Release Date(s)1948 (July 13, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B+
Larceny, one of the lesser-known noir films of the genre, draws upon themes of patriotism, opportunism, sexual attraction, and jealousy.
Silky Randall (Dan Duryea) heads a group of con artists, among them Rick Mason (John Payne). As the film opens, we see just how Randall and Rick scam a wealthy businessman. They’re methodical, clever, and aware of how to stay out of trouble with the authorities, and adept at pulling in serious money.
Their latest mark is Deborah Clark (Joan Caulfield), a wealthy young California war widow still grieving for her husband. Mason, posing as one of her husband’s war buddies, stops in town to visit her, ingratiates himself with the townspeople, then suggests she build a boys’ club as a memorial to her late husband. His idea is that Deborah will propose and provide seed money for the project and the people will donate all the rest. The real plan is that Mason and his pals will contrive to make off with the money. But when Deborah decides to use only her own money, his conscience kicks in. To complicate matters, he’s fallen in love with her.
Mason is portrayed as a magnet for women. Randall’s girlfriend Tory (Shelley Winters) is more interested in Mason and a waitress (Patricia Alpin) and a secretary (Dorothy Hart) also have eyes for him. He knows Tory can cause Randall to explode, yet strings her along while flirting with whatever pretty face crosses his path. But Payne exudes little heat and is rather bland and lifeless. A good con man conveys enthusiasm in the scam he’s pushing but Payne is too laid back and seems disengaged from the other characters. His attraction to Deborah is in the script but doesn’t come alive on screen. He’s not at all convincing as a ladies’ man.
Winters’ Tory is a fiery, but not overly smart broad who throws a monkey wrench into the elaborate scam. Tory has a masochistic bent. A scene in which she and Mason slap each other around and then make love might be over the top but it does add spice to an otherwise tepid film. Winters’ appearances perk things up, and it’s fun to see her in an early screen role.
Duryea, who cornered the slimy movie villain market, fits perfectly into the role of Silky Randall. He conveys menace but can just as easily pass himself off as a confident businessman. His volatility is tested when he suspects Tory has eyes for Mason. Duryea, a stronger actor than Payne, has a smaller role but provides the chemistry that Payne lacks.
Caulfield’s Deborah is the “good girl,” pure of heart, with no clue that she’s being taken advantage of. She trusts Mason, which he counts on to succeed in scamming her, and believes he shares her dream of a memorial to her husband. Her motivations are open and honest, markedly different from all of the other major characters. She successfully elicits sympathy with her naive innocence.
Director George Sherman is not especially imaginative in staging shots and makes little effort in enhancing production values to make this low-budget picture look richer. Sets are simple offices for the most part. Caulfield wears some fancy Orry Kelly gowns and her home reflects tasteful wealth. The narrative seems rushed and the ending is almost comical in the timing of certain characters arriving at precisely the right moment.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Blu-ray release of Larceny from Kino Lorber Studio Classics is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The picture quality overall is quite good for a film over 70 years old. Dirt specks, scratches, cue marks, and other evidence of decomposition are absent. There’s a bit of emulsion clouding on the opening credits, but it subsides quickly and is not a major deterrent. Blacks are deep and the grey spectrum is pleasant. Whites are muted, which is appropriate considering the subject matter. There’s little in the film to enhance visuals apart from a brief New Year’s Eve nightclub celebration scene. Joan Caulfield’s Orry Kelly gowns add a touch of glamour to the dark doings.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. English SDH subtitles are an available option. The dialogue throughout is precise and easily understood, which is significant since the film is mostly driven by it. Winters’ Tory is brash and obvious in her sexual appetites and exhibits them through a seductive speaking manner, particularly when she’s with Mason. Duryea’s dialogue as Randall comes through as cool, calm, and collected, exuding the character’s self-confident menace. Payne delivers most of his dialogue in a flat, uninteresting fashion. This is the fifth film score by Leith Stevens, who also wrote the scores for Destination Moon (1950), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Wild One (1954). The music is functional if not distinctive.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary and several theatrical trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Eddy Von Mueller describes the late 40s/early 50s as a tumultuous time for cinema, which saw “cataclysmic changes.” He notes that classifying Larceny as a film noir is somewhat problematic. Topical subjects became more popular during this period. The con men in the film who prey upon stupidity and vulnerability are referred to today as white collar criminals. Noirs are based on middle-ground crime stories and come under the heading of the hardboiled school of fiction. The genre dates back to the 1920s. “Mob bosses had been sporting brassy broads” for some time. The protagonists are not nice guys; they’re self-interested and untrustworthy. The male psyche is portrayed as fragile in film noir. Shelley Winters screen tested for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, but George Cukor told her to take acting lessons. Her screen roles were forgettable until she appeared opposite Ronald Colman in A Double Life, a part that boosted her career. John Payne never made an impression on screen, bouncing from one studio to the next, until he starred in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) in a role very different from Rick Mason. Regular weekly movie attendance by Americans declined after World War II. TV became a real threat; its start was slow but its growth rapid. By 1952, attendance had dipped by one-third. Post-World War II films were racy, geared towards adults, and featured grown-up problems. In addition, films became very expensive and every studio started cutting costs. Larceny didn’t take chances because it couldn’t afford to. The Production Code, still in effect, was eroding, though it would last another ten years. The end of the studio era came quickly. Universal had no theater chain and was not affected by the consent decree that forced studios to separate production and exhibition of product. Universal had already merged with International Pictures, an independent, and by 1952 was acquired by Decca Records, the first of the old-school studios to be absorbed by a conglomerate. “Larceny is one of many timely, anguished period films that arose from the multiple traumas within American culture and American entertainment in those heady, heartbreaking years after the war.”
Theatrical Trailers – Eight trailers for other Kino Lorber Studio Classics Blu-ray noir releases are included: The Web, Alias Nick Beal, 99 River Street, Hidden Fear, He Ran All the Way, The Woman in the Window, Cry of the City, and The Sleeping City.
Larceny has an engaging story, some effective performances, and considerable intrigue, but Payne is far from the ideal noir anti-hero. The film moves briskly, but often seems too rushed. There are a few surprises, but mostly we know from the outset how things will turn out. Difficult to find for years, the film’s availability on Blu-ray is a boon for film noir aficionados.
- Dennis Seuling