Thursday, August 25, 2011
Mister 880 - 1950
“Mister 880” (1950) ties criminality to a degree of whimsy. A sense of effortless charm is what drives this movie -- essentially about moral dilemma, yet there is no villain. There is only what happens when three decent people clash because of their sense of what is necessary and what is right.
Mister 880 is a nickname given to a counterfeiter the Secret Service has been trying to nab for years, always unsuccessfully. He seems to get away with it because he prints only small bills, usually $1 bills, and uses them sparingly in cigar stores and automats. He is no big-time crook, has not gotten away with millions to be sure, but just the fact that he cannot be caught is what irks the Feds. Especially since his fake bills are so badly made, including words that are misspelled.
The movie takes an intriguing balancing act between a serious examination of the threat to society by counterfeiters, while at the same time parodying the danger of this kind of theft. The opening credits look like US currency, starting the movie off as if it were a lighthearted parody; and yet moments later we have a stern voiceover narration on the Secret Service, which we are told is a branch of the Treasury Department and its two main functions: to protect the President and to stop counterfeiters. It is as if the movie warns us that while it is okay to cheer a little for a rogue misfit counterfeiter, it is not okay to laugh at the Secret Service.
We cut to a modest apartment house in a working class New York neighborhood. Edmund Gwenn plays a junk dealer, who lives in the shabby attic room. You might not recognize him at first. He is not the natty gentleman in spectacles with the upper class speech this time around, no soft-bearded Santa Claus, either. He is without spectacles, and his eyes are masked in a perpetual squint, and his face bears a gray shadow of having skipped his shave this morning. He also sounds as if he is missing dentures. Mr. Gwenn’s mumbled speech is always friendly, but being pre-occupied it is ever directed to some personal intention we cannot discern.
In certain scenes, his actions are accompanied by a tinny piano playing “Auld Lang Syne” like a funeral dirge, which labels him as an antiquated product from another era. Though he is meant to be an endearing character, there seems a leaden quality about Gwenn’s performance that walks the same fine line as the general tone of the movie -- what is heartwarming battles with some stern moral we are not allowed to miss. He is generally dismissed in his world by the other characters, having slipped under the radar by age and poverty, but when he catches their notice, they -- and we -- are forced to make a judgment about him.
Mr. Gwenn is Mister 880.
We learn that long before she does. When confronted by an overdue bill, Mr. Gwenn hauls out his small printing press, which he dubs “Cousin Henry” and prints a fresh laundry line of misspelled $1 bills. Because of his bad eyesight, he has accidently slipped two of them as change into Miss McGuire’s purse. When she starts passing them and the Secret Service can tell by the poor print job that this is Mister 880’s calling card, Burt Lancaster goes after her.
What could have been a slap-dash plot of spying on Dorothy McGuire actually becomes a delightfully sexy cat-and-mouse game, particularly when McGuire discovers she is under investigation.
Then Lancaster and McGuire go for a drink, and he charms her with that magical smile of his. They have good chemistry, and she is intrigued by this friendly Sir Lancelot.
Lancaster, despite his friendly ease and charm is almost puritanical in the sacred mission of his job. He has ideals of his own, and they are not bright, airy platitudes, but rock-hard judgment between what is lawful and what is not lawful.
Burt’s investigation heats up, but he is unaware that the kindly old codger friend of McGuire’s is his Mister 880. Talk about flying under the radar. They all end up at Coney Island on an outing, Burt and his men incognito to track their quarry, but Mister 880, though he has no idea he’s being pursued, still escapes.
Then comes the day Mr. Gwenn realizes the Feds are on his trail, though he does not know it’s his new pal, Burt Lancaster. He buries his printing press and vows to Sin No More. He won’t have to; Dorothy McGuire in the meantime arranges a janitor’s job for him because she worries about this guy in his 70s with no financial safety net. Safe under the radar, he prepares to enjoy the rest of his life free from suspicion or temptation.
She is crushed when she realizes he’s the criminal. He does not know she knows. Incongruously, he never tries to hide anything. He never lies or makes excuses. He simply lives in his own little world where he makes a conscious compromise to break the law in a way that will do as little damage as possible. Grim survival with a dash of benevolence.
Now Dorothy McGuire is the one who must make a conscious compromise between what is right and what is benevolent. She agonizes, and cannot bring herself to tell Burt.
Edmund Gwenn submits to arrest with the same pleasant vagueness that has sustained him through his declining years. The tense scene is agony not for him, but for McGuire and Lancaster, whose consciences, and whose relationship, are on the line.
Edmund Gwenn’s character could have been portrayed as more elfin by another actor, but his stubborn honesty, his rambling reasoning, and his capacity for creating a nuisance of himself are far more realistic and much more appealing than merely playing a cherubic grandpa. There is no twinkle in his eye; none that we can discern through his unending squinting.