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Flashback: on 1958’s The Cry Baby Killer

One year ago today I posted a tribute to Jack Nicholson in honor of my favorite actor on the occasion of his 75th birthday. That feature chronicled his acting career during the point where he reached superstardom, and covered six of his most iconic film roles—5 of which he was nominated for the Academy Award(finally winning Best Actor for 1975’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). Well, today is Jack’s 76th birthday—but I’m not going to talk about any of his great screen performances. Instead, I’ll share my impressions of my very first watch, of the then 21 year-old Nicholson’s screen debut. And that would be as Jimmy Wallace in the low-budget, Roger Corman-produced 1958 movie, “The Cry Baby Killer”. We’re a long way from 1974’s “Chinatown” folks, but Jack completists will certainly have a blast.

“The Cry Baby Killer” opens with teenage Jimmy(Mr. Nicholson)attempting to win back his girl Carole(a very pretty Carolyn Mitchell, who ironically would meet her own tragic end just a few years down the line—google it)at a local hang-out. Seems Carolyn has gone “bad” and linked up with town hoodlum Manny(Brett Halsey). When Jimmy is rebuffed by Carolyn and threatened by Manny, a confrontation ensues with Manny and his thugs in the parking lot of the joint. They pull a gun on Jimmy, who manages to get a hold of it, and shoots a couple of the bad guys—including Manny. Scared and confused, Jimmy decides to hide out in the stock room of the hangout. Little does he know that, when the bullets started flying, a cook at the restaurant pulled a woman and her baby into the room for safety. So, inadvertently—Jimmy now has three “hostages”. When the police arrive, Lieutenant Porter(top-billed Harry Lauter)tries to negotiate with the frightened Jimmy—eventually bringing in the teen’s mom and dad to talk with him over a bullhorn. Soon, a softening Carole even attempts to talk Jimmy into releasing the hostages and turning himself in—fearing he’ll end up shot and killed by the police. And when the local media descends on the area, the situation threatens to spiral out of control.

Is “The Cry Baby Killer” a good film? Absolutely not. But it’s actually a little better than expected, and shows a heavy influence from 1956’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and the spectre of James Dean. Roger Corman claims that he was auditing a drama class so he could learn a bit more about performing, when he spotted Nicholson as a student. He thought Jack was the best actor of the group, took a liking to him, and cast him in this film. Nicholson lovers owe a great deal of gratitude to Mr. Corman(as do Martin Scorsese fans, Francis Ford Coppola fanatics, and a slew of other giants—do the research), not only for “discovering” him, but for continuing to employ him deep into the 1960’s. Among others, Jack has a legendary bit in the 1960 Corman-directed “The Little Shop of Horrors”. Nicholson would also co-star with aging horror legend Boris Karloff in 1963’s “The Raven” and “The Terror”—both helmed by Corman. And Corman would produce the 1965 western “Ride in the Whirlwind”, which not only included Jack amongst its principal players, but was from a screenplay penned by the actor as well. It was an almost decade-long relationship that culminated with 1967’s “The Trip”(also a Nicholson script). In 1968, Jack was cast in what would become the 1969 smash “Easy Rider”, from the director/writer/star team of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda…and the rest is history. But it all began here, with a little 61-minute B-movie that would seem to be a perfect fit for a late 1950’s drive-in co-feature. And, of course, Jack would get to try out his leering maniac routine right from the get-go as the gun-toting Jimmy Wallace. If you love Nicholson like me, you’ve got to visit his debut at least once. It’s a 55 year-old nostalgia piece, which would be completely forgotten by now—if not for the presence of its future “star”. And Happy Birthday, Jack!      Grade:  C+

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