THE GUN RUNNERS, directed with little urgency by the usually tension-torquing Don Siegel, failed to click in 1958, pushed as a redo of Hemingway’s “To Have And Have Not”, done first, most famously by that title in 1944, then reworked in 1950 as The Breaking Point. Besides fielding better studio resources and top-line directors (Howard Hawks and Michael Curtiz) the earlier films were blessed with stronger casting. Instead of the hero (here called ‘Sam Martin’) earlier enacted by Humphrey Bogart and John Garfield, in this cut-rate version he’s played by Audie Murphy. Obviously, in real-life, deceptively mild-mannered war hero Murphy could have literally blown movie “tough guys” out of the water, but he’s not assured enough in this role, not helped by the uninspired production values that give it a ho-hum, not much more interesting than an unlucky fishing trip.
Though shot in southern California (around Newport) the setting (Key West and Havana) at least corresponds to original intent, as a struggling boat operator falls prey to economic necessity and the wrong kind of passenger. A fun-run to Cuba (then in the midst of its revolution) becomes deadly cats v. mouse when gun smuggling, duplicity and casual murder are the price of a gamble.
Daniel Mainwaring (Out Of The Past, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers) and Paul Monash (tons of TV) worked up the script (with some uncredited dashes from Ben Hecht) using Hemingway’s 1934 short story “One Trip Across”, pieces of “To Have And Have Not” and a borrowed dash of Key Largo. Despite an able team on the script, and the presence of a number of welcome familiar faces in the supporting cast, other than one excellent bad guy and some pretty closeups of sexy Patricia Owens as Murphy’s wife, the results are none-too-exciting. The politics of the revolution are presumed to be suspect, game for crooks like the one’s who Martin gets ensnared by. Murphy’s not bad, but he’s merely okay, not energetic or demonstrable enough to make you care much about Sam Martin’s predicament or fate. *
By far the best thing in the film is Eddie Albert’s performance as ‘Hanagan’, the breezily amoral hustler who heads the title operation. Always good when playing against type, Albert wolfs down the nastiness with a cold-hearted smile. **
Character actors on tap: Everett Sloane (taking on the boozy sidekick role, playing it with less humor than Walter Brennan), Gita Hall (debut, bland as Alberts moll, she was a former Miss Stockholm, she only made one more movie), Richard Jaeckel, Paul Birch, Jack Elam, John Qualen, Herb Vigran, Carlos Romero, Peggy Maley, Robert Phillips. 83 minutes. Grossing$2,100,000, placing 105th for the year, running out the clock at 83 minutes.
* Murphy’s movie career had three highlights: early on, in 1951’s The Red Badge Of Courage, directed by John Huston; then portraying himself in 1955’s action-loaded hit To Hell And Back; and again for Huston, very good in 1960’s The Unforgiven. Otherwise he mostly made do with competent mid or low-budget westerns (No Name On The Bullet is a good one). For a few years after To Hell And Back he made some attempts to widen his reach, including another 1958 drama, The Quiet American, but that one didn’t pan out, either, even with location filming in South Vietnam.
** Eddie Albert on the dark side: Attack!, Captain Newman M.D., The Heartbreak Kid, The Longest Yard, Hustle.
2 thoughts on “The Gun Runners”
Some of Audie’s “competent mid- or low-budget westerns” were pretty good. I’d particularly recommend No Name On The Bullet. It’s a better picture than To Hell and Back.
Agreed. That is a good one.