Larceny, Dir. George Sherman, 1948, 79 mins
Not all films are going to punch you between the eyes and leave you dazed at their audacity and brilliance. Some films -most films, really- are more like a slow burn that sneak up on you. If all films were like The Matrix or Jaws or Citizen Kane or The Godfather… well, those are just a few that immediately spring to mind, but if all films were like that, watching films would prove to be exhausting, and I suspect less interesting. What makes the special films what they are is simply that they are special. Which is not to say that all other films are necessarily lesser, but while some films are instantly remembered, revered, countless others which are perfectly fine are released, entertain and then largely consigned to history, forgotten and subsequently rarely encountered. I am constantly bewildered by all those films I have never even heard of which somehow by chance come to my attention and surprise me. They may not be as special as the genuine greats, but they certainly have their worth and don’t deserve to be lost/forgotten.
I think Larceny, part of Indicator’s Universal Noir #1 boxset, is one of those films; its a fairly minor film, really, largely most interesting because of its cast, regards which there are actually two points I’d like to make here. The first, is regards the better films some of that cast would move on to; that game of connect-the-dots which film-lovers can play, how one film leads to another like some kind of treasure hunt. The other point is regards those members of the cast who really impress here but who strangely don’t seem to have gone on to any great success or necessarily better movies. In this case, its the arrestingly beautiful ladies; Joan Caulfield in particular, who is breath-takingly pretty and gives a performance that deserves a much better movie, and who didn’t go on to those better movies and seemingly had a career that largely languished in 1950s television (probably popular shows at the time but utterly forgotten now). There’s shades of Grace Kelly to her, I think, and I’m very surprised she didn’t find more success in films: admittedly, that’s something I have noted before regards other actresses. Were pretty faces a dime a dozen in Hollywood? Was talent immaterial, or shelf-life (pardon the term) limited with so many younger, fresher faces always waiting in the audition rooms?
So anyway, Larceny is a film which largely just works on its own terms, a story of the dark underbelly of the American Dream which doesn’t draw attention to itself through any visual flourishes typical of noir -instead it just tells its story in a quietly efficient manner. Admittedly the film is possibly more melodrama, more predictable soap opera than the criminal procedural that one might expect, and to be fair, the plot doesn’t really surprise. One won’t be shocked by any noir twists here as one can confidently predict where its going, to the extent that its almost a calmly reassuring watch. There’s no rugs being pulled under the viewer’s legs here.
Dan Duryea (Too Late For Tears, Criss Cross, Scarlet Street, Ministry of Fear), was an actor who was something of a noir staple, here he is in typically fine, no-good form as a con man leading a team of decidedly no-good grifters in post-War America. One can’t underestimate the ill-repute of these swindlers, who don’t care who they cheat or walk over; in this case, intending to swindle the widow of a war hero, which must have seemed especially disgraceful so soon after the war. Were war heroes, even the dead ones, no longer sacred? The elaborate con involves Rick Maxon (John Payne) travelling to Mission City to seduce war widow Deborah Owens Clark (Caulfield) after posing as one of her late husband’s war buddies. He’s to give her the idea of creating a war memorial in the town, then swindle her of the funds she raises from all the wealthy socialite’s of the town.
Duryea’s Silky Randall -what a name for a slime-ball- orchestrates his team with ruthless efficiency, but is undone by his jealousy regards his beautiful blonde girlfriend, Tory, a no-good temptress who is bored with Silky and instead desires and is obsessed with (like every other dame, it seems) Rick. Its a typical noir romantic triangle, and destined for a typically noir end.
Rick is consummately played by handsome hunk John Payne; all the women love him or desire him, and that’s his problem (a problem I’ve never personally had the pleasure of, but hey, that’s the Hollywood dream that keeps pulling me back, living vicariously through others). Oh, but its such a problem and nuisance – wistfully starring at the stars as if wishing he was far away from all of them, Rick just keeps batting them off or filing them away for later use when they may be of some purpose to him. He teases a waitress at a diner, then a secretary at the real estate agents. He doesn’t even have to try, every girl swoons after him; its a crux of the film because it makes it seem all the more reasonable when, say, he needs to push Deborah into a rash decision Rick gets that secretary to become a party to his crime. Rick promises the secretary that he’ll be with her later, sending her packing to New York where she’ll be waiting in vain for him until she realises she’s been had.
It does make him interesting though- Rick is the nominal lead of the film but he’s certainly no hero; indeed its what possibly elevates Larceny as a film, because he’s quite the broken man. He’s bad, he’s ruthless, but it becomes apparent that he is filled with self-loathing. Its tricky though to pin down why; it isn’t because of guilt. The one thing that surprises regards Larceny is that of all the things that are predictable, what does confound is that the inevitable budding romance between Rick and his mark, the widow Deborah, doesn’t blossom as we expect- while naturally Deborah like all women falls for Rick, Rick doesn’t fall head over heels for her in turn or gain a moral compass for her sake.
Silky’s frustrated girl, the blonde temptress Tory is played by a very young Shelly Winters who, forgive me, rather shocked me in this film regards how well she played a sexy femme fatale, considering my perception of her was influenced by her later more sedentary years in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) or John Carpenter’s Elvis (1979) biopic in which she played the singer’s matronly mother. Shelley was, er, surprisingly hot and sexy, back in the day? Bah. I should have known better; she was young and pretty in Odds Against Tomorrow, after all, but in Robert Wise’s film she was plainly a good girl, while in Larceny she’s absolutely a bad girl and nothing but trouble. Its’s astonishing really how Shelley chews up the scenery, she’s great, careering through the film like a hand grenade ready to go off at any moment.
Inevitably of course (this being a noir after all) the hand grenade that is Tory does indeed go off, after gradually becoming an ever greater foil to the con. Silky grows increasingly sure that Troy is cheating on him with Rick, Troy grows increasingly sure that Rick is falling for Deborah, Deborah grows increasingly sure she’s found a man in Rick that measures up to her dead husband, but everyone is wrong. So even though the con works it suddenly becomes derailed at the end by the jealousy and suspicion, bringing Rick the self-destruction he possibly desired all along. Larceny would probably be a better film with a more shady, definitively noir ending, but this was 1948 and bad guys can’t really win. Still, its one of those noir endings in which nobody is happy or content at all.