On Jack Nicholson in The Cry Baby Killer (1958): “Hi, Mom.”

In the late 1950s, producer/director Roger Corman took an acting class. He wanted to get a better understanding of the actors’ process. (A good tip for directors, by the way.) There was a young actor in the class named Jack Nicholson and Corman thought he was far and away the best of the bunch. It was through that association that Nicholson got the lead in the Corman-produced Cry Baby Killer in 1958. It was Nicholson’s debut. He was 21 years old.

Nicholson plays Jimmy Wallace, a basically good kid who goes nuts when his girlfriend throws him over for the local thug-bad-boy. Jimmy fights a bunch of goons in the parking lot of a seedy club known for serving alcohol to minors. The kids fight with brass knuckles, but one goon has a gun, and in the scuffle, Jimmy grabs it. Also in the scuffle, the gun goes off, and one of the goons is shot in the stomach. Because of the club’s bad reputation, cops are already on the premises, and they race to the scene. Jimmy backs into a nearby storeroom and slams the door, not realizing that there are already a couple of people in the storeroom, a kitchen worker as well as a woman with a baby. What was a standoff with police has escalated into a Hostage Situation.

Filmed almost entirely in real-time, except for the opening sequence, Cry Baby Killer shows the situation unfolding, cops improvising solutions, crowds and media gathering, Jimmy’s devastated parents hovering, witnesses questioned … everything intensified because now a baby is involved. Jimmy, caught up in a crisis of his own making, is in way way over his head. He is afraid if he opens the door of the storeroom he will go down in a blaze of bullets. “I’m not ready for that!” he cries.

Directed by Justus Addis, Cry Baby Killer takes place at night, every scene drenched in shadow. Primarily a television director, Addis keeps the pace moving, but knows when to insert small human moments which add texture and characterization. He keeps the melodrama to a minimum. It plays like a hard-boiled cop show, without the histrionic “what is the youth of today coming to??” vibe of other contemporaneous films about teens-gone-wild. Because of the lack of hysteria, the film has dated quite well (unlike, oh, say, Too Soon To Love, which seems like it comes from another planet, let alone another generation). As a matter of fact, Cry Baby Killer calls to mind our current 24-hour news cycle, with the press racing to the various scenes, providing real-time updates (even if nothing is happening), as well as the mob mentality of people watching at home. At one point during the standoff, a guy shows up with a hotdog stand, and the folks behind the police barricade crowd around to buy hotdogs. A media circus. The spectators put on a show of being horrified, but really they are there to see blood spilled. At one point, the TV reporter (played by Roger Corman) interviews people in the crowd even though they have nothing to add or offer. One woman giggles and says, “Am I really on TV?” One guy seethes into the microphone, “These kids today, I tell ya, if I had done something like this when my father was alive, he would have set me straight.” Useless commentary from nobodies. But hey, the cameras are there, and the reporter has to report something.

With a fine script by Leo Gordon, all of the characters are, if not fleshed out, then clear: the sleazy nightclub owner (Frank Richards) and his slick mob lawyer, the no-nonsense middle-aged waitress at the joint (played beautifully by Lynn Cartwright) and the camaraderie (perhaps love?) she shares with Officer Gannon (John Shay), the cop who works the beat outside the club. Tough Lieutenant Porter (Harry Lauter), organizing the police response, notices Julie touch Gannon’s arm at one point, and he glances at another cop and says, “Gannon’s in love. For the first time in his life. And he has to pick a time like this.” I liked the script for these little human details.

Julie is allowed a moment of revelation, when she realizes she is part of the problem. She works at this terrible joint, doesn’t she? How can she sleep at night knowing her employment supports a crooked operation? Being a widow with kids is no excuse, ethically. Unlike many of the other more directly-related participants, she is willing to see her own part in it. An insightful element to the script. Whose fault is it? It’s the question everyone asks, demanding instant answers. We still see that today, when tragedies like school shootings unfold. Why wasn’t this stopped? Jimmy comes from a good home. He’s a good kid. What did his parents do wrong? There is such a thing as a “perfect storm”, different factors spiraling into a whirlpool. It’s never just one thing at fault. The cops, hovering outside the storeroom, blame Carole, the unfaithful girlfriend. Carole is played by Carolyn Mitchell (an actress with an interesting crazy life and a tragic end). Held in the club as a witness, she is not allowed to speak to Jimmy via the megaphone. “Haven’t you said enough to him already?” growls one of the cops.

There’s a terrific confrontation between Jimmy’s parents and Mr. Maxton, husband to the woman being held hostage in the storeroom. When Jimmy’s parents arrive, Jimmy’s mother says to Mr. Maxton, “Oh, Mr. Maxton, I’m so sorry.” Mr. Maxton, out of his mind with worry, snaps, “You’re sorry?” Jimmy’s mother says, “Our baby’s in there too.” This, does not go over well. Their “baby” is a criminal. If their son dies in a shootout, is it tragic or is it justice? How dare she compare her child to his baby, held hostage in there?

I love the guy in the crowd who says, “Bet the fire department will be coming down soon”, and a nearby woman asks, “Why?” and he looks at her with scorn and says, “Don’t you watch TV, lady?” Yes. He knows how these procedures go! He saw it on TV!

Nicholson is an intense young actor, hunched over, coiled, uptight. There is not a smidgeon of humor in his performance, unnerving since Nicholson’s humor became such a big part of his persona, what he brought to the table once he was a star. Here, he’s all nerves and tension (a lot of it is clearly inexperienced-actor-trying-to-make-an-impression tension). Jimmy is a kid at the end of his rope. He just needs to talk to Carole, but her thug boyfriend won’t let him near her. Early on in the movie, before the standoff, he has confrontations with his friends, etc., and he tends to stand hunched forward, his breath coming shallow, his eyes blinking rapidly. This is a conscious effort, it’s all about “showing” the character’s inner emotions (no less effective because of that effort: Nicholson has a strange passion here that helps you overlook the sometimes-apparent strain). When Jimmy finds himself holed up with the three strangers, the real story begins. Barbara Knudson plays Mrs. Maxton, holding her sleeping baby, and the wonderful Smoki Whitfield plays Sam, the kindly kitchen worker. Sam is frightened of the gun, and of Jimmy’s impulsiveness, but he keeps enough presence of mind to try to manage the situation, and also to take care of Mrs. Maxton. At one point, he takes the baby from her – “Just long enough for you to get a rest,” he says – another example of the sensitivity to nuance in the script. Sam doesn’t plead for his own life, but he pleads for Jimmy to “let the woman and the baby go”, especially once the baby starts fussing.

Nicholson looks so slight, his shoulders narrow and hunched, and while he is young here, there is a slightly-grizzled aspect to him. Nicholson was never a starry-eyed youth. As my brother says, “He was born 35 years old.” It works for this part. He is troubled. Interior. And while it turns out that Nicholson is one of our most extroverted actors, period, here he internalizes all of his highly social energy into a whirlwind going on in his own mind. This makes him fascinating to watch.

Much of what he does here could have been done by any other young promising actor. It’s somewhat cliched: the tormented passionate youth, blinking rapidly and talking intensely. It’s a good performance, but it’s not, say, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, where Dean puts his own personal stamp on the character, so much so we cannot imagine another actor in the role.

However, Nicholson has two moments in particular which are quintessential “Jack”, moments where his individual talent shines through, and it yet again proves to me the truth of Stella Adler’s reply to the question “What is talent?”: “Talent is in the choice.” A lot of people don’t like her statement. How can talent only be in the CHOICE you make as an actor? I think she’s right, though. What you choose to express and how … is a measure of your talent. Think of, say, Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire (don’t call him “Actors Studio” or “Method” by the way. If you do, I will know you do not know what you are talking about, and you haven’t done even the BASIC level of research required. Brando studied – sort of – with Adler. She said she taught him nothing. Or, to let her speak for herself: “Sending Marlon Brando to acting class was like sending a tiger to jungle school.”). Brando has a moment in the film, during an argument with Stella, when he delicately plucks a piece of fluff off of her sweater. What other actor would “choose” such a gesture with a character like Stanley? What other actor would “choose” to give Stanley the freedom to be not just one thing (a brute), but also many things (a considerate husband, capable of great gentleness)? Brando himself probably did not experience the moment as a conscious ‘choice’; he didn’t sit down the night before filming and think, “On this line, I will pluck a piece of fluff off of Kim Hunter’s sweater.” But it was indeed a “choice”, conscious or no, to allow Stanley Kowalski the freedom to be that gentle. Brando excluded nothing. Other actors exclude things from their performances all the time, and justify it with the age-old: “My character wouldn’t do that.”

Nicholson, here, is playing a certain type of role: an intense lovelorn boy, and so his behavior follows in a manner we recognize, there are no surprises. But, as I mentioned, there are two moments where you can see him “exclude nothing”, and “allow” for anything. He has not made limiting decisions about the character. He has not said, “Jimmy wouldn’t do that.” And this is what I believe Adler was talking about, when she talks about talent being in the choice. Choices are made every step of the way when one develops a character. Some are conscious, some are not. But when an actor excludes, as opposed to includes … he can get into trouble, he reveals himself as one with a cliched and general mind. Being “general” is death to good acting, and there are no exceptions.

Nicholson’s first moment of this kind is when his mother screams through the megaphone: “Jimmy, we’re not angry, please come out, Jimmy, let those people go, please come out and let’s talk about this!” The camera shows the mother with the megaphone, and then there is a cut to a close-up of Nicholson’s face. At the sound of his mother’s voice, something softens in him, the muscles of his face slacken. This makes him seem rather mad, like Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’s M manipulating his face while looking in the mirror, a personality with the edges blunted. At sound of his mother’s voice, Nicholson is no longer coiled-up with the two hostages; suddenly, he floats off into the world Before all this happened … Slowly, without looking out the window, he stands, lost in his own short past. He says quietly, to himself, “Hi, Mom.”

It is a beautiful and chilling moment, and more than any other scene shows the gap in his life, shows how from this point on nothing will ever be the same for him. “Hi, Mom,” says Nicholson, with a slack soft face, his edges dulled, his pain flowing out of him, alarmingly. He slowly and dully walks to the window. Terrific moment.

The other moment comes when Carole finally convinces the cops to let her talk to Jimmy. She screams, in a frenzy, “Jimmy, please, please, come out, let’s talk, PLEASE come out!”

Nicholson, up against the wall when he hears her voice, the only voice he has wanted to hear all this time, stops as if he’d been shot. Pain rushes into his face. Not the panic we have seen in him throughout, but real pain. The pain of lost love. Suddenly, he looks like a little boy. The lines that follow come out of him in a voice very different from what he has used all along, a voice which he has tried to make sound tough and commanding. Suddenly, at the sound her voice, his voice fills with desperate pleading, the voice of the Good Boy he used to be. He calls back, “Carole? I want to come out. That’s what I want to do!”

It’s the second “want” that nails the moment for me. He sounds so young. Nicholson doesn’t make the mistake of playing him as a calculating teen villain. He doesn’t “suddenly” have a change of heart; it is clear from the jump that Jimmy Wallace never meant for any of this to happen. He is ferocious with the hostages, but it’s only because he is completely unprepared to be a leader. He makes it up as he goes. When the baby starts crying, he melts a little bit: “I forgot about him being hungry. We can’t let him get hungry, can we?” he pleads.

And so when he cries out to Carole, “That’s what I want to do”, you believe it because Nicholson has been showing us that all along.

Nicholson’s ship wouldn’t come in for another 11 years, until Easy Rider in 1969. That’s a long time to wait when you are hungry and ambitious. But I think the wait worked in his favor. By the time he made that string of great movies in the 1970s – Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The King of Marvin Gardens, The Last Detail, Chinatown, The Passenger, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (I mean, WHAT? He made all of those movies in a 5-year period.) – he was in his 30s. He had grown into himself. He was a man, not a man-boy, not a young man. He was born 35 years old. He had been knocked around. He had no illusions. Once the pressure was off him to have to play “kids”, he could soar.

The time was right. It took a decade of waiting, though. Not many actors can withstand a wait like that. It’s heartbreaking. It’s financially punishing. But Nicholson endured, and when his moment came, he was ready.

But there are glimpses of it here in 1958. Watch the moment when his face goes slack, as he says to himself, speaking to his own past flashing before his eyes, “Hi, Mom”.

And listen to how he emphasizes the second “want”: “I want to come out, Carole. That’s what I want to do.”

It’s all there already.

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