Movie Madness and/or Mania: The Cry Baby Killer (Jus Addis, 1958)

I say this even as a devotee of 1950s JD movies: there is only one reason to see this one, and that is for a glimpse of a scrawny 20 year old Jack Nicholson, a decade before Easy Rider, before he fully grew into his face.

Produced by Roger Corman for Allied Artists, but directed by prolific TV director Jus Addiss (as far as I can tell this was his only theatrical feature), it starts promisingly enough, with the typical Corman opening credits of the era- freaky Modern Art and fake rock-and-roll. But (sadly) this is no Bucket of Blood.

The film opens with Jimmy Wallace (the larval Nicholson) getting beat up by rival delinquent Manny and his snickering, sublimated, sidekick. Manny retires to local all-night drive-in, where he has taken up with Jimmy’s former girlfriend, Carole.

Jimmy shows up for a rematch, and in the confusion the sidekick pulls a gun, Jimmy gets it away from him and shoots before holing up in the storage shed behind the restaurant, taking hostage the cook and a hapless tourist and her baby who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The cops and an opportunistic TV reporter with a mobile broadcasting truck from the improbably-named KQQQ lay siege to Jimmy and his hostages.

What even is this movie? Is it a social-problem movie about gangs and delinquency? Is it an Ace in the Hole-style critique of tabloid media circuses? Is it a cautionary tale about the dangers of permissive parenting? Is it commenting on the LAPD’s eagerness to use all of their fancy new riot gear?

What it is is very short- IMBD shows the running time at 70 minutes, my DVD listed it at 67, but even with a brief introduction by Corman, the credits rolled on my copy at the 59 minute mark.

Nonetheless, in manages to squeeze a lot into its running time, including a budding romance between the middle-aged carhop and the first police officer on the scene.

It also has a lot of scenery chewing by young Nicholson- if anything it is remembered for the scene when he freaks out and starts screaming at obviously fake crying baby he’s inadvertently taken hostage.

Nicholson aside, the quality of acting varies wildly- veteran TV actor Harry Lauter (as Det. Lt. Porter) and Lynn Cartwright (wife of screenwriter Leo Gordon, and I just learned “Old Dottie” in A League of Their Own!!!) are more than serviceable; veteran actor Smoki Whitfield, after decades of playing Pullman porters and witch doctors, is actually quite good as the quietly heroic cook who tries to talk Jimmy back from the edge.

…and on the other side are the rest of the delinquents, who all look middle-aged and noticeably stumble through their lines.

Also notable is the sound design, which is something you don’t notice unless it’s terrible, which it is. At one point dialogue that is supposed to be coming over a police radio is clearly just somebody standing off-camera and yelling.

How does it all end? Well, as the LAPD advances on the shack with tear gas at the ready, Carole (that faithless wench) gets on the bullhorn and persuades Jimmy to surrender, when he emerges still carrying the handgun she deflects the advancing officer’s rifle shot and runs into his arms. Crisis averted!

Did everyone learn a valuable lesson?

Yes, Detective Porter!

I guess everyone can go home then.

Availability: Long out of circulation, it finally got a home video release on DVD in 2006; bonus features include a brief intro by producer Corman, along with a colorized version of Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, which also features an early Nicholson performance and is a much better actual movie.

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