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.

Burt Lancaster is our Secret Service agent, newly reassigned to New York to help catch Mister 880. He usually goes after much bigger fish and finds the whole failed investigation rather silly. We get a look at detective work without computers or modern forensics. We are immersed, as Burt Lancaster is, in an office with wooden furniture, and an immense wall of file cabinets. Investigation, it seems, is done in large measure through long nights of smoking under gooseneck lamps, turning the pages in the file folder that were typed on a manual typewriter, studying pins in maps on the wall.

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.

He brings his latest junk find, a small replica of a spinning wheel, to his friend who lives in the apartment below. She is played by Dorothy McGuire, and we see she has a mutually protective relationship with the old gent. He is grandfatherly, and he brings her presents, and she tries to take care of him. When she slips him five bucks for the spinning wheel, he insists it’s not worth much, and put two dollars in change back into her purse. They are both proud.

Dorothy McGuire brings her special radiance to this role of an independent single woman in the big city. Interestingly, she is employed as French interpreter at the United Nations. She wears a fetching black beret over her early ‘50s “poodle” haircut, and that’s cachet enough.

The UN doesn’t really play a big factor in the plot of this movie (though there is an interesting clip of footage that shows the General Assembly in discussion), so I’m not sure why they didn’t just make her a secretary in some corporation. I can only assume that since the UN was still shiny new and seen as the best hope for world survival in the nuclear age, coupled with the idea that it gives Miss McGuire a kind of intelligent Liberal √©lan that makes her seem more genteel than secretaries were often portrayed -- that all this makes her moral dilemma more acute when confronted by making a choice between right and wrong. She is supposed to stand for justice, not look for ways to circumvent it.

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.

It is most patiently set up for us. Millard Mitchell, that perennial jaded editor, gumshoe, etc., is Burt Lancaster’s partner. They stage a “meet” between Lancaster and McGuire when Mr. Mitchell pretends to be a masher from whom casual passer-by Lancaster must defend Dorothy McGuire. This all happens outside an art gallery. They are on the outside in front of the plate glass window, and we are on the inside, so the assault is all done in pantomime.

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.

She is even more intrigued when she discovers their meeting was no accident, but was a set-up. At first uneasy, then determined to learn more about him we watch her own clear-headed and logical detective work until she traces Lancaster to the Secret Service. The possibility of being under investigation for passing phony money, when she knows she is innocent, is amusing to her, so she strings him along and pretends to be a big-time counterfeiter.

Though we might cringe at Lancaster’s fixing the lock on her apartment door so that Millard Mitchell can sneak in while they are out on a date -- search warrants mean nothing to the movies -- Lancaster quickly surmises she is not Mister 880. From here, their relationship, which is playful and flirtatious, expands and they fall in love. Though she is no longer under suspicion, the only impediment to their relationship remains Mister 880, in Lancaster’s dogged pursuit of him. He is like Inspector Javert, and at one point, McGuire muses, “I could very easily learn to dislike you.”

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.

Miss McGuire’s apartment is, I think, an example of the home matching the personality of the character. Not that this was entirely rare in movies of the day, but so often we see Typical Female Apartment with lots of frills and white phones and grand pianos that it is a pleasant change to see a couple of low bookcases that look like real books and not wall paneling planted there for effect by an interior decorator, a small apartment where the bedroom is right off the living room, (with the bed teasing us through the open door), delicate, tasteful artwork on muted walls, the rattan shade under which we peek out at the building beyond (reminds me a little of Rear Window), and a hardly noticeable United Nations art poster in the corner. Not only does it look like someone lives here, it looks like Dorothy McGuire lives here.

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.

Then it dawns on Dorothy McGuire that those two fake one dollar bills were put into her purse that night by Gwenn. Now she knows he is Mister 880.

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.

She doesn’t have to. Smart guy, he figured it out himself. She and Burt exchange a silent, grim look of accusation between them when he passes by her to go up to the attic apartment. She does not stop him. She is weakened by her own culpability.

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.

We have a trial scene, but unlike the famous trial scene in Miracle on 34th Street where Mr. Gwenn is freed on a comic deus ex machina, the ending here is more realistic. Just as the beginning of the movie is curious mixture of playful credits soberly contradicted by a grim voiceover, the ending of the movie is serious, tempered by warmhearted gestures.

It is brought up by Burt Lancaster, who goes to bat at the 11th hour for Mr. Gwenn, that Gwenn won a naval commendation in World War I. See the black photo-negative “Photostat” he presents to the judge in the days just before Xerox was printing out white paper xerographic copies. Some of you with fathers or grandfathers who served in World War II may have black Photostat copies of discharge papers, along with the typed original. This movie unconsciously documents for us the last days of the Photostat.

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.

At the very end of the film, when court officers are leading Gwenn off, Dorothy McGuire, after releasing him from a hug, reaches out to comb down with her fingers a wisp of his white hair at the back of his head. It’s quite unnecessary, and quite charming. A final comforting gesture to the old gentleman, who may be entirely unaware of it as he shuffles away to face the wrath of the government of the United States.


Caftan Woman said...

My late father used to mention this as a favourite movie whenever Edmund Gwenn would show up in another feature.

After reading your insights, I hope to catch up with it soon.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

It's a nice little movie, and I hope you get a chance to see it. Talk about flying under the radar, though -- I don't think it's shown that often, and I don't know the DVD status.

Grand Old Movies said...

I remember this as a charming, slight movie, with an incredibly charming performance by the delightful McGuire (who really came across as an intelligent, sophisticated woman). You make an excellent point about how the film tries to balance a whimsical point of view with the seriousness of the issue of counterfeiting. But I bet Edmund Gwenn's presence would help soften any gruff Treasury agent. Enjoyed your terrific piece!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for stopping by. I agree Edmund Gwenn is a sweet old fellow who steals hearts better than he counterfeits.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqueline, how have I missed this - the wonderful cast, interesting story. You have intrigued me enough to try to find it! Doesn't it figure that The Man would go to all that trouble for one little guy using $1 bills at tobacco stores? I guess I'm still a child of the 60's.

Hope I can find this one somewhere. (Oh, and I LOVE your description of Dorothy McGuire's apartment - wonderful!)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Becky. I guess this is considered only a minor film in the careers of the three leads, but I do think it deserves more notice. I hope you get to see it soon. I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Rick29 said...

Splendid review of a movie I haven't seen in a long time. Edmund Gwenn was a fine actor and just doesn't get the attention he deserves (excerpt at Christmas). I watched him last WEEK in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, in which he was wonderful as Elizabeth's father. One of my favorite Gwenn performances was in BETWEEN TWO WORLDS.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Rick. I also like Gwenn's performance in "Pride & Prejudice", one of the best Mr. Bennetts. I don't think I've seen "Between Two Worlds". I'll have to keep my eyes open for that one.

ClassicBecky said...

Rick and Jacqueline - Gwenn was indeed the BEST Mr. Bennet. And I had forgotten about Between Two Worlds. I like that movie a lot, and he was so good. I don't have that in my collection -- have to look elsewhere - I'd love to see it again!

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