HomeNumismatic TermsThe Brasher Doubloon Film From a Numismatist's Perspective

The Brasher Doubloon Film From a Numismatist’s Perspective

The Brasher Doubloon Movie Poster.
The Brasher Doubloon Movie Poster.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

The Brasher Doubloon is a 1947 film based on Raymond Chandler’s 1942 novel The High Window. It was directed by Austrian expat John Brahm (he would later direct several Twilight Zone episodes, including “Time Enough at Last”) and stars George Montgomery and Nancy Guild. The plot features hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe as he investigates the theft of a Brasher Doubloon from the eccentric widow of a collector.

This Hollywood B-Movie, a remake of the 1942 film A Time to Kill, is largely forgotten outside of numismatic circles today, but is one of the few Hollywood feature films to prominently focus on coin collecting themes. Much of what is discussed in the film regarding the Brasher Doubloon is inaccurate – even the coin itself is a crude prop.

Not a genuine Brasher Doubloon. Image: 20th Century Fox.
Not a genuine Brasher Doubloon. Image: 20th Century Fox.

In the film’s opening credits, a clumsy reproduction of a Brasher Doubloon with an EB punch at the top of the left wing is shown. None of the seven known Brasher Doubloons feature a punch on the left wing.

Other inaccuracies on the prop coin’s obverse are the incomplete motto: UNUM * * * PLURIBUS instead of UNUM * E * PLURIBUS; the number of stars in the glory of the prop coin; and the orientation of the arrows, branches, and the frame around the shield. The overall look of the prop is wrong and it does not appear to be a struck coin.

What the Widow Says About the Brasher Doubloon

In one of the film’s earlier scenes, the widow Emily Murdock (actress Florence Bates) informs Marlowe that the coin has been taken from her house and that she wants it back. Complicating matters is the fact that she knows who took it and doesn’t want to share that information with Marlowe or have the perpetrator arrested (she has her reasons).

Marlowe: “What’s been taken?”

Murdock: “A coin. A rare gold coin called the Brasher Doubloon.”

Marlowe: “The what?”

Murdock: “The Brasher Doubloon. It’s a collectors item worth at least $10,000, probably more. It’s a Mint specimen. There are only two of them in the whole country. The Smithsonian Institute has the other.”

A tray of coins from the film The Brasher Doubloon. Image: 20th Century Fox.
A tray of coins from the film The Brasher Doubloon. Image: 20th Century Fox.

Murdock orders her assistant to retrieve a tray of coins, which we can see previously housed the “Mint Condition” Brasher Doubloon.

What is revealed is curious. Instead of a tray of high-value colonial or early American coins, we see a tray of heavily circulated world coins, where the 1792 Louis Phillipe 5 Francs slot is filled with a circulated coin of Napoleon III. In fact, we find it quite odd to place a great American rarity in a tray of common French coins of the 18th and 19th century. This is hardly representative of a cabinet belonging to a sophisticated collector.

Numismatically speaking, Murdock’s claim that only two Brasher Doubloons exist is false. Seven examples are known, including one example with EB punched on the eagle’s breast. The Smithsonian Institution’s example has an EB on the right wing that was discovered among a deposit of obsolete gold coinage by United States Mint Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt in 1838 and subsequently placed into the Mint Cabinet. This example is in net Very Fine condition.

Another Brasher Doubloon is held in the collection of the American Numismatic Society. The remaining four are in private hands.

1787 Brasher Doubloon. Image: NGC / CoinWeek.
1787 Brasher Doubloon. Image: NGC / CoinWeek.

Murdock’s assertion that the Brasher Doubloon was worth about $10,000 is in line with the auction value of the coin at the time of the film’s release. Today, any Brasher Doubloon would likely be worth several million dollars. The Stickney-Garrett-Partrick NGC MS65 CAC example was sold by Heritage Auctions in 2021 for $9.36 million.

Returning to the film, Murdock claims that she discovered the coin was missing after receiving a call from coin dealer Elisha Morningstar, who inquired whether the Brasher Doubloon was for sale.

“If he was a numismatist of any repute, he’d know that it wasn’t,” she says.

Marlowe Meets Coin Dealer Elisha Morningstar

After being threatened to lay off the case by Eddie Prue (played by character actor Alfred Linder), who claims to be working on behalf of Lucky Club owner Vince Blair (Marvin Miller), Marlowe finds a telephone listing for Morningstar (played by Houseley Stevenson) and visits his office.

Coin dealer Elisha Morningstar from the film The Brasher Doubloon. Image: 20th Century Fox.
Coin dealer Elisha Morningstar from the film The Brasher Doubloon. Image: 20th Century Fox.

Morningstar is dressed professionally and keeps a clean and respectable office. Of the Brasher Doubloon, Morningstar tells a curious and chilling story.

Morningstar: “The Brasher Doubloon. An early American coin. Extremely interesting and valuable.”

Marlowe: “Yeah, why?”

Morningstar: “Because its rare… and because it has a romantic and violent history.”

Marlowe: “It has? I hadn’t heard.”

Morningstar: Yes. First, the man who coined it was murdered and robbed through the treachery of a female. And since then, at least seven other owners of the coin have come to abrupt, unhappy ends.”

As Morningstar wraps up his account, his words curl into eerie laughter.

Morningstar, it seems, was shown the coin by a mysterious customer and offered to pay $2,000 for it.

It’s a fine set up for a film, but numismatically speaking, none of this is true.

Silversmith Ephraim Brasher, it is believed, struck his famous doubloons in or around 1787. Afterwards, he served in various civic posts, including an assay post for the United States Mint. Brasher died on November 10, 1810, not due to the treachery of a woman but of time. He was 66 years old.

American numismatists have had occasional run-ins with the criminal element but there are no great American rarities (that we know of) that are closely associated with any type of curse.

Bodies Pile up as Marlowe Recovers the Coin

Marlowe retrieves the Brasher Doubloon from a storage locker. Image: 20th Century Fox.
Marlowe retrieves the Brasher Doubloon from a storage locker. Image: 20th Century Fox.

The coin dealer Morningstar tries to reach out to a man named George Anson, whom we presume is the man who tried to fence the coin. Marlowe surreptitiously eavesdrops on the phone call and discovers that Anson resides at the Florence Apartments. He heads over to talk to Anson, but discovers after entering the apartment that Anson has been killed and his belongings have been sifted through. There is no sign of the Doubloon, but whoever killed Anson missed a passenger claim check hidden in his address book.

Marlowe involves the apartment manager in the “discovery” of the body and is released following a quick interrogation by the police. He heads over the train station to recover the cursed coin, which amazingly was being kept by an attendant in an untaped cardboard box. Marlowe opens the box and removes the coin, which is concealed only by a piece of cotton gauze. Quite implausible!

Marlowe narrates his impression of the coin.

Marlowe: I figured that I was probably looking at the Brasher Doubloon, but somehow it didn’t send me. I guess I’m not the collector type. All I wanted to know is whether this was a genuine coin or just a reasonable facsimile. That called for another chat with the old coin expert.

Somebody needs to update Morningstar's Google listing to Permanently Closed. Image: 20th Century Fox.
Somebody needs to update Morningstar’s Google listing to Permanently Closed. Image: 20th Century Fox.

Marlowe head’s back to Morningstar’s coin shop. It is nighttime, and Morningstar’s shop door is open. Marlowe discovers the dealer’s body and the office has been ransacked. Whoever did it was looking for the Doubloon as the dealer’s inventory of coins apparently did not interest them enough to take them. Marlowe recovers a gun from the crime scene that resembles one that he found in Murdock’s assistant’s desk. He returns to Murdock’s house to investigate.

Here an improbable version of events is revealed by Leslie Murdock, the widow’s son, who cops to selling the Doubloon to pay off a debt and that when his mother found out about the sale of the coin he came to terms with the person he owed money to on the basis that young Murdock couldn’t pay if he was disinherited by his mother. Leslie claims that he got the Doubloon back and the case is solved. Marlowe has the coin, and knows otherwise.

Marlowe confronts the widow about the coin and Mrs. Murdock’s rather touched assistant Merle (played by Nancy Guild). Mrs. Murdock treats Marlowe to another version of the events and also attempts to play off that she is in receipt of the coin. Marlowe proves otherwise and refuses to hand over the coin until the matter of the murders is cleared up.

Marlowe leaves and Murdock instructs Merle to get it back, telling the ingenue, “Capitalize on what you’ve got, child. It would have been no problem for me when I was your age.”

Marlowe Meets an Interested Collector

Rudolf Vannier, a German immigrant, cameraman, numismatist, and blackmailer. Image: 20th Century Fox.
Rudolf Vannier visits Marlowe’s office. Image: 20th Century Fox.

Marlowe has set the wheels in motion with the Murdocks in an effort to uncover the truth behind the coin theft and murders and returns to his office where he finds a man trying to fidget open his locked office door.

The man’s name is Rudolf Vannier. He is a German immigrant, a cameraman, and an interested party in the whereabouts of the Brasher Doubloon, to which he makes a claim.

Vannier: “Strictly speaking it does not belong to me yet, but it will, as soon as certain arrangements have been accomplished. But they cannot be accomplished, however, until I locate the coin that I think you know where it is. You were at Mr. Anson’s apartment when he was, uh, when the unfortunate circumstances of his death were discovered.”

Marlowe: “You still haven’t told me why you claim to be the owner of a stolen coin.”

Vannier: “Stolen? Hardly that. Borrowed would be a better word. Borrowed so that it could be exchanged for something of much greater value.”

Marlowe: “What is the article that the Brasher Doubloon is to be exchanged for?”

Vannier: “Sorry, but I cannot tell you that.”

Marlowe: “Well, what have you come here to tell me?”

Vannier: “That unless I have the coin in my possession sometime tonight, I shall be… I shall be in great danger. I’m not ordinarily a violent man… [Vannier reveals a concealed revolver] but under the circumstances, Mr. Marlowe, I have no other choice.”

Another look at the prop coin. Image: 20th Century Fox.
Another look at the prop coin. Image: 20th Century Fox.

Vannier points the gun at Marlow and says:

Vannier: “You will please give me the Brasher Doubloon.”

Vannier is solely focused on getting his hands on the coin and Marlowe, banking on how seeing the Doubloon will “send” Vannier, flips the coin in the air before tossing it on the ground in front of him.

Vannier bends over to retrieve the coin, but Marlowe seizes the opportunity to turn the tables.

Marlowe: “The way he drooled at the sight of the coin, I could tell he was a collector as well as a blackmailer. An interesting combination.”

After turning Vannier away, the collector meets his unhappy end. However, the collector lands him the final piece of the puzzle necessary to pin far more than the theft of the Brasher Doubloon on Mrs. Murdock.

Numismatically Speaking

From a numismatic perspective, the film’s only value is in the sentence or two of flavor text it provides a coin cataloguer or columnist. The way The Brasher Doubloon depicts coin collectors is largely unflattering (see above). Marlowe is unimpressed by the coin and those to whom it carries significance. The coin’s owner and potential owners are seen as schemers and degenerates. The true history of the coin and why it is coveted by collectors is not discussed; instead, the film asserts that its value is derived because of its connection to the macabre.

* * *

CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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