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Like Dick Powell, John Payne was another crooner and hoofer from 30s
musicals a light leading man who saw new opportunities waiting in the
changing Hollywood of the late 40s and seized them. Eschewing also-ran
roles in prestige pictures (The Razor's Edge, Miracle on 34th Street), he
found he was better off taking top billing in the grittier Bs of the newborn
noir cycle. It was a smart move. With rugged good looks but no glamour
boy, a strong, silent type who didn't make it a gimmick, he turned into a
plausible and appealing Average Joe, without ever fading into the generic.
In the half-dozen or so noirs he starred in, he straddled both sides of the
law, though he usually found himself stranded in a no-man's land in the
In Larceny, he's one of a gang of con-men led by Dan Duryea. They've just finished a grift in Miami Beach, so Payne is sent to the far coast, to `Mission City,' to lay groundwork for the next job. He poses as an old service buddy of a slain war hero so the widow (Joan Caulfield) will spearhead a fund-raising drive for a memorial sort of a posh Boy's Town for underprivileged youth that, of course, is nothing more than a scheme for bilking donors.
But that mischievous cherub Cupid throws a few monkey wrenches into the works. First off, Payne starts developing protective feelings for Caulfield and, more slowly, she for him (she's been playing Vestal Virgin at her husband's altar for so long she finds her own feelings a betrayal). Even worse, Duryea's moll, a `boa constrictor in high heels' (Shelley Winters, in full blonde-bombshell mode) carries such a torch for Payne that she follows him out west, by bus yet. The sicker Payne grows of her, the needier and more reckless she gets their unstable chemistry threatens to blow them both sky high. The plot executes several quick turns when the possessive Duryea shows up (as does the victim of the Miami scam), when Caulfield reveals that she plans to put up all the money herself, and when Winters decides to take matters into her own pistol-packin' hand....
The violence in Larceny is toned way down, confined mainly to Winters' being slapped around (but she slaps back). It relies instead on a tight script, bristling with smart-mouthed cracks: `[Winters] is like a high-tension wire. Once you grab on, you can't let go even if you want to;' `You kiss like you're paying off an election bet;' `I said I'm sorry but I'm not going to write it on the blackboard 100 times.' It allows Percy Helton and Dorothy Hart space enough to flesh out their small parts (Hart does a scrumptious riff on Dorothy Malone's bookstore clerk in The Big Sleep). All in all, Larceny proves a congenial vehicle for Payne's welcome arrival in dark city.
When I went to see this lesser known noir, the person introducing it described it as "almost a parody" of this kind of film and said not to take it too seriously. Nevertheless, it is a film about con artists and their techniques, and I love those. Especially well showcased is the technique of letting a mark think something is his or her own idea, and people are always more determined to do things that they think are their own ideas. The story features a group of globetrotting, high-rolling grifters led by John Payne and noir regular Dan Duryea, who decide to target a wealthy but naive young war widow(Joan Caulfield) with a scheme to build a youth center memorializing her husband. This necessitates Payne pretending to be a buddy of her late husband, who in reality, he had never met. At first the plan is to raise money from wealthy friends, but she then decides to bankroll the whole project herself. Things are further complicated when a sometime girlfriend of both of the men, played by a tough-as-nails young Shelly Winters, refuses to stay under wraps. This film seems to have been largely forgotten, which is a shame.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This one is a rather unseen film-noir gem put out by UniversalInternational Studios in 1948. The cast is made up of Dan Duryea, John Payne, Shelly Winters, Joan Caulfield, Dan O'Herlihy, Richard Rober, Dorothy Hart and Percy Helton.
Dan Duryea, John Payne Richard Rober and Dan O'Herlihy are con men who have just pulled a 250,000 dollar score in Miami Florida. In the mix here is young and hot looking, Shelly Winters. She is the main squeeze of gang leader, Dan Duryea, or so he thinks. Miss Winters however has the hots for John Payne. Payne refers to Winters as, "a boa constrictor in high heels" and tries to steer clear of her.
Now the gang is moving cross country to pull another job in California. They are going to hit a small burg called Mission City. There is a nice sized population of well heeled types residing there.
Payne, the pretty boy front for the gang, hits town first to do the scouting. The mark is a wealthy war widow, Joan Caulfield. Payne is posing as a soldier from the same unit as Caulfield's dead husband. Payne is to say all the proper things and hook the widow into building a war memorial. Of course the whole thing will be a con job. Duryea and the others will stay out of the way till needed. Duryea will play the memorial builder etc.
Gumming up the works here is Miss Winters. She was sent on a trip to Cuba by Duryea. She however decided she prefers the company of Payne more and followed the group to California. Duryea, needless to say is not the type to take losing a dame lightly. He already suspected that the two, Winters and Payne were up to a bit of horizontal Cha-Cha.
Payne sets the hook and soon has the game, Caulfield, firmly on the line. Things are going rather well except for Winters showing at all the wrong times. Payne knows full well that Winters' infatuation with him, could get both of the them deep-sixed by Duryea. Muddying the waters here is also the fact that Payne has taken a shine to Miss Caulfield. He is not sure whether he wants to continue with the con.
The chance though of a $100,000 plus payday is just too juicy to resist. His end will be enough to break with Duryea and the gang, not to mention get away from increasingly nutty Winters. The deal is nearly complete when Winters again fouls matters up. Caulfield now tumbles to the fix but realizes that she has fallen for the heel, Payne. Of course there is a spot of violence needed to settle the matter, with Winters biting the floor and Payne being hauled off to jail.
This is a pretty nifty upper B film which was Payne's first foray into film noir. Payne would also shine in, THE CROOKED WAY, 99 RIVER STREET, HIDDEN FEAR, KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL, SLIGHTLY SCARLET and THE BOSS. Dan Duryea and Shelly Winters also had a fairly long list of noir on their resume.
The director here was veteran helmsman, George Sherman. Sherman could always be relied on to deliver a solid product. The man worked in several genres with, RELENTLESS, BLACK BART, SWORD IN THE DESERT, THE SLEEPING CITY, TOMAHAWK, WAR ARROW, BORDER RIVER, LAST OF THE FAST GUNS and BIG JAKE as examples of his films.
The screenplay features plenty of great lines and was supplied by William Bowers based on a novel by, Lois Eby. The two time, Oscar nominated Bowers worked on several top notch film noir, such as, THE WEB, THE MOB, PITFALL, ABANDONED, CRISS CROSS, CONVICTED, SPLIT SECOND and CRY DANGER.
I'm always surprised at just how drop dead gorgeous, Shelly Winters was as a young woman.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
With crime boss Dan Duryea keeping an eye on him, dashing con-artist
John Payne does his best to go through with the larceny to end all
larceny's, swindling sweet widow Joan Caulfield over bequests to build
a youth center near the mission she works at. But there are far too
many hot to trot broads after him, including jealous Duryea's equally
jealous floozy moll (Shelley Winters), suave secretary Dorothy Hart and
wisecracking waitress Patricia Alphin who is no match for Winters'
threats to cut out her heart. Duryea keeps getting more suspicious,
even though it's obvious that Payne is slowly falling for the gentle
This is moderately entertaining but old hat as far as the story goes. However, with character performers like Percy Helton and Walter Greaza along, with tough talking Winters getting a ton of great dialog and Duryea equally sinister, the film seems to be better than it is. Caulfield seems too good to be true, especially with the three vixens dropping a quip every time she oozes more sweetness. Payne's a far cry from all the war heroes, athletes and other good guys he's played. I would recommend this simply on the basis of seeing Winters on her way up the ladder, still quite shapely, but certainly no lady.
There is no film noir starring John Payne that cannot be watched again
and again with increasing pleasure. Think "Larceny" (1948), "The
Crooked Way" (1949), "Kansas City Confidential" (1952), "99 River
Street" (1953), "Hell's Island" (1955), "Slightly Scarlet" (1956), "The
Boss" (1956), and "Hidden Fear" (1957). I expect the same of "The Saxon
Charm" (1948), which is on my to-see list. Payne looks imposing, but
he's often vulnerable and placed in situations where he's vulnerable.
He looks serious mostly, but he conveys a certain mordant quality, even
directed at himself. He delivers hard-boiled dialogue as if he were
inventing it on the spot and meant it. He's always on the move, working
to extricate himself, or advance his interest against other forces. His
roles are typically dynamic. And the man is likable. The stories are
strong. All of this makes repeated viewing a natural.
"Larceny" is way ahead of "The Sting" (1973), "House of Games" (1987), and "The Grifters" (1990) in showing how con-men acting in teams can thoroughly persuade their marks, involve them in some scheme, and walk off with their money. The team in this case has Dan Duryea as its leader. Richard Rober is the strong man who does such chores as following Payne and transporting Duryea's moll, Shelley Winters, to the airport. Payne is the smooth operator who works in tandem with Duryea to put across the swindle. Dan O'Herlihy is the indispensable fake lawyer, or real estate agent or accountant who adds a seemingly independent veneer of respectability and endorsement to a scheme.
What can go wrong? Plenty. Winters and Payne are playing around behind Duryea's back, and she's a stick of dynamite. Duryea is suspicious. They have a new scheme to swindle the rich people of Mission City, with Joan Caulfield, the war widow, as the linchpin. Payne assumes the role of a wartime buddy of her husband, but he seems to be softening up with her. Maybe, because his flirtations with Dorothy Hart and Patricia Alphin, also seem genuine. Winters has secretly followed the gang out to California instead of boarding a plane to Cuba. She wants Payne badly. Caulfield has decided to finance the entire venture (a boys club) herself, rather than solicit contributions from the town's wealthy. Payne thinks that should scotch the deal, but Duryea doesn't. Their conman brains and schemes shift into high gear.
Universal or whoever hasn't seen fit yet to produce a DVD of any kind, remastered or not, of this very good noir. You'll have to seek it out in the collector's market.
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