29 August 2004 | bmacv
John Payne makes smart his move to the newborn noir cycle
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 middle.
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.