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Jack Elam

MOD Movies: Don Siegel’s ‘The Gun Runners’

Don Siegel’s low-budget 1958 adventure The Gun Runners is not exactly a remake of To Have and Have Not but it is the third screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway novel. Audie Murphy takes the lead here as independent skipper Sam Martin, who rents his cabin cruiser to tourists looking to fish the waters of Key West. When his latest customer skips on the bill and he gambles himself into the hole attempting to win enough to make his payments, he ends up in debt to a gun runner (Eddie Albert), making illegal trips to Cuba under cover of night so Albert can make his deal with the Cuban revolutionaries. The politics of the situation aren’t even hinted at, but then Albert’s character is a businessman, not a patriot or an idealist.

It’s a stock thriller premise brought to life with clever screenwriting (by Daniel Mainwaring and Paul Monash, and reportedly an uncredited contribution from Ben Hecht), deftly turned characters, a terrific supporting cast and delightfully sexy rapport and physical intimacy between Murphy and Patricia Owens, who plays his wife. The bloom hasn’t worn off this romance and her playful flirtations in the dive of a waterfront bar, pretending to be a floozy seducing the married Sam from his “wife,” is one of the sexiest scenes I’ve between a married couple in a fifties feature.

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Black and Blu: “Kansas City Confidential”

Kansas City Confidential” (HD Cinema Classics/Film Chest)

The first of three collaborations between Phil Karlson, a director who graduated from B-movies with a strong storytelling punch and a tough, two-fisted sensibility, and John Payne, a former light romantic lead and bland song-and-dance man of Fox musicals, was a career changer for both of them. Payne was already reinventing himself as a hard, taciturn lead in the westerns and action films when he connected up with Karlson and (according to the director) they came up with the story: “he and I loaded with a bottle of Scotch. We wrote the entire script and then we turned it over to a writer to put it in screenplay form.”

Who were those masked men?

Kansas City Confidential opens on Preston Foster, a mystery man with a stopwatch and a checklist casing a bankfront, piecing together his plan and his crew, a real rogues gallery of desperate thugs all but blackmailed by this mystery man in a mask into filling out his strike force. The robbery is executed with clockwork timing and Karlson directs the scene with terse efficiency, snappy momentum and crack timing. It’s also where we get our first real look at delivery man Joe (Payne), the hard-luck working class guy flipped off by fate when the armored car heist uses his florist deliveries as cover and leaves him to take the fall: a patsy to give them camouflage and the cops a distraction as they make their getaway. He’s a decorated soldier and survivor, a war hero who took the hard knocks that came his way and rolled with the punches, but is almost knocked down for the count with this sucker punch. His name is smeared in the press and his livelihood stolen by suspicion, but he’s resourceful, resilient and unflinching when it comes to taking the hit. He follows his only lead out of the states and into a sleepy little Mexican vacation spot where a payoff already complicated by double-dealing and double crosses gets a new player.

The hoods in this film are a triumvirate of essential B-movie thugs with attitude and an edge of psychosis: a beady-eyed Neville Brand, a smiling cobra of a Lee Van Cleef and a skinny, sweaty Jack Elam, who later played his cock-eyed looks for shaggy humor but here works his gargoyle face for underworld shiftiness. They give the film a shot of raw menace, a trio of thugs who are quick with a gun and slow to trust anyone and would just as soon solve a problem with a bullet. Foster, never the most dynamic of screen professionals, doesn’t exactly radiate authority as a criminal mastermind but part of the film’s fun is the play of false identities and double lives and Foster’s ex-cop with a grudge is all about appearing innocent while pulling the strings behind the scenes. His revenge on his forced retirement is a doozy that, if all goes to plan, will leave both rich and a hero.

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