George Sherman’s ‘Larceny’ (1948) is an interesting little thriller whose most remarkable feature might just be how unremarkable it is with none of the listed ingredients being particularly original. Neither does it break new ground, push boundaries or shake up any conventions. What it does do, however, and does very nicely, is entertain and that counts for a lot, if not everything. It also had me drawing parallels less between it and other noirs but instead, and surprisingly, the 1962 musical ‘The Music Man’ and, even more surprisingly, a little bit of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ (2010). You see, it goes something like this –
Rick Maxon (John Payne) is a con man working for Silky Randall (an excellent Dan Duryea, and isn’t ‘Silky Randall’ a wonderful name?!). Silky’s scams all follow the same template — identify a wealthy, white-picket-fence, “gee-shucks” town filled with naive American dopes; insinuate Rick into their midst and once their trust has been gained propose the community raise a vast sum of money for a needless, civic white elephant project (maybe a brass band or monorail but, in this case, a youth centre/war memorial) whilst making them believe that it was their idea all along (see what I meant about ‘Inception’?). Then, before the work has even begun, Rick and Silky make off with the dough. It’s a system they seem to have refined to a fine art, even if it also seems the system never quite appears to work.
Not only that but Tory (Shelley Winters) has the major hots for Rick so follows him to the location of his latest job, seriously jeopardising Rick’s attempt in making the town think he’s a decent, upstanding man as opposed to the womanising, swindling slime-ball he really is. To make matters worse Tory is also Silky’s girl and Silky’s a jealous guy so it’s not long before Silky and his men turn up in town to keep an eye on Tory keeping an eye on Rick.
Rick, meanwhile, has fallen for Deb Clark (Joan Caulfield), the town’s good-natured widow sitting on top a huge pile of cash. Deb is also falling for Rick and simply loves the idea of a war memorial, one that will honour the memory of her husband who died during the campaign so she’s willing to give Rick all her money. Isn’t Rick such a lovely guy?
So it’s your typical tale of crooks pulling off a job before one of them either falls for his victim or his boss’ girl and they all end up either arrested or dead. Yet what makes ‘Larceny’ is so fun is that it’s, well… fun.
It’s a film that’s bristling with a noticeable energy, like a horse champing at the bit, and you can tell by the way it opens so eagerly with the movie taking off before we’ve had much time to climb aboard as we observe Rick and Silky briskly entering an important looking man’s important looking office and we have no idea why. Are these three men all legitimate business partners? Silky plonks down some architectural blueprints before the important looking man and launches into a spiel about helicopter landing pads only for the important looking man to declare he knows Silky and Rick are both con men out to swindle his community because while we were watching the opening credits he’d been doing some digging into these two so they’d better leave town immediately. It’s a great way to thrust us straight into a story already in motion.
For here on ‘Larceny’ keeps a really satisfying momentum going that drives everything forward at just the right speed. It’s a really nice script and not just for some great lines of dialogue but specifically for how every scene, every new development, leads effortlessly into the next. I believe the term is “watchable”, and I mean that in its most commendable sense.
The performances are great (especially Winters), the direction decent enough and some of the costumes are gorgeous. Sure, it’s all a bit melodramatic as opposed to thrilling but it’s a great little film and although it doesn’t do anything special it does do one thing extremely well indeed — it makes you want to keenly keep watching.