Damon Runyon had a sentimental streak. It popped up occasionally in his hard-boiled yarns about bookies, gamblers, petty crooks, and other guys and dolls of Broadway, and it popped up very strongly in a story called "Little Miss Marker." Hollywood leapt at this opportunity in 1934 and made a movie of the same title, starring Shirley Temple. Now the fourth film version has descended upon us, this time starring a young brunette who makes emotional mincemeat of a tough-as-nails character named Sorrowful Jones, artfully played by Walter Matthau.
The new "Little Miss Marker" was written and directed by Walter Bernstein, who is making his filmmaking debut after years of writing screenplays (including , not long ago, "The Front"). He has left out a lot of Runyon's sentimentality -- for example, Miss Marker does not die in the current film -- but he also leaves out the cynical flourish with which Runyon ended the tale. What's left is an amusing and often charming little comedy, but it seems wishy-washy by comparison with the original short story.
Still in all, one cannot overpraise Matthau's portrayal of Sorrowful, the bookie who accepts the nameless little girl as a marker, or IOU. He looks so astonishing sorrowful you want to burst with glee at watching him, especially when his better instincts are brought out by his new little friend and he gegins to leave his lowdown ways. There is no actor quite like Matthau, who brings a mischievous delight to even the slightest portions of the movie period.
The good supporting cast includes Bob Newhart as an assistant bookie and Tony Curtis as a hoodlum. Only Julie Andrews looks rather out of place as an erstwhile rich woman who becomes Sorrowful's girlfriend. Sara Stimson, the youngster who plays the title role, is commendably restrained and un-Shirley Temple-ish.