions; unfortunately, this is never addressed again.

Carolyn Jones — Morticia on “The Addams Family” television show — emerges as the true find of the film: from the moment we see her pixie face on-screen (she reminds me of Bruce Willis’s lover — played by Maria de Medeiros — in Pulp Fiction), we realize how lucky Nelson was to have such a loyal and sexy moll by his side. Unfortunately, she’s an entirely fictional character. For a better gangster biopic made in the 1950s but taking place in the 1930s, see Dorothy Provine in The Bonnie Parker Story (1958).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carolyn Jones as Nelson’s loyal moll
    Jones
  • Mickey Rooney as the psychopathic Baby Face
    Rooney

Must See?
No. While it’s listed as a cult film in the back of Peary’s book — and has quite a few followers clamoring for its release onto DVD — I think it’s ultimately only must-see viewing for fans of gangster flicks, Don Siegel, and/or Mickey Rooney.

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2 Responses to “Baby Face Nelson (1957)”

  1. Not a must; in total agreement with the assessment here. Just seems standard stuff to me, so the (noted) subsequent praise by certain critics is puzzling. Not that it’s bad, just that there’s little particularly unique about it. Peary seems to have singled it out simply because it was directed by Siegel.

    Rooney is not called on to be more than one-dimensional. The supporting cast – esp. Jack Elam (somewhat amusing as ‘Fatso Nagel’), Cedric Hardwicke, Leo Gordon – keeps things interesting enough, as does Jones (who kept reminding me of Louise Brooks).

  2. My recollection of this film may be over-rosy, so I will not contradict the verdicts above, but I was impressed by it, and the scene where Nelson spares a man who shares his short stature has stuck in my mind over the decades. It’s a good and all too rare example of film conveying key psychological information subtly. A great performance by Rooney.

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