Two years ago, there was a rumor that Jack Nicholson had announced his retirement from acting because he was starting to suffer from memory loss. Even though Nicholson’s people later claimed that this was false and that Jack was actively reading scripts, that rumor still left me feeling very depressed. Jack Nicholson is such an iconic actor that it’s difficult to think that there will be a time when he’ll no longer be arching his eyebrows and delivering sarcastic dialogue in that signature voice of his. When you look at a list of his films, you find yourself looking at some of the best and most memorable films ever made. Chinatown, The Shining, The Departed, The Shooting, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Nicholson has appeared in some truly great films.
But every actor, no matter how iconic he may be, had to start somewhere. For Jack Nicholson, that somewhere was the 1958 Roger Corman-produced film, The Cry Baby Killer. The good news is that the 21 year-old Nicholson starred in his very first film. The bad news is that there’s absolutely nothing about Jack’s performance that would give you any reason to believe that he would eventually become one of the best known and most-honored actors of all time. It’s not that Jack gives a bad performance. In fact, it’s somewhat disappointing that Jack doesn’t do a terrible job in the role. When you’re seeing the obscure film debut of a cinematic icon, you always hope that the first performance will either be amazingly good, shockingly bad, or just embarrassingly inappropriate. But, in Jack’s case, he’s neither good nor bad and he doesn’t really embarrass himself. Instead, he’s just bland.
Yes, you read that right.
Jack “HEEEEEEEEEERE’S JOHNNNNNNNY!” Nicholson was bland in his debut film.
As for the film itself, Jack plays Jimmy. We’re told that Jimmy is 17 years-old and he’s still in high school. (Since Jack Nicholson’s hairline was already receding at 21, we automatically have a difficult believing him in the role of Jimmy.) Jimmy’s a good kid but he’s kind of stupid. Also, his ex-girlfriend Carole (Carolyn Mitchell) is now dating an 18 year-old gangster named Manny Cole (played by Brett Halsey, who would later have a prolific career in Italian exploitation films as well as appearing in The Godfather, Part III). Jimmy confronts Manny. Manny has two of his thugs beat up Jimmy. Jimmy grabs a gun off a thug and shoots someone. Scared of going to jail, Jimmy runs into a store and takes three hostages — a stocker and a young mother with a baby.
The rest of the 70-minute film consists of an understanding policeman (Harry Lauter) trying to convince Jimmy to surrender while the crowd of reporters and observes outside the store hope for a violent confrontation. The film does make a still-relevant point about how the media exploits the potential for tragedy but, for the most part, it’s pretty forgettable.
As I stated above, Jack is adequate but forgettable. If I had seen this movie when it first came out in 1958, I would have expected handsome and charismatic Brett Halsey to become a huge star while I would have predicted that Nicholson would spend the rest of his career in television.
However, we all know that didn’t happen. Jack Nicholson became an icon. Sadly, Jack hasn’t appeared in a film since 2010. Hopefully, he’ll give us at least one more great performance. Who knows? Maybe some aspiring screenwriter will write as script for Cry Baby Killer 2: Jimmy’s Revenge.
It could happen.