Larceny (1948) is a tight crime story starring John Payne as part of a gang of con men who target the wealthy through real estate fraud and related schemes. Head grifter–what a great name–Silky (Dan Duryea, underused but good and menacing) sends his best charmer Rick (Payne) out to do the latest job in “Mission City,” where he pretends to be the buddy of a dead soldier to fleece his widow Deb (Joan Caulfield). He convinces the vulnerable woman that her husband’s last wish was to open a ritzy home for wayward boys, and she decides to take on the project as a war memorial. Things get complicated when Rick falls for Deb, and when she decides to sink her own inheritance into buying and renovating the massive estate instead of collecting donations from rich society friends.
Things get more complicated when Silky’s unstable girl Tory (Shelley Winters), with whom Rick had a fling, becomes obsessed with Rick and derails the con by following him around like a stalker; if she can’t have Rick, she’s determined to ruin or kill him. On top of the mark and the gang gumming up the works, their previous fraud victim from Miami shows up in town unexpectedly and they need to rush their current plan through before they’re recognized. Silky’s other men are Max (Richard Rober) and Duke (Dan O’Herlihy), and Dorothy Hart plays a real estate office secretary who thinks Rick “walked out of a dream” (she’s not wrong) and is therefore easily bribed to plug the gang into the payment channel so they can directly handle Deb’s money.
This was John Payne’s first big foray into noir and he shows most of what made him such an appealing lead in these types of hardboiled roles. Rick is a decent crook, guarded and expert but weary of working the con, convincingly conflicted and believable whichever way he wobbles. He fools and cheats Deb, but you can tell he’s thoroughly disgusted with himself when it works. In some revealing close scrapes, Rick fudges his way out when pressed on how and when exactly he knew Deb’s husband and other soldiers. Payne shows that Rick is good at improvising and making his questioners feel guilty for asking, resents being questioned, and hates having to lie and prey on these people’s losses. There’s a telling moment when he first arrives at a boys’ club run by jolly, absentminded Charlie (Percy Shelton), who’s constantly misplacing his heirloom pocket watch. Rick helps himself to the watch and is pleased with his pilfering skills, but returns it later, telling Charlie that one of the boys took it and couldn’t live with the guilt. Perfectly sums up Rick’s character, and by being in the position of role model to boys, best friend of a lost hero, and suitor making a grieving widow happy again, Rick’s good side slowly wins out and he looks to break from Silky and his gang. When things go bad in an accidental shooting and unexpected death, Rick saves himself by proposing a grand blackmail scheme against Deb and family, and then finds a way to save her from that scam.
Larceny was directed by George Sherman and based on the novel The Velvet Fleece by cousins Lois Eby and John Fleming.