Lester M. Gillis (Mickey Rooney) has an alias: Baby Face Nelson, given to him because of his features and short stature, but he is possessed of a temper which makes him unpredictable, dangerous even. He is in prison thanks to one of his crimes, Nelson preferring to turn to illegal means to get his money rather than work for it like the majority of men during the nineteen-thirties Depression, and though the scarcity of employment is the reason many have become criminals, he comes across as doing so because he enjoys it. Still, he'd rather be out of jail...
And his wish comes true when gangster boss Rocca (Ted de Corsia) springs him, apparently to persuade Nelson to perform a hit on a union leader who won't go along with Rocca's schemes. There was a real Baby Face Nelson of course, but this biopic opted to fictionalise much of his exploits for reasons best known to the filmmakers, though he emerges pretty much the same. Although movies set around the lives of the gangsters of the thirties tend to be overshadowed by Bonnie And Clyde in the late sixties, they were a regular fixture of cinemas for decades, often in low budget efforts such as director Don Siegel's production here.
There's no mistaking that this was not operating on a huge amount of money as for a start the period detail is lacking aside from the vintage cars and tommy guns - one character even sports a very fifties quiff - but it was an example of the psychological approach to criminals in such thrillers as these which had made James Cagney in White Heat so striking and influential a few years before this, and it's true Rooney's madman antics owed much to that star. Rooney had become famous as a beloved child perfomer before branching out into "Lets do the show right here!" musicals, but now he was nearing middle age, it was as if Hollywood wasn't quite sure what to do with him.
Thus he turned to crime, or his characters did, so when he wasn't being a comedic presence he was filling victims full of lead. In a way he was playing up to the stereotype of "small man syndrome" where it's believed they are barely suppressing a huge rage because of the trick Mother Nature has played on them by making them short; Rooney wasn't doing much to dispel this misconception by taking roles like this, and Siegel accentuated his height by placing him in the frame with actors who towered above him, making him often appear to be a toddler suffering tantrums rather than a deadly hoodlum. Yet somehow this wasn't supposed to be funny, in fact we're meant to be dreading his next outburst.
Carolyn Jones, the woman who launched a million Goth girls as Morticia in sixties sitcom The Addams Family, played Nelson's wife Sue, and even she is a little taller than her leading man, but she convincingly veered between doting over her beau and becoming frustrated with her lot, never settling down between robberies unless holing up in the latest rural hideout counted as settling, which it didn't. Such well known faces as Jack Elam, Cedric Hardwicke and Elisha Cook Jr also appeared, almost as if it were compulsory to have them show up in something like this, but it was really Rooney's movie all the way as he explosively cut a swathe through everyone else, even dismissing John Dillinger (Leo Gordon) as beneath him. So much was made of Nelson's size being what drove him to being a psychopath that it's a running joke: every so often someone will mention "elevator shoes" or make some reference to the villain's diminutive dimensions that reminds him he has a lot to make up for. Hence, more killing. Music by Van Alexander.