Mr. 880 (Edmund Goulding, USA, 1950)

mister 880

 

 

A gentle, agreeable, if inconsequential romance about Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster), a Secret Service agent on the hunt for a counterfeiter known as Mr. 880. The number refers to the Secret Service case file. The Mr. is the honorific bestowed on the case due to it having been open for more than ten years with no progress made on finding the perpetrator.

boodle-of-queer1

Steve discovers Anne (Dorothy McGuire), a glamorous  UN translator, passing on a fake dollar bill and decides to get to know her better as a means of tracing who she’s in contact with and how she might have acquired the bill. They fall for each other but their romance comes under stress when they find out the counterfeiter is nice, gentle Skipper Miller (Edmund Gwenn), Anne’s neighbour, so kind and good he only passes on a dollar bill at a time, taking care to spread them through different parts of New York so no shop-keeper takes too much of a punishment, and often giving them away to neighbourhood children.

Gwenn is all twinkle here.  As a child I loved him as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. But the  sugariness with which the character is conceptualised here can stick in the throat a bit, though Goulding directs with tact and prevents him from being too twee.  Lancaster and  McGuire play well off each other and Goulding stages the whole film inventively. I particularly liked a scene where Lancaster tricks Mcguire into a meet cute by faking a fight with his pal, all shot from the inside of an antique shop where the audience can’t hear what is being said (see above). There is also really interesting imagery as, for example, the UN sequences (see below).

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 14.58.44

The film is visually interseting.  See for example, the shot below with  Gwenn in the foreground outside a shop with Lancaster inside, waiting for the counterfeiter he knows only by actions rather than by face.

Screenshot 2020-04-02 at 15.05.26

Mr. 880 was a minor success in its time and  an agreeable watch now,  if no more than that. My main interest is in seeing Lancaster in a transitional phase of his persona, moving on from the film noir years onto his teeth and muscle roles (The Flame and the Arrow, The Crimson Pirate) and pausing here for a moment in 1950 as, in Dorothy McGuire’s words, ‘the man girls like to whistle at’. See below for proof:

 

 

According to Matthew Kennedy in Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory, ‘(Darryl F.) Zanuck was forever hovering about. “Every day Darryl Zanuck sent down a memo about the previous day’s rushed, and it contained the most brilliant analysis of what was wrong  and what was right about what we had done,” said Lancaster Zanuck’s involvement didn’t turn Mister 880 into a masterpiece, however. It bogs down with Gwenn’s stalwart amiability, and with the banality of the love story. How much richer Mister 880 might have been had Gwenn had just a trace of malice in him. As is, we are dared not to root for him. As Mister 880 is set up, that like kicking puppies or swearing at nuns’ (p.260).

José Arroyo

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