Though Woody Allen has never explicitly said so, it seems fairly evident that he borrowed the premise of his comic gem “Small Time Crooks” (1999) from 1942’s “Larceny Inc.” In each film a band of ex-cons convene and buy a small business as a means to tunnel into a bank just down the block and rob it blind, cavorting off to some form of paradise. In both cases, however, the business itself proves more successful than the robbery attempt. But while “Small Time Crooks” was a satirical examination of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, a reminder of how rewarding middle class life can be, “Larceny Inc.” comes across much more like a crook’s attempts to live on the straight and narrow, which manifests itself as a comical struggle in which the past keeps trying to rub out the future.
As “Larceny Inc.” opens Pressure Maxwell (Edward G. Robinson) is set to be released from the clink. A fellow jailbird proposes a heist but Pressure turns it down; he plans to go straight by purchasing a dog track with his fellow former accomplices. Alas, when they go to the bank for a loan, they are turned down flat, and here you can briefly see where a 2015 update of Lloyd Bacon’s film could take this angle and truly turn “Larceny Inc.” into a scathing indictment of the banking industry. The actual movie hints at that idea but never really follows through. Instead, Pressure Maxwell decides that to go straight they’ll have to re-go criminal by robbing a bank to fund the operation. The plan: strong-arming Homer Bigelow (Harry Davenport) into selling his luggage store which happens to be right next door to the requisite bank. There, Pressure, Jug and Weepy can maintain a salesmen façade while tunneling into the vault.
More than he could have realized, Pressure finds that façade becoming his reality, even if he keeps trying to suppress it, like in one hysterical sequence where Robinson demonstrates his considerable comic chops by trying to offload any piece luggage possible on an inquisitive customer and then performing the worst wrapping job imaginable. The disgust Robinson conveys in this moment at having to do his job becomes an anthem for any working man tired of the day-in, day-out drudgery, like a Bruce Springsteen song performed instead as a comedy routine.
Pressure’s adopted daughter (Jane Wyman), meanwhile, is desperate for him to live a life free of crime, forcing him to put on airs to convince her that this luggage store is on the up and up, but the screenplay thankfully doesn’t make her dumber than doorknob. She ferrets out the ruse fairly early and goes to comical lengths to force legitimate business on Pressure. And the more actual business his faux-business receives, the more peeved he gets yet the more he’s forced to deal with it, pogoing back and forth between working man and thief.
If the film sometimes leaves you wanting for more fanciful and farcical repartee, it still does a nifty job of putting the real world squeeze on Pressure. His background as a man of utmost nefariousness is precisely what makes him such an unexpectedly successful man of commercial means. The owners of other businesses on the block come to him in their time of need, enlisting him against his will, and against his will, he turns out to be the perfect spokesman on their behalf. He’s like an unintentional Santa Claus, whom we see him dressed up as toward the end, when the thief gets out of prison and comes calling, wise to Pressure’s scheme to rob the bank.
My blogging cohorts over at Where Danger Lives went into a great detail a few years ago about who Edward G. Robinson really was, the way in which he strained so much to be liked and admired, and how he was saddled with regrets over many of the tough-talking noir parts that made him so famous. And while I’m writing through the prism of time, it’s difficult not to see “Larceny Inc.” through that lens, which retroactively renders it as less than fluff, and more as a man struggling so hard to break free how he’s been pigeon-holed. And when in the end he inadvertently becomes the good guy, you feel incredibly happy for him, and by “him” I mean Robinson as much as Pressure.