The first thing you need to know about this movie is that Edward G. Robinson (Key Largo) plays a character named J. Chalmers “Pressure” Maxwell. The second thing you need to know is that there's a scene in which one character says, “We don't need no help from the bank! We can stand on our own two feet!” just before tripping and falling flat on his face. If these two tidbits amuse you, you'll probably have a good time with Larceny, Inc., a silly but entirely likable little crime comedy.
As our tale begins, Maxwell and his dim-witted pal Jug Martin (Broderick Crawford, All the King's Men) are finishing up a two-year prison sentence. A fellow inmate named Leo Dexter (Anthony Quinn, Lawrence of Arabia) approaches them with a bank robbery proposal, but Maxwell quickly declines: he insists that they're going straight and starting a new life for themselves as honest, hard-working American citizens. He means it, but after his business loan request is rejected by the bank, Maxwell begins reconsidering the whole bank robbery idea.
Eventually, Maxwell scrapes together some money and purchases a small luggage shop that just so happens to be located next door to the bank. The shop is in a pretty crummy location (there's a competing luggage shop just across the street, and the street itself is in severe disrepair), but Maxwell has no intention of actually become a successful suitcase salesman. The plan is simple: Maxwell, Jug and their associate Weepy Davis (Edward Brophy, Dance, Girl, Dance) will pose as respectable businessmen while secretly digging a tunnel into the bank vault next door.
The central joke of the movie is a predictable but entertaining one: the luggage shop turns out to be remarkably successful on its own terms, leaving Maxwell and the boys conflicted about whether they want to continue with their initial plan or just accept their new fate as distinguished businessmen. If the premise sounds a little familiar, it may be because you've seen Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks, which borrowed large chunks of this movie. Larceny, Inc. share's that film's sense of lightweight fun, giving us a lots of charming scenes of criminal ineptitude (there's a particularly glorious moment in which Jug hits an underground fuel tank and becomes convinced he's stuck oil) and a handful of likable crooks.
Robinson's image as a tough-guy icon is well-established, but it's easy to forget what a gifted comedian he was. Larceny, Inc. proves a fine showcase for the actor, allowing Robinson to play a smart snake-oil salesman whose devious intelligence is often thwarted by his dim-witted but well-meaning associates. Crawford seems to be having a good time playing one of the dumber characters of his career, Anthony Quinn brings a bit of genuine menace to the proceedings and Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce) has a few fun scenes as a man who continually attempts to persuade Maxwell to restock his inventory. There are a couple of romantic subplots involving characters played by Jane Wyman (Johnny Belinda) and Barbara Jo Allen (The Women), but these feel like obligatory attempts at giving this crime comedy a slightly broader appeal.
The film gets a little too convoluted in its closing stretch as it bends to suit the Hays code (rather than having the characters do the illegal things it wants them to do, the screenplay has someone else force them to do it at gunpoint) and it doesn't have a particularly strong sense of style (it was helmed by Lloyd Bacon, one of those workhouse directors who churned out three or four films a year for Warner Bros.), but nonetheless offers enough laughs to ensure a good time.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 1942