Larceny (1948)

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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.

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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.

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13 thoughts on “Larceny (1948)”

  1. This looks much better than the Payne noir I just watched, The Crooked Way (1949) which is identified by critics as his “first” noir but clearly isn’t. Maybe it was his first lead in noir? First noir top billing? I dunno, but I’m not a fan of his pouty look and flat acting, so definitely gonna give this one a try!

    1. I’m guessing it comes down to that fuzzy line between crime melodrama and noir, but to me this is noirish enough to qualify. Give it a try, maybe it’s more to your liking. Thanks!

  2. Time for me to catch up with this one. Might I add it serves Rick/Payne right for his troubles after hanging out with Shelley Winters. As you know not one of my faves but Duryea is so can’t be all that bad.

    1. I know, and oh boy you won’t like her here, she’s angry and mean, puts herself ahead of the whole con and keeps ruining it by threatening and blackmailing Rick. All the guys in that gang are super actors, and watching Payne and Duryea is time well spent.

  3. I like Payne’s acting style and he put it to good use post WW2 in a number of westerns in the 50s but especially in some really hard-bitten ‘noirs’ (or whatever we call ’em). Most were terrific!
    I like ‘THE CROOKED WAY ‘ myself and ‘LARCENY’ too though the print I have of the latter is not the best. I know it will take on a whole new enjoyment when I see it in a sparkling restoration. Can’t wait.
    Thanks for a good review, Kristina!

    1. I love Payne, he can do no wrong where I’m concerned and I’m on a mission to see as many of his movies as I can. The Crooked Way I saw so long ago it’s vague now and I should revisit it if I’m having a Payne-a-thon. My copy of Larceny was not the best either btw would love to see a better one. Really enjoyed it, thanks for reading!

  4. Another fan of Payne here, and of director Sherman too. I’ve been hearing about this movie for years but have never seen it. It does sound good though. I wasn’t all that impressed with Joan Caulfield’s work in The Unsuspected when I watched that one recently.

    1. Payne fan club assemble! I do think this could have used someone a bit more interesting than Caulfield, but she fit the timid grieving gullible widow well enough I suppose, didn’t require much range. Dorothy Hart was fabulous and saucy, and then I didn’t mention a waitress played by Patricia Alphin who’s so fun in her few scenes– those two outdid the leading ladies!

  5. Great cynical Post War Noir which seems to be saying
    the time for Heroes is over….now lets make
    as much money as possible,by any means.
    Duryea’s closing line is a doozy!

    1. There were a handful of funny, ultra-hardboiled lines in here, mainly Shelley got them. Yes it was great and I enjoyed, nice one to discover and I’m kind of surprised it’s not better known.

  6. Cool, another great review and another Payne film to watch! He’s quickly becoming one of my favorite noir actors.

    1. Thanks, You can expect more, I have a nice stack of his that I intend to get through, and you’ll hear from most of his fans that The Boss is a great one of his, look for that if you can.

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