July 15, 2009

Baby Face Nelson (1957)

Simplicity in cinema is an underrated virtue. It is what the New Wave were striving towards- if they never quite got there with their arty Parisian view of the world and what increasingly directors strive to present. Reality or simplicity- the twin hopes of over subtle intellectuals is to reach something real or something simple- to reduce the world to a theorem and find a law which explains circumstance. On screen that can take the form of Breathless, a film about a girl and a gun, or of the Dogme movement and Lars von Trier- but both of those instances are actually complex. The first the work of a film theoretician (Goddard) trying to reduce film into its purest elements- the second the work of a self conscious auteur who wants to force constriction on his medium to stimulate creativity. No, for simplicity in cinema and its attendant virtues, you should turn to a film like Baby Face Nelson- made for no budget by Don Speigel in 1957, starring Mickey Rooney and a mixture of character actors and actresses (the criminally underrated Elisha Cook Jr. amongst them) about the gangster of the same name. Baby Face Nelson was a real person- who shot and killed his way through the halls of American banks with the Dillinger gang- beyond those facts the film has little to do with his actual life, the name and that of Dillinger are useful hooks to hang the audience's anticipation upon.

Self consciously this is an anachronistic film. It begins as many of the thirties gangster films did with a voice over and a sociological announcement- about the virtues of the FBI, about the vices that the prison system hoped to cure. Then it dives into the action: Nelson has just been released from prison, a local Mr Big Rocco attempts to get him involved in crime, Nelson turns down the opportunity so Rocco implicates him in a murder and lets him take the rap for it. Nelson of course escapes prison and finds Rocco and shoots him as full of holes as a piece of Emmental cheese- then in a sanitarium run by an underworld doctor, he links up with the Dillinger gang. Add to that mixture one of the sexiest gangster molls ever- Sue- whose face is a perfect picture of her emotions and you have the classic ingredients of a gangster film. The voice over, the girl, the guns, the banks, the gangs- they are mixed together with style but without self conscious style- and over the top comes a jazz score which moves with the action but does not obstruct it.

The construction is simple- the point is simple too. Baby Face Nelson's character is uncomplicated but it does not really matter. The film knows its merits- it isn't there to be a sociological documentary but to entertain. To a certain degree it is a nostalgia piece- in 1957 the era of the Public Enemies was twenty years in the past and the film is anchored in a time where prohibition was as much a constant in American life as dark suits and black hats seemed to be for thirties cinematic criminals. It evokes the past but does not laud it. Indeed it goes at such a pace- the entire film is a mere 83 minutes that it does not have time to (note to aspiring directors, an entertaining film is often a short film!) That it condemns gangsters is as evident as the fact that it celebrates the verve and vigour of their lives- the audience like Nelson's girl feel his attraction and vitality- but we also see his brutality. The G-Men are portrayed as being sturdy and upright but no match for the little guy with the machine gun.

This film is pure and absolute fun- seldom have I seen a film which was such pure escapism. It is film making at its most simple- we go to the cinema to be excited and entertained- Baby Face Nelson does that as well as any film I know of.


Liz said...

Hi there. Interesting post. Just really wanted to say hello - and that I'm going to try to get my blog up and rolling again, along with another one when I can.

I noticed that a couple of other people who used to post on mine haven't written on theirs for a while either. Good to see you are still keeping at it!

Gracchi said...

Liz I'd love to see your blog up and running again- I just checked the link in yoru url and someone seems to have taken it over! But I really would like to see you back at it- you are a good blogger and I value your work.