It’s a bit like Miracle on 34th Street, though surprisingly I liked Mister 880 even more than the celebrated Christmas classic. It was made in 1950 and stars Burt Lancaster, Dorothy McGuire and the man who played Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, Edmund Gwenn. Despite the similarities, it’s a more low-key film, a bit less sentimental and has a little less of a point to make. It’s also based on a real story and so the film feels more everyday, about people doing their job and doing the best they can for themselves and other people. There are no villains in Mister 880.
The Secret Service has been interested in the case of an amateur counterfeiter they call Mister 880 for ten years. He’s a terrible counterfeiter, he even spells Washington as Wahsington, but because he only counterfeits one dollar bills and never uses them at the same place, the secret service has never been able to catch him. For a fresh perspective, they bring in Steve Buchanan (Burt Lancaster) to work on the case.
He begins to notice that there is a geographical pattern to how the money is being used and soon a suspect turns up. Two counterfeit one dollar bills are used by Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire). Ann is a respectable translator who works at the UN and Buchanan quickly rules her out as the source of the money, but thinks that perhaps she can lead him to the real counterfeiter.
The real counterfeiter is an elderly war veteran called Skipper (Edmund Gwenn). He likes to deal in ‘antiques’ and barely has enough money to live on. Whenever he’s really in a bind, he tells people that he must go to “Uncle Henry,” who turns out to be a money press. He only uses it in extreme emergencies, and then only prints one dollar bills and makes sure that he never gives anyone more than one dollar (though he did give his neighbor and friend, Ann, two dollars, but he really felt she over-payed him for an antique he bought her). He’s such a lovable guy; he likes kids and people really respond warmly to him.
Buchanan is convinced that the counterfeiter is in Ann’s neighborhood, but although he is always visiting Ann (they’ve fallen in love) he doesn’t realize that the man he is looking for is right under his nose.
It’s a fun, irresistible and warm film. Gwenn really does play him as a lovable, though vulnerable, guy. When Buchanan is closing in on the counterfeiter, Skipper has to stop making his one dollar bills and without that source of income he must sell his beloved collection of antiques (some people would call it junk); antiques that he always said kept him company and which he made up stories about. It’s not a drawn out scene, but very poignant that this lonely old man, without a word of complaint or a tear, is selling off all he owns and cares about.
But his creed is that he doesn’t want to be a bother. That is why he refused a service pension that he is entitled to. He thought he could save the government time and money by just making a dollar here and there as the need arose, ironically causing more trouble for the government than he ever could have imagined.
Dorothy McGuire and Burt Lancaster are also really good in this film. She’s competent and smart and gets on to Buchanan almost from the get go, though she says she hopes that once he figures out she’s not a counterfeiter that he won’t drop her too fast; she thinks he’s hot (and it’s Burt Lancaster, so I can’t disagree). And although he could play extremely tough men, Burt Lancaster is also endearing in this film. He’s a bit gung-ho about his work and talks a hard line about catching and prosecuting counterfeiters, but he’s no Inspector Javert. He’s really a nice guy.
Another thing I enjoyed about this film is that no one has to change. Sometimes, these kind of films can be a bit preachy; how the by-the-book secret service man must learn compassion and bend his principles, but there is none of that here. Nobody has to change and nobody gets mad at anyone. Ann doesn’t even get angry at Buchanan when he does his job and arrests Skipper, though she is grieved. Even the judge, who also believes in taking a hard line on matter of counterfeiting, is not antagonistic, though he is stern. He too responds to Skipper’s warm personality and it doesn’t take much for Buchanan to talk him into a lenient sentence. It’s a charming film about good, affectionate people trying to do the right thing.