Friday, 27 February 2015

BABY FACE NELSON












d. Don Siegel (1957)


Americans love outlaws, and cinema, so it's not surprising that most notable American criminals have been commemorated on film. Yet these notorious people, whether they are Jesse James or John Dillinger, Butch and Sundance or Bonnie and Clyde, have something else in common besides celluloid immortality: they're all scum bags. Despite the glamour and mythology that springs up around them, outlaws are very rarely Robin Hood style philanthropists, or even oppressed people striking a blow against the system. Instead they are usually violent criminals, ruthless, amoral people who steal and kill and spread misery and fear: fascinating but not exactly admirable. 

Take Lester Gillis aka Baby Face Nelson, as played here by Mickey Rooney. This character has but one redeeming feature, the love of a beautiful woman (Carolyn Jones). By the end of the film, even she is becoming sickened by his blood lust and, it would seem, his death wish. Nelson is a monster, no-one is safe around him and no matter how much money he steals, how many people he kills, he never stops, he can't stop. The real Nelson died after being shot seventeen times. Even then he managed to make it home and die in his bed, a defiant final 'fuck you' to the world. Here, his wife administers the coup de grace in a graveyard after he is fatally wounded, which is a more obviously dramatic finale, but a less satisfying one.

Director for hire Don Siegel doesn't particularly distinguish himself here, but he keeps everything moving. Outlaws life stories always seem to have a kind of fatal momentum, anyway, a short, quick charge to death or imprisonment. Rooney is far too old to play Nelson (Nelson was dead at 25, Rooney is pushing 40) but has the right look and the right stature (throughout Nelson is referred to as 'shrimp' or, ironically, 'the big man' - he doesn't like it). His performance has two gears, a sort of closed off auto pilot that allows him to function on a day to day basis, and a murderous, explosive anger that drives him onwards. This uncontrollable ire is the focus of one of Siegel's few directorial flourishes, a big close up on Nelson's face as he swears revenge, his right eye twitching involuntarily with rage.       

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