Mickey Rooney and Carolyn Jones in Baby Face Nelson (1957)


(director: Don Siegel; screenwriters: Irving Shulman/Daniel Mainwaring/from a story by Mr. Shulman; cinematographer: Hal Mohr; editor: Leon Barsche; music: Van Alexander; cast: Mickey Rooney (Lester M. ‘Baby Face Nelson’ Gillis), Carolyn Jones (Sue), Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Doc Saunders), Leo Gordon (John Dillinger), Ted De Corsia (Rocco), Anthony Caruso (John Hamilton), Jack Elam (Fatso Nagel), George E. Stone (Mr. Hall, Bank Manager); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Al Zimbalist; United Artists; 1957)

“Raw and twitchy gangster biopic about a thirties public enemy Number No. 1 is typical bang-bang stuff.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Don Siegel’s (“Charley Varrick”/”Riot in Cell Block 11″/”Dirty Harry”) raw and twitchy gangster biopic about a thirties public enemy Number No. 1 is typical bang-bang stuff but is fluidly shot. This low-budget crime story was made in 17 days and is an ugly portrayal of a violent self-destructive sociopath; it’s a revisionist and fragmentary presentation of Lester Gillis, known as Baby Face Nelson (Mickey Rooney). Rooney’s flowery performance as the trigger-happy hood with the inferiority complex over being short and the wall-to-wall action, give this Prohibition-era set B-film its pulse.

After low-level thug Lester Gillis is out of prison, he works for crime boss Rocco (Ted De Corsia) and makes a name for himself as a violent raging criminal. His gun moll Sue (Carolyn Jones) is loyally at his side, as he earns the nickname of Baby Face Nelson as he becomes an uncontrollable snarling killer. Rocco becomes afraid of him and sets him up, but a wounded Baby Face escapes with Sue after killing Rocco. Baby Face is treated by the shady alcoholic Doc Saunders (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who has a crush on Sue. This drives the jealous Baby Face nuts.

Baby Face joins up with John Dillinger (Leo Gordon), and when he gets it in front of the Chicago movie house he inherits the top spot on the FBI’s most wanted list. The bank heists and killing sprees continue, with Baby Face even gunning down Doc Saunders. It all comes to an end, in its most noir moment, when two small boys spot him in his countryside hideout and the police close in, and Baby Face gets Sue, the only one who ever cared for him, to kill the wounded animal before the cops do.