This version, made independently on the cheap, probably for well under $500,000 and maybe half of that, is by far the least interesting, despite some good direction by Don Siegel. The good but variable cast includes Audie Murphy, Patricia Owens, Eddie Albert, Everett Sloane, and former "Miss Stockholm" Gita Hall. It's not bad, but except for Albert's oily villain, there's little to recommend it.
Equally incorporating elements of other Bogie classic, Key Largo (1948), especially for its climax, while in some respects closer to Hemingway's original novel than the two earlier films, The Gun Runners is set in the Florida Keys, where Sam Martin's (Murphy) charter boat is on the verge of being repossessed and unpaid bills loom everywhere he looks.
A bad check-writing customer (John Harding) makes matters worse, but then breezy Hanagan (Albert) and his Swedish girlfriend, Eva (Hall), turn up with wads of cash, hiring Sam for a fishing/pleasure cruise. With alcoholic first mate Harvey (Sloane) along for the ride, Hanagan surprises Sam by insisting upon an illicit nighttime disembarkation in Havana, where Hanagan secretly negotiates an arms sale with Cuban revolutionaries.
Back in Florida, Sam quickly catches on to Hanagan's gun-running scheme, but when Hanagan buys the title to Sam's boat from creditor Sy Phillips (Paul Birch), he has no choice but to shuttle Hanagan back to Cuba once more to deliver the crated "ballast."
Director Siegel was unhappy with Murphy, claiming the World War II hero-turned-movie star was shy and inexpressive before the camera, particularly in his love scenes with Patricia Owens, playing Sam's devoted wife, Lucy. Indeed, there's zero chemistry between them, with Owens demonstratively affectionate throughout but with little reaction at all coming from Murphy. Nor are there any sparks between Murphy and Swedish bombshell Hall, appealing as she is. It's not that Murphy wasn't a good actor or lacked charisma; he was modestly talented and looked fairly good onscreen, but in The Gun Runners he's a vacuum of fecklessness. Partly that's the character, so consumed by problems he can't seem to escape from, but Murphy does nothing to enhance his cynical dialogue, which in his hands comes across as mere whining.
Needless to say, he also pales when compared to predecessors Bogie and John Garfield but, more to the point, when one imagines another actor from that same period the producers could have afforded, the film might have turned out far better than it did. As Sam, for instance, Sterling Hayden would have been ideal for myriad reasons; the picture might even have been exceptional had he been cast.
Murphy's blandness probably threw the other players off, who don't seem to get much help from Siegel, either. Everett Sloane, cast against type in the part made famous by Walter Brennan, is actorly but unmemorable, a kind of road company-level performance. Eddie Albert, by contrast, goes in the opposite extreme, playing duplicitous Hanagan as a larger-than-life character less interested in getting rich than toying with danger and sadistically enjoying watching others squirm while he exudes cocksureness. Though mainly remembered today playing straight-man to the denizens of Hooterville in the surreal sitcom Green Acres, Albert, in fact, was a diversely talented actor capable playing almost any kind of role, from the pal of the hero to a gregarious Persian peddler in Oklahoma to a cowardly, psychotic Army captain (in Attack). He was unusually good playing, infrequently, cold-hearted villains, as here and others films such as The Longest Yard (1974). He's by far the best thing about The Gun Runners.
This was, apparently, the first production of Seven Arts, the independent company formed by Ray Stark, Eliot Hyman, and Norman Katz. Though it would soon be producing A-list pictures in addition to co-financing minor ones, eventually taking a controlling interest in Warner Bros. (in 1967), The Gun Runners looks cheap, with locations limited to Newport Bay in Orange County, south of Hollywood.
Video & Audio
? Filmed in black-and-white for 1.85:1 widescreen, Kino's The Gun Runners, licensed from MGM, greatly improves upon the unenhanced widescreen DVD release, though visually there's not much to get all that excited about. Included is the original Seven Arts logo, a garish design similar to Britain's Anglo-Amalgamated equally goofy one. The DTS-HD Master Audio track (mono) is fine, and optional English subtitles are provided on this region "A" disc.
Fans of director Don Siegel might want to give this a look, though there are few flashes of his great talent, and what action the film has tends to derive from the earlier film adaptations. Neither bad nor good, The Gun Runners is most mildly Recommended.