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When director Don Siegel was invited to a production meeting to consider filming The Gun Runners he at first couldn't fathom why the producers had chosen that particular property. The Gun Runners is a loose rewrite of Ernest Hemingway's 1934 short story "One Trip Across" and his follow-up novel To Have and Have Not, about a fishing boat proprietor who gets sucked into smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. It had already been filmed as the 1944 Howard Hawks classic To Have and Have Not starring Humphrey Bogart and introducing Lauren Bacall. Warner Bros. remade it only five years later as The Breaking Point with John Garfield and Patricia Neal. Why producer Clarence Greene would want to film another iteration with lesser stars and a fraction of the budget of either of the first two versions was beyond Siegel's understanding.
The answer lies in the way 1950s Hollywood was restructuring itself as the power of the studios waned. Former executives, agents and stars formed independent production companies, raising money on their own and contracting with studios mainly for distribution. Big stars like James Stewart and Bogart brokered sweetheart deals with the majors, but the equally marketable Burt Lancaster and John Wayne ran their own production companies. Because studios needed product to fill their distribution schedules, independent producers with the right connections were suddenly in demand: the industry now turned on the art of The Deal rather than a mogul's whim. The Gun Runners was the first film from Seven Arts Productions, a company formed by Eliot Hyman and ex-agent Ray Stark. While other independents remained producers-for-hire, Seven Arts often partnered with studios, as it did with Britain's Hammer Films. Seven Arts performed so well that after only ten years it bought out Jack Warner's percentage of Warner Bros., a merger that formed Warner Bros. - Seven Arts.
In his 1996 autobiography A Siegel Film Don Siegel offers a sarcastic account of his meeting with producer Clarence Greene. The director expressed his low opinion of the project, slated to star famed soldier-turned-actor Audie Murphy. Siegel considered Murphy a pathetic choice to follow in the footsteps of Bogie and Garfield. Since his auspicious debut in John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage (1951) Murphy impressed few with his acting talent yet had carved out a reasonably successful career in minor westerns. As reported by Lillian Ross in Picture, her exposé book on MGM, Huston was attracted to Audie Murphy because one could see that he was a "natural born killer". Siegel was similarly impressed, when he noticed Murphy casually toting a Colt .45 Peacemaker into a bar:
Siegel: Why the arsenal?
Howard Hawks adapted Hemingway's original tale to the war effort by adding a Casablanca- like patriotic conflict, pitting Free French against Vichy Fascists on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Michael Curtiz's noir version The Breaking Point moved the locale to Southern California, concentrating on the economic hardship faced by John Garfield's bankrupt fishing operator. To avoid losing his boat, Garfield becomes a getaway pilot for bank robbers.
For The Gun Runners writers Daniel Mainwaring and Paul Monash add a topical spin, relocating the story to Key West, Florida. Excursion boat captain Sam Martin (Audie Murphy) is pressured into helping rogue arms dealer Hanagan (Eddie Albert) smuggle guns to Cuban rebels. The film takes no overt political position yet offers a negative portrait of Castro's revolutionaries. The rebels are generic desperados that assassinate policemen; a committed rebel leader enjoys killing with a knife. This bias won't be lost on viewers aware of Audie Murphy's previous film The Quiet American, based on Graham Greene's highly critical novel about American meddling in 1950s Vietnam. Famed writer-director Joe Mankiewicz reversed Graham Greene's political message, giving the film a pro-American, anti-communist slant. The makers of The Gun Runners use the Cuban Revolution only as a backdrop. They had no way of knowing how the struggle would turn out: their film was released exactly four months before Fidel Castro's victorious entry into Havana.
In 1957 film directors carried a lot of weight on an independent picture: Seven Arts probably told producer Greene that his usual directing partner Russell Rouse (Wicked Woman; The Thief) wasn't a big enough name for The Gun Runners. Don Siegel was allowed to use his own cameraman Hal Mohr, who had filmed his two prior pictures, Baby Face Nelson and The Lineup. Remembering the Bogart original's underplayed humor, Siegel nominated his favorite writer Daniel Mainwaring to add some laughs in a rewrite. Mainwaring was a master of hep noir irony, as proven in his classics Out of the Past, The Lawless and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Don Siegel expressed enthusiasm for the casting of Eddie Albert as Hanagan, a swindler who murders a Cuban soldier who won't accept his bribe. Siegel was unenthused about the rest of the players but made space for Richard Jaeckel, the getaway driver from his previous The Lineup, to play Hanagan's brutal gunman. Siegel felt sympathy for Patricia Owens, a spirited actress who had played opposite Marlon Brando in the big hit Sayonara. Noting Audie Murphy's coldness, Siegel got his actors together to rehearse a husband & wife love scene. Siegel found Murphy unwilling to touch Owens or even look her in the face:
"Pat was dead game. She'd caress Audie's face, sit on his lap and attempt to kiss him. It's hard to believe, but I couldn't get any response from Audie. By twisting and turning, he managed not to look at her once. Oh Bogey and Johnny, where were you when I needed you?"
The Gun Runners has a more than adequate cast, with Everett Sloane (The Lady from Shanghai) cast against type as Sam Martin's drunken first mate, the Walter Brennan "rummy" role from To Have and Have Not. Audie Murphy's Sam Martin becomes a target of seduction for Hanagan's sexy girlfriend Eva, played by Swedish model Gita Hall. Assisting in lesser roles are Paul Birch, Jack Elam and acting coach Lee Strasberg.
Although set in Florida and Cuba, the modestly budgeted thriller was shot entirely in California. The water scenes were filmed in and around California's Newport Bay, with "Cuban" locations all done locally as well. The most atmospheric setting is a smoky Cuban nightclub, complete with a convincing rumba dancer who doubles as a rebel gun moll. The rest of the film plays out in nondescript Newport Beach dock areas, adding a Spanish sign or two when necessary.
Siegel said before filming that the story has "pace, danger and action", and that's what he delivered. Always good with action scenes, Siegel makes the concluding shoot-out on the boat fast and deadly. Eddie Albert gives the best performance as the engaging but duplicitous Hanagan. Patricia Owens tries hard to humanize the Audie Murphy character. Her efforts to warm up Audie must have had some success because he indeed does look at her, touch her and even kiss her on screen. Although he's likeable and good-looking, Murphy can't carry the film. We never forget that he's a non-actor working too hard to appear natural, and he does little with Daniel Mainwaring's ironic dialogue. The overly theatrical Everett Sloane is stuck with a part Walter Brennan did better. Seductive Gita Hall gives her blonde playgirl an extra dimension -- the character serves to remind Sam Martin that allowing one's self to be bought has dire consequences.
In the final estimation The Gun Runners carbon copies too many details from the two previous versions to establish an identity of its own. The fatal voyage to deliver machine guns to the rebels ends in the middle of the ocean, nearly identically to the finish of Key Largo, another Bogart picture seemingly influenced by To Have and Have Not.
Distributor United Artists played up the Ernest Hemingway connection for the film's September 1958 release, perhaps hoping to benefit from publicity for the same year's much-promoted Spencer Tracy adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea. Posters for The Gun Runners promised "Hemingway-Hot Adventure!" in text far bigger than that given the film title or Audie Murphy's credit.
Audie Murphy's career took a downturn into ever-cheaper westerns, a pattern broken by his fine supporting performance as an Indian-hating cowboy in John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960). Murphy's last was a brief appearance as Jesse James in Budd Boetticher's micro-budgeted western A Time for Dying (1969). He lost his life in an airplane crash two years later. Don Siegel's career soon stepped up to higher-profile pictures with Elvis Presley and Steve McQueen, followed by another Hemingway remake, 1964's The Killers with Lee Marvin and John Cassavetes. The director finally hit the "AA" list with a quartet of big Clint Eastwood pictures. Siegel and Eastwood became fast friends, and when Eastwood began directing on his own, he frequently credited Siegel as his mentor. The Gun Runners remains one of Don Siegel's lesser pictures from his breakout years.
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD of The Gun Runners is a sharp transfer in perfect condition. But it's transferred flat instead of enhanced widescreen, leaving a lot of slack picture space above and below the intended 1:66 -- 1:85 picture area for a 1958 studio picture. The Seven Arts Logo has been retained intact, and it's a real dog, simply a shot of a piece of statuary. It may have been abandoned after this one picture.
The film comes with a trailer that combines an Italian picture and text (title: Agguato nei caraibi) with an English track. It contains every scrap of action footage in the movie, including the climax. It also makes a pitch for a career for actress Gita Hall, to no avail.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gun Runners rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.