Thursday, January 10, 2013

Tonight's Movie: Larceny (1948)

LARCENY is a film noir which pulls together three actors I've seen in other films in the last couple weeks: John Payne of THE RAZOR'S EDGE (1946), Joan Caulfield of THE UNSUSPECTED (1947), and Dan Duryea of RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954). With those talents, it's a good guess that it's an entertaining movie.

Duryea heads a group of con artists, with Payne as Rick Mason, one of his "employees." Their latest mark is Deborah Clark (Caulfield), a wealthy war widow living in a small California town.

Payne, posing as one of her late husband's war buddies who stops in town for a visit, plants the idea for Deb to build a boys' club as a memorial to her husband. The idea is that townspeople will chip in the money and Payne and his buddies will make off with it. When Deb decides to fund the necessary $100,000 out of her own money, Payne's conscience gets the better of him, as he's fallen in love with her.

The movie is quite absorbing and has many interesting elements, though it's not perfect. There are some red herrings and characters that don't seem to go much of anywhere; for instance, a man fleeced by Payne at the start of the film turns up in town, giving Payne a scare, but then he's never seen again.

Ladies' man Payne catches the eye of both a waitress (Patricia Alphin) and a secretary (Dorothy Hart); the beautiful secretary with glasses, strongly reminiscent of Dorothy Malone in THE BIG SLEEP (1946), plays a key role but one feels that perhaps the movie should have been a bit longer in order to flesh out her part.

Eventually the movie seems to run out of story and just...stops. The film didn't seem to know quite what to do about the fact that Payne's antihero was a no-good, scheming con man who would mess up Deb's life. He does the noble thing -- making one wonder about his future safety -- but the last minutes seemed a bit rushed. The ending, which leaves the tragic Deb cast adrift, seems to raise a few more questions than it answers, though it does provide a good final line for Duryea just as "The End" comes on the screen.

This was John Payne's first film released after MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947), and it came out the same month as THE SAXON CHARM (1948). LARCENY served the same purpose in Payne's career as MURDER, MY SWEET (1944) had for Dick Powell, turning a former crooner into a hard-edged tough guy inhabiting the dark side of moviedom.

Shelley Winters plays Duryea's flame, a bad girl who prefers to chase after Payne despite -- or because of -- the danger involved if Duryea finds out. Her character has a blatant masochistic streak, and the scenes where she and Payne smack each other around, then make love, are...different.

LARCENY was released the year after Shelley Winters' big break in A DOUBLE LIFE (1947). I usually don't care for her -- she was one of many boring aspects of A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), which I found to be a highly overrated film -- but I have to give her credit, she was interesting in this one as a tough girl who gets her thrills living on the edge. Her scenes definitely livened up the film.

I've grown to really like Joan Caulfield, whose filmography was too short. Among her other enjoyable films were DEAR RUTH (1947), DEAR WIFE (1949), and THE PETTY GIRL (1950). I hope to revisit one of her films with Bing Crosby, WELCOME STRANGER (1947), soon.

LARCENY seems a bit like a trial run for Dan Duryea's character in the later CRISS CROSS (1949), which was a more polished take on a dangerous love triangle. (In the case of LARCENY, it becomes a quadrangle, thanks to Payne falling for Caulfield. And then there's those women he's leading on on the side...) There's not quite enough Duryea in LARCENY, but what's there is good stuff.

The supporting cast includes Richard Rober, Percy Helton, Dan O'Herlihy, and Russ Conway.

The film's setting, the mythical "Mission City," California, appears to be located near Pasadena, as Payne and Caulfield spend New Year's Day enjoying the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl. Indeed, IMDb indicates the movie's location shooting was done in Pasadena. I had a feeling I might have seen one of the streets in another film noir.

LARCENY was directed by George Sherman, best known as the director of many Universal Westerns. The assistant director, interestingly enough, was Jesse Hibbs, who directed Duryea in RIDE CLEAR OF DIABLO (1954), seen earlier this week. Black and white cinematography was by Irving Glassberg.

The screenplay was based on the novel THE VELVET FLEECE by Lois Eby and John C. Fleming. One of the screenwriters was William Bowers, who wrote the terrific dialogue for Dick Powell's CRY DANGER (1951), and the dialogue has a definite flair at times which must represent Bowers' work. Payne has a snarky line about Winters' brain that cracked me up.

LARCENY is a Universal film which, like many other '40s films from that studio, is not out on DVD or VHS. It would be wonderful if this film turned up in a beautiful print in the TCM Vault Collection or the Universal Vault series sold by Amazon. In the meantime, many thanks to Kristina for making it possible for me to watch it!

March 2014 Update: I had the wonderful opportunity to see LARCENY again in 35mm at the Noir City Film Festival, with Dan Duryea's family present.

3 Comments:

Blogger Vienna said...

Thanks for your review of this film I had never even heard of. Hope it becomes available sometime.Good cast.

12:39 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I've seen this film and it clearly loses steam despite excellent performances all around and fine direction by George Sherman. Something went wrong. My guess, it happened in post-production, but it would be interesting to know for a fact.

9:20 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

The cast definitely makes it worthwhile, Vienna.

Thanks for your feedback, Barrylane...interested that you felt it lost steam as well, despite having so much going for it. I think I particularly felt the loss of any emotional closure for the Caulfield character. She was just kinda...left there.

Best wishes,

10:06 AM  

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