First released in 1950, Mister 880 is a wonderful surprise.
The film opens like a typical 50s crime drama. We’re told that counterfeiting is a serious crime and that the dedicated agents of the Secret Service are working very hard to try to wipe out the scourge of fake money. We’re also told that Mister 880 is based on a true story and that it was produced with the full cooperation of the U.S. Treasury Department. As a result, modern viewers will probably be expecting Mister 880 to be a work of pro-government propaganda, where wholesome treasury agents track down and stop soulless thieves. Instead, Mister 880 turns out to be a wonderfully charming portrait of a criminal who doesn’t mean to cause anyone any harm.
Burt Lancaster stars as Steve Buchanan, a Treasury agent who is well-known for never letting a case go. He’s developed a personal obsession with tracking down a counterfeiter who, for the last ten years, has been passing phony one dollar bills around a certain New York neighborhood. The Treasury Department has named him Mister 880. Mister 880 is definitely an amateur. The money that he prints is sloppy. At the same time, he also only prints one dollar bills and it appears that he only does so on occasion. Just as no one can figure out his identity, everyone is also baffled by his motivation. If he was looking to get rich through printing his own money, he would surely print more than just a bunch of sloppy one dollar bills.
Investigating the neighborhood that he believes to be Mister 880’s base of operations, Buchanan meets and falls in love with Ann Winslow (Dorothy McGuire). He also happens to meet Ann’s neighbor, Skipper Miller (Edmund Gwenn). Skipper is an elderly man, a Navy veteran who lives with a dog and who says that he is financially supported by a rich cousin who nobody has ever met. Skipper is a junk dealer and he’s a genuinely nice man. Everyone in the neighborhood, including Ann, loves Skipper. Buchanan soon comes to like the old eccentric as well.
Of course, as you’ve probably already guessed, Skipper is the counterfeiter. He is Mister 880. He doesn’t mean to cause any harm, of course. He only prints money when he absolutely needs to and he always makes sure to not use too much of it. He doesn’t want to steal from anyone. He’s just an elderly man who wants to live out his days in peace and who doesn’t want to be a bother to anyone.
When Buchanan discovers the truth about Skipper, he’s faced with a dilemma. Skipper is hardly a master criminal but Buchanan has sworn an oath and he has a job to do. Not making things any simpler is that Skipper doesn’t deny what he’s done and he also says that he’ll plead guilty to his crime because …. well, he is guilty. Skipper’s not a liar, despite the fake money. Both Buchanan and Ann know that Skipper won’t survive spending years behind bars. What do you do with a man who has broken the law but who, at heart, is not really a criminal? Can a crime be forgiven just because the man who committed it is really, really likable?
Mister 880 is a sweet-natured comedy, one that doesn’t necessarily argue that Skipper’s crime should have been forgiven but which, at the same time, does make the case that not all law-breakers are created equal. Gwenn, who is best-known for playing Santa Claus in the original Miracle on 34th Street, gives a wonderful performance as Skipper. It’s hard not to love Skipper. It’s not just that Skipper doesn’t make any excuses for being a counterfeiter. And it’s not just that Skipper is an eccentric who loves his dog and has his own unique way of looking at the world. It’s that Skipper is just a genuinely kind man. He’s someone who would rather go to prison than be too much of a burden to the people who he cares about. He’s the sweetest criminal you could ever hope to meet.
Gwenn was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award for his work in this film. Not nominated but equally strong were Burt Lancaster and Dorothy McGuire. Even though they don’t get any big, show-stopping moments like Gwenn does, both Lancaster and McGuire bring their characters to wonderful life and both do a great job of capturing their own mixed feelings about what should be done about Skipper. Lancaster, in particular, is convincing as the by-the-book agent who is torn between his professional obligations and his feelings for both Ann and Skipper.
Mister 880 is one of my favorite movies, a wonderfully and unexpectedly good-hearted film about a real-life criminal who wasn’t the bad of a guy. Emerich Juenetter, the real-life counterfeiter who served as the model for Skipper, reportedly made more money from the release of this film than he ever did over the course of his counterfeiting career. After watching Mister 880, it’s hard not to feel that he earned every cent of it.