Starring Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, and William Bendix
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Outstanding noir about a factotum’s quest to clear a political boss of a murder charge and the woman who comes between them.
The Glass Key, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, acts as a follow up—to the success of The Maltese Falcon, which likewise was based on a Hammett novel, and to the successful pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire.
The film follows Ed Beaumont (Ladd), the go-to man for political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a two-fisted tough guy who rose from ward heeler to head honcho through a combination of violence, charm, and gumption. But Beaumont is clearly the brains of the organization. Beaumont displays fierce loyalty to Madvig, only to find that Madvig doubts that loyalty when a woman enters the picture. In film noir, a woman is always at the root of all trouble.
Here, the woman is Janet Henry (Lake), the daughter of reform candidate for the Senate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen). Her father needs Madvig’s support to win the election, but Madvig does not need Henry, who is not above pimping his daughter if it will get him Madvig’s support. The cultured Henrys are clearly leading on the rough-around-the-edges Madvig, but he refuses to believe Beaumont’s warnings about Henry and his daughter. However, Madvig has no problem distrusting Henry’s no-account son Taylor, who has been romancing Madvig’s sister, Opal (Bonita Granville). The antipathy between the two men is well known, and when Taylor Henry is found murdered, Madvig is the obvious suspect. It’s up to Beaumont to clear Madvig of the crime.
In a suave, intelligent performance, Ladd, who gets third billing after Donlevy and Lake, dominates the movie, controlling it with his natural charisma. His Beaumont is a master of the noir world. He knows how to maneuver in the underworld. He knows what people want before they ask him. He knows every angle. He operates in the gray areas, the areas between the good and the bad, the legal and the criminal, the strong and the weak. His goal is one of forwarding the law and justice, to exonerate an innocent man and locate the guilty party, but he employs methods of questionable morality and legality, taking advantage of the corrupt system he himself largely maintains. Beaumont leads others to violence, but never perpetrates violence himself. He is intelligent, but occupies and seems satisfied occupying a subordinate position to a man clearly less intelligent than himself, deferring to Madvig even when he knows Madvig is wrong. While he is a confident man of strong abilities, he displays weakness at key moments in the story.
Ladd’s smallish Beaumont cannot claim physical prowess or an intimidating persona. For example, in one confrontation, the best he can do is to kick his adversary in the shin. But he does tap into one source of confidence, his easy sexuality. Beaumont cruises through the story, if not having sexual relations (this is a film made under the production code), then, at least, engaging in sexual byplay with any number of women. Even after he receives a monumental beating in the middle of the story, Beaumont still manages to carry on a flirtation with his nurse, who, amused, says, “No wonder people beat you up.” Furthermore, Beaumont’s sexual interplay is not limited to members of the opposite sex. The movie hints a strong psycho-sexual component to the sadism of the man who beats up Beaumont, a thug named Jeff (William Bendix). Bendix’s over-the-top performance proves the film’s greatest weakness. Yet, it’s difficult not to overact when playing a stupid, psychotic sadist.
The role of Janet Henry is key in defining the novel as hard-boiled and the 1942 film as a film noir. Janet Henry is not a femme fatale in the common usage of the term. She does not drive men to murder, nor does she lead them to their doom. She does, however, through her machinations, attempt to incriminate Madvig, and she drives an irreparable wedge between Madvig and Beaumont. As played by Veronica Lake, she is coldly beautiful, unattainable, captious, captivating, and mysterious, hiding behind that peek-a-boo hairdo for which Lake was famous.
Janet disrupts the equilibrium of Beaumont and Madvig’s world, driving it from order to disintegration. Her interference has broken the homosocial bond between Madvig and Beaumont. Jealousy over her causes Madvig to misunderstand Beaumont and question his loyalty throughout the film. This lack of faith on Madvig’s part leads to a permanent rupture in their relationship. Even though the film is not a tragedy like many films noir, the community cannot return to a state of order or wholeness, which it can in those tragic films noir where the death of the morally deviant purges the community. The Glass Key offers a different kind of pessimism, one ruled by entropy, where society lacks any moral force at all and where corruption is greeted as a welcome return to normalcy.
The one missing piece in the film is a director with a sense of style. Stuart Heisler is competent but not inventive. The film’s best scene, where Beaumont drives Jeff to murder someone, is partially cribbed from a prior film version of the novel in 1935, directed by Frank Tuttle. Heisler recreates the swinging overhead light that alternates between placing Beaumont in light and darkness, as it does in the earlier film. However, he takes advantage of advances in cinematography by capturing the murder and Beaumont in the same shot, as Jeff kills the man in the foreground while Beaumont watches from the background.
Heisler does create strong compositions but only rarely deviates from traditional approaches to capturing them on camera. Unlike the classic film noir directors, he rarely varies his angles or uses low-key lighting. When he does—as the film approaches the conclusion, it gets literally darker—it’s very effective. But this film lacks the shadow-filled look of many films noir, and that’s a shame. The world that the story creates is one that would best be served by the noir style.
Nevertheless, the direction is competent and the story robust and interesting enough to make up for any lack of style. A more creative director could have made a masterpiece, but The Glass Key is still an excellent film, well-performed, narratively strong, and thematically complex.