An attempt by the late Mickey Rooney to redefine himself as a pugnaciously plebeian, gritty character actor, this is one of the brighter nuggets to be found in the silt of his mid-career. Baby Face Nelson sits neatly amongst a crop of ‘50s crime thrillers to cast back to the grand old days of Prohibition gangster action, a movement that cast up such diverse mementos as Some Like it Hot (1959) and TV’s The Untouchables (1959-63). Director Don Siegel, fresh off Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), picks up the slack and renders his take on Nelson a short, staccato blast of character cynicism that sets up a familiar take on the outlaw hero as tragic figure created by a cruel world, only to disassemble it as the film unfolds, stripping away illusions and excuses until the man's self-willed destructiveness is confirmed. Nelson, known for much of the film by his real name, Lester Gillis, is introduced being released from stir, determined to go straight. He’s collected at the gate by a former pal who works for a mob overlord, Rocca (Ted de Corsia), however, who wants him to kill a union boss. Gillis kisses him off, only to find himself set up for the crime anyway, with two cops beating on his door at midnight and finding a carefully placed gun in his toilet cistern. Gillis’ proto-Beatnik wife Sue (Carolyn Jones), who’s worked in a seedy gambling den during his incarceration, helps him escape custody, and he takes on her maiden name of Nelson as he plots revenge on Rocca. This he delivers from a hiding place at the top of a flight of stairs, raining death upon the boss and his henchmen, and then fleeing out into the concrete jungle to begin a campaign of violence and daring.
Siegel’s lean, coldly ironic analysis for the most part sidesteps the interest in punk psychology that drives Roger Corman’s similar Machine-Gun Kelly (1958). Introduced taking a righteous stand against killing a worker’s friend for corrupt interests, Nelson later holds off shooting a kidnapped banker because he’s another small man, both in stature and in worldly status. But this is portrayed less as a sentimental reflex for its antihero than as an islet of frustrated, even unwanted identification that momentarily checks his trigger-finger, for otherwise Siegel charts Nelson’s journey from stymied outcast to self-empowering sociopath. He’s first glimpsed as a black shadow cast upon brightly sunlit cement, and remains a negative image, taking to the Tommy gun with malignant pleasure in killing and a rodent-like determination to survive. Siegel’s fascination with characters who are exiles in their own land is clearly apparent (it shares Body Snatchers writer Daniel Mainwaring), as is his fascination with contradictions of law and order: the two cops who arrest Nelson take delight in clobbering him when he gets uppity, and like so many Siegel protagonists, Nelson has to work justice for himself, but casts aside his moral compass in doing so.
Rooney is terrific, betraying no trace of desire to charm the audience or showboat, but rather revelling cheerlessly in scabrous, self-castigating honesty. He plays Nelson as a wounded and wounding brat, sullenly furious at his lot, his “baby face” now mockingly gnome-like in pushing middle-age, knowing his chances for righting the cosmic books by any but the most entropic means have been cast away, and glumly committed to keeping hold of Sue, the one good thing in his life. Rooney’s famously excessive carnality, always buried on screen by his cutesy image, here finally finds expression in his and Jones meeting in blankly desirous bouts of suck-face, ripe with an unconcealed, mutual erotic need that was still rare in ‘50s film. Jones is equally good as Rooney, if not better, as the woman who knows she’s hooked up with a bad lot but is welded to him by force of erotic accord, and whose very presence in life both sates his innermost need but also presents endless challenges to his security. After knocking off Rocca, Nelson joins up with John Dillinger, played by Leo Gordon with bearish physical force and native intelligence, who quickly clocks Nelson as a loose cannon. The two men meet in the house of de-licenced surgeon, Doc Saunders (Cedric Hardwicke), who fishes a slug out of Nelson and rearranges Dillinger’s face for him. Nelson quickly fouls up one of Dillinger’s signature military-style robberies by cutting loose with the Tommy gun. Nelson spurns his would-be captain before the same can be done to him, by bypassing Dillinger in getting new leads on worthy heists from professional joint-caser Fatso Nagel (Jack Elam), before setting up his own gang.
Baby Face Nelson starts in the urban environments Siegel loved for his noir films, but the cheapness of the film bonsais his technique: this has the minimalist, sawn-off atmosphere of a lot of ‘50s noir films, which were often flung together on back-lots and cheaply dressed locations. Budget constraints mean that his 1920s cityscape is chiefly a place of squalid interiors – Nelson’s hotel room, the gambling den where Sue and he duck into a store room to make out whilst seeming to risk tetanus - staunching Siegel’s ability to invest the film with the same pervasive feel of nascent modernity’s alienating affect and vertiginous schisms he wields more effectively in The Line-Up (1958), whilst he stops short of taking the Nelsons out to the blasted heaths where his exiles tend to roam (The Big Steal, 1949, Coogan’s Bluff, 1968). The scene shifts rather to a portrait of the life of the fugitive guerilla gangster as the malaise of ill-gotten gains impossible to spend in boxy bungalows and forest cabins, replete with eddying frustration, only briefly, thrillingly interrupted by bouts of gunplay and besiegement. Thematic and visual overlaps with Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Public Enemies (2009) are vital. Moreover Siegel still works some brilliant miniature scenes, particularly in Nelson’s killing of Rocca and his goons, switching from high viewpoint with Nelson hiding around the corner as his prey mount the steps, then cutting to Nelson emerging in silhouette, blasting away, and then situating the camera beneath the steps, rendered a chasm of monochrome, down which twisted bodies plunge.
Hardwicke, whose name was usually used as a rubber stamp marked “class” on big-budget films, relishes playing the formerly prosperous and pretentious surgeon who’s fallen into disreputable company and likes it there as he can indulge his id, all but drooling over Jones’ glistening pins. Nelson finally tires of him when his attempt to remove Nelson’s fingerprints proves to be all pain and no gain, and he finishes up floating face-down in a black lake. Even Sue begins to lose faith in her man as a mere victim of circumstance when he readies himself to machine gun a pair of kids with a hunting squirrels in the woods if they come to close to his lair: “Lie to me,” she instructs her husband as she starts cooking dinner with subtly forced calm, “Tell me you wouldn’t have shot them.” This sets up the coup-de-grace, where Siegel offers his most interesting staging, as Nelson, bleeding from the mouth from a bullet in the gut, and Sue stumble their way through a graveyard, Siegel watching with a long remorseless tracking shot, until Nelson collapses against a tombstone carved with an epitaph that evokes the “World is Yours” punchline of Scarface (1932) without the irony.