Touch of Larceny, A (1959)

UK-US / 93 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Guy Hamilton Pr: Ivan Foxwell Scr: Roger MacDougall, Guy Hamilton, Ivan Foxwell Story: The Megstone Plot (1956) by Andrew Garve Cine: John Wilcox Cast: James Mason, Vera Miles, George Sanders, Harry Andrews, Robert Flemyng, Ernest Clark, Duncan Lamont, Percy Herbert, Junia Crawford, William Kendall, Peter Barkworth, MacDonald Parke, Mavis Villiers, Jimmy Lloyd, Barbara Hicks, William Mervyn, Dickie Owen, Basil Dignam, John Le Mesurier, Gordon Harris.

Touch of Larceny - 0 opener

In London, ex-submariner Commander Max Easton (Mason), known as “Rammer” Easton in his war-hero days, is now stuck in a seat-warming job at the Admiralty, where he idles his way through his so-called working hours before evening comes and he can practice his main hobby, seduction.

Touch of Larceny - 1 Max, as busy as he ever gets at the AdmiraltyMax (James Mason), as busy as he ever gets at the Admiralty.

One day at his squash club he runs into someone he recognizes, Charles Holland (Sanders), who during the war saved Max’s life at some stage and is now a high muck-a-muck in the diplomatic service; Charles also wallows in his inherited wealth, is a complete snob and prig, and is engaged to a beautiful US widow, Virginia Killain (Miles). On first sight of Virginia, Max is completely smitten, but she’s immune to his various wiles and repels all his advances, even though it’s plain to us that the attraction’s by no means all one way.

Touch of Larceny - 8 Charles and Virginia, staidly heading for matrimony

 Charles (George Sanders) and Virginia (Vera Miles), staidly heading toward matrimony.

What she hasn’t counted on is that, while Charles is abroad on some mission, her elderly aunt and uncle, Jason (Parke) and Adele Parrish (Villiers), visit London. Meeting Max and being introduced to him as a “friend of Charles,” they’re much taken with him and innocently throw the two young people more together than they might have been. This may seem a small plot point to focus on, but the cameos by Parke and Villiers in these roles are both very funny and quite charming.

Touch of Larceny - 2 Max and Virginia get to know each other a little better

Max (James Mason) and Virginia (Vera Miles) get to know each other a little better.

Virginia and Max see a fair amount of each other thereafter, but Virginia manages to keep things more or less platonic. Max is of course curious as to why an intelligent woman like Virginia should be planning to marry a dull old stick like Charles. He assumes the attraction must be stability and, yes, the fact that Charles has money while he himself sort of bumps along from paycheck to paycheck.

Touch of Larceny - 4 Virginia goes sailing with Max

Virginia (Vera Miles) goes sailing with Max.

More in jest than anything else, while prattling with Virginia he devises a brilliant moneymaking scheme. Just before going on leave, he’ll “lose” one of the Top Secret dossiers in his office down the back of a filing cabinet, then leave a few clues that he might have defected to the Russkies. In reality, he’ll take his sailboat to a remote part of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, wreck it on the shore of some deserted rock, and make sure long enough passes before he’s “rescued” that the press will have gone wild about his supposed defection. And then he can sue the newspapers for millions for defamation.

Touch of Larceny - 5 Graham and Bates (Clark) watch disapprovingly as Max seemingly gets hammered at Soviet embassy

Captain Graham (Harry Andrews) and Commander Bates (Ernest Clark) watch disapprovingly as Max seemingly gets hammered at Soviet embassy as part of his larcenous plan.

Virginia assumes he’s just joking. But then he puts the plan into action. Unfortunately, before she realizes quite what’s going on, she’s blabbed bits of it to Charles who, in a roiling ferment of self-righteousness, declares that Max’s scheme must be thwarted and the man banged up for attempted fraud. Virginia takes it upon herself to devise a (very clever!) means of rescuing Max from his dilemma . . . from more of a dilemma than she knows, in fact, because Max, having spent ten days of idleness on his remote, gull-infested rock getting through an improbable amount of booze and generally living the life of Riley, has had a little accident . . .

Touch of Larceny - 6 One of the bits of 'evidence' Max leaves behind

One of the bits of fake evidence Max leaves behind.

Any threadbare claim to noirishness that the romantic caper comedy A Touch of Larceny might have rests flimsily on its tortuous plot and the presence of some of its cast members. All sorts of stalwarts of the UK school of film noir, and of the EDGAR WALLACE MYSTERIES, make brief appearances, and some of them more than brief.

Touch of Larceny - 10 A great turn from Lamont as the Special Branch officer who knows more than he's going to tell

There’s a neat performance from Lamont as the Special Branch officer who knows more than he’s going to tell.

Duncan Lamont puts in a good turn as Special Branch Officer Grigson; I’m not usually a major fan of Lamont’s work, but he gets things just right here. John Le Mesurier, of whom I am a fan, has a small role as the irascible Chief Lord of the Admiralty. Basil Dignam pops up as an Admiralty press officer. Percy Herbert bizarrely pops up among the relatively few cast members to be listed in the opening credits; he has a bit part as a surly cop on duty at Liverpool Docks when Max is making a “remember me later” song and dance about wanting to board a vessel called the Karl Marx. The excellent Barbara Hicks, as the head of the secretarial pool in his part of the Admiralty, treats Max disapprovingly. In fact, I think I may have to . . . yes, here’s a screengrab of her:

Touch of Larceny - 7 Barbara Hicks NO CAPTION - KEYED IN

Junia Crawford is the married Susan, one of Max’s conquests. Harry Andrews is Max’s immediate boss, Captain G. Graham. Gordon Harris is a Special Branch man working alongside Lamont’s Grigson . . . And so the list goes on.

No prizes for guessing that eventually Virginia realizes that her betrothed, Charles, is guilty not just of insufferable priggishness but of a sort of corrupt vindictiveness born out of complacency and privilege. At the movie’s end she tells Max, who provides occasional prompts:

“You are the most outrageous person. . . . You’re dishonest, deceitful, untrustworthy, unscrupulous . . . unprincipled, a rascal, a rogue, a rake . . . a scoundrel, a snake, dishonest . . . unreliable, untrustworthy . . . and wicked. But I love you.”

The three principals are in sparkling form, Mason especially, and, although the pacing becomes a little uncertain for a while after Max’s “rescue,” that’s about as much criticism as I can find of this amiable and extremely pleasing offering.

Oh, and the soundtrack, by Philip Green, is very good too. The headline song, sung by Jimmy Lloyd in a nightclub where Max and Virginia dance, is “The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington.

Touch of Larceny - 3 SEE TEXT

Jimmy Lloyd sings “The Nearness of You” by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington.

The novel upon which this movie was based was published as by Andrew Garve, the most frequently used nom de plume of the Fleet Street journalist and prolific thriller writer Paul Winterton, a founder-member of the Crime Writers’ Association. A number of his novels were filmed around the world, for large or small screen. He seems to have vanished from the public eye now, but I can remember a time when his paperbacks were all over every railway-station bookstall.

Touch of Larceny - 9 Max's plans go awry on the island

They do, you know, gang aft agley.


27 thoughts on “Touch of Larceny, A (1959)

  1. I can’t imagine George Sanders playing a prig. In fact, twenty years earlier he could have made an excellent job of Easton.

    • To be honest, I don’t think he’d have been right for Easton. Mason brings to the role a sort of wide-eyed schoolboyish faux-innocence that I don’t think Sanders could have pulled off.

      • “wide-eyed schoolboyish faux-innocence” was one of Mason’s skills as an actor: even as a villain in North By North-West he comes across as a naif who chose the wrong job.

    • I think you’d love this one, Jacqui — I do hope you find it.

      (I posted a very similar response a few hours ago. I’m alarmed that it seems to have vanished. As they used to say on The Outer Limits: Oo-ee-oo-ee-oo.)

    • AND Vera Miles, let us not forget. 🙂

      I enjoyed it far more than the movie’s probably worth. It’s likely to feature on my Guilty Pleasures list in the future.

    • Thanks for the kind words. The movie’s real fun for all the family — not a sort of Lawrence of Arabia night-to-remember, but just a wholly amiable piece to watch while curled up on the couch.

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