A Movie A Day #126: Baby Face Nelson (1957, directed by Don Siegel)


The place is Chicago.  The time is the era of Prohibition.  The head of the Chicago Outfit, Rocca (Ted de Corsia), has arranged for a career criminal named Lester Gillis (Mickey Rooney) to be released from prison.  A crack shot and all-around tough customer, Gillis has only two insecurities: his diminutive height and his youthful appearance.  Rocca wants to use Gillis as a hit man but Gillis prefers to rob banks.  When Rocca attempts to frame Gillis for a murder, Gillis first guns down his former benefactor and then goes on the run with his girlfriend, Sue Nelson (Carolyn Jones).  Because they are both patients of the same underworld doctor (played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Gillis eventually meets public enemy number one, John Dillinger (Leo Gordon).  Joining Dillinger’s gang, Gillis becomes a famous bank robber and is saddled with a nickname that he hates: Baby Face Nelson.

While it is true that Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis was an associate of John Dillinger’s and supposedly hated his nickname, the rest of this biopic is highly fictionalized.  The real Baby Face Nelson was a family man who, when he went on the run, took his wife and two children with him.  While he did get his start running with a Chicago street gang, there is also no evidence that Nelson was ever affiliated with the Chicago Outfit.  (The film’s Rocca is an obvious stand-in for Al Capone.)  In real life, it was Dillinger, having just recently escaped from jail, who hooked up with Nelson’s gang.  The film Nelson is jealous of Dillinger and wants to take over the gang but, in reality, the gang had no leader.  Because Nelson killed three FBI agents (more than any other criminal), he has developed a reputation for being one of the most dangerous of the Depression-era outlaws but, actually, he was no more violent than the typical 1930s bank robber.  Among the era’s outlaws, Dillinger was more unique for only having committed one murder over the course of his career.  In this film (and practically every other film that has featured Baby Face Nelson as a character), Nelson is a full on psychopath, one who even aims his gun at children.

Baby Face Nelson may be terrible history but it is still an excellent B-movie.  Don Siegel directs in his usual no-nonsense style and Mickey Rooney does a great job, playing Baby Face Nelson as a ruthless but insecure criminal with a perpetual chip on his shoulder.  As his fictional girlfriend, Carolyn Jones is both tough and sexy, a moll that any gangster would be lucky to have waiting for him back at the safe house.  B-movie veterans like Thayer David, Jack Elam, Elisha Cook Jr., and John Hoyt all have colorful supporting roles but the most unexpected name in the cast is that of Cedric Hardwicke, playing an alcoholic surgeon with broken down dignity.

Don’t watch Baby Face Nelson for a history lesson.  Watch it for an entertaining B-masterpiece.

 

Cleaning Out The DVR #6: Watch On The Rhine (dir by Herman Shumlin)


After I finished watching Around The World In 80 Days, I decided to watch the 1943 film, Watch on the Rhine.  Though both films are immortalized in the record books as a multiple Oscar nominee, Watch on The Rhine might as well have taken place in a totally different universe from Around The World In 80 Days.  Based on a play by the always politically outspoken Lillian Hellman, Watch On The Rhine is as serious a film as Around The World In 80 Days is frivolous.

It’s also somewhat infamous for being the film for which Paul Lukas won an Oscar for best actor.  When Lukas won his Oscar, he defeated Humphrey Bogart, who was nominated for his iconic performance in Casablanca.  This is justifiably considered to be one of the biggest mistakes in Oscar history and, as a result, there are people who will tell you that Watch On The Rhine is a totally undeserving nominee, despite having never actually seen the film and not being totally sure who Paul Lukas was.

Up until I watched the film yesterday, you could have included me among those people.

What’s interesting is that Watch On The Rhine almost feels like a companion piece to Casablanca.  Both films were resolutely anti-fascist, both of them dealt with a member of the Resistance trying to escape from a German agent, and both films climaxed with a gunshot.  The part played by Paul Lukas, a German engineer named Kurt Muller, feels like he could be an older version of Casablanca‘s Victor Laszlo.  Finally, whereas Casablanca centered around “letters of transit,” Watch On The Rhine centers around money.  Kurt is smuggling money to the Resistance.  Teck de Brancovis (George Coulouris), a dissolute Romanian count, demands money in exchange for not informing the Germans of where Kurt’s location.

(Of course, both Casablanca’s letters and Watch on the Rhine’s money are an example of what Hitchcock called the MacGuffin.  The letters and the money are not important.  What’s important is that both films use the thriller format to inspire viewers to support the war effort.)

The film takes place in 1940, when America was still officially neutral.  Kurt and his American wife, Sara (Bette Davis), have secretly entered the United States through Mexico.  Officially, they are only visiting Sara’s brother (Donald Woods) and mother (Lucille Watson) in Washignton, D.C.  Unofficially, they are looking for political sanctuary.  However, Kurt still finds himself drawn back to Germany, especially after he finds out that one of his friends in the Resistance has been arrested by the Gestapo.

Not surprisingly, considering its theatrical origins, Watch On The Rhine is a very talky and a very stage-bound film.  Almost all of the action takes place in one location and a good deal of the film’s running time is devoted to Kurt giving speeches.  Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a complaint.  Though the film may have been released at the height of the war, the play was written at a time when America was still officially neutral and many elected officials were adamant that, even if it meant Hitler taking over the entire continent, America should never get involved in the affairs of Europe.  Watch On The Rhine was Hellman’s attempt to both expose what was happening in Germany and to rally them to the anti-fascist cause.  Watch On The Rhine may be propaganda but its anti-Nazi propaganda and who can’t appreciate the importance of that?

When it was originally released, Watch On The Rhine was sold as a Bette Davis vehicle.  To be honest, Davis doesn’t really do much in the film.  She supports her husband and she has a few sharp words for Teck but, otherwise, her role is definitely secondary to Paul Lukas.  Davis took the role because she believed in the film’s message.  It’s a good message and, for that matter, Watch On The Rhine is a pretty good film.  It’s well-acted, intelligently written, and perfectly paced.

But what about Paul Lukas’s Oscar?  Well, let’s state the obvious.  Humphrey Bogart should have won the award for Casablanca.  That doesn’t mean that Paul Lukas doesn’t give a worthy performance.  He originated the role on stage and he does a good job of bringing the character to life on film, bringing a sincere intensity to even the most stagey of Kurt’s monologues.  Whenever Lukas speaks, he’s explaining to the filmgoers why the U.S. must take a stand against Hitler and his followers.  Considering that Watch On The Rhine was released at the height of World War II, I imagine that this, more than anything, led to Lukas winning his Oscar.

Watch On The Rhine was also nominated for Best Picture.  It was deserved nomination but, in this case, the Academy made the right decision and gave the Oscar to Casablanca.