Mister 880 (1950)

Synopsis:

Secret Service agent Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster, Atlantic City) becomes obsessed with capturing an elusive counterfeiter dubbed “Mister 880.” However, unbeknownst to the agent, the “master criminal” he is looking for is in fact a pitiful old man named “Skipper” Miller (Edmund Gwenn, Miracle on 34th Street).

Reaction & Thoughts:

“Can’t say the man’s been greedy. I guess that’s why he’s been tough to catch.”

This is an offbeat little movie inspired by true events. Screenwriter Robert Riskin (Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day and Mr. Deeds goes to Town) took what’s essentially a crime story and turned it into a fable about social injustice in America — despite its lack of subtlety, Mister 880 is an affecting slice of life with a touch of whimsy.

I have a little routine regarding films based on true stories. After I finish watching a fact-based movie, I set time aside to read as much as I can about the actual events. Rather than getting angry at a film for not sticking to the facts, I take great delight in discovering differences between the movie and the real events.

As I was reading about the true case that inspired Mister 880, I was surprised to discover that most of the things I thought were a product of screenwriter Riskin’s mind did occur. This is a perfect example of reality being stranger than fiction. You just can’t make this up: the notorious counterfeiter who managed to elude the Treasury Department for more than ten years turned out to be an uneducated and penniless elderly man!

Riskin’s main challenge was to make the criminal a sympathetic figure without looking like he was condoning his behavior. What Riskin does with the material is rather genius: he turns the case of the most-wanted counterfeiter into a commentary on elderly disenfranchisement and economic inequality in America.

Mister 880 gets an extra boost from the small but wonderful cast. According to some sources, Burt Lancaster was so tired of playing two-bit hoodlums that he volunteered to play the determined Secret Service agent. Lancaster has wonderful chemistry with Dorothy McGuire (Gentlemen’s Agreement), who plays the U.N. interpreter he befriends during his investigation. But the film belongs to veteran British character actor Edmund Gwenn — he received an Oscar nomination for playing the title role.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

Mister 880 is like a Christmas movie that doesn’t take place during Christmastime (strangely enough, Auld Lang Syne plays during the opening credits). This is a surprisingly well-balanced comedy-drama — the movie clearly states that empathy and accountability aren’t mutually exclusive — that will make you feel good about being part of the human race. You can watch it on YouTube. B&W, 88 minutes, Not Rated.

2 responses to “Mister 880 (1950)

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