The Glass Key (1942)

The Glass Key (1942) is a classic Ladd-Lake Dashiell Hammett violent political intrigue and romance film noir thriller remake directed by Stuart Heisler and starring a case-file of noir talent including Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Bonita Granville, Richard Denning and Joseph Calleia.

It's a complex fast moving typewriter-written stylistic and at times super violent political romp, with a dog attack.

Whatever your take on and tolerance for film noir the 1942 second production of The Glass Key is almost a law unto itself at times, not so outré as some of its peers, but far harder for it.

The Glass Key (1942)

Warner Brothers' smash hit adaptation of The Maltese Falcon in 1941 set the stage for Paramount to follow suit with another Dashiell Hammett novel, The Glass Key. The success of the former, coupled with the potent on-screen chemistry of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire (1942), spurred Paramount to seize the opportunity to capitalize on their dynamic pairing once more. Enter The Glass Key, a choice ripe for adaptation, offering ample room for Ladd to flex his stoic toughness as Ned Beaumont and for Lake to breathe life into the expanded role of Janet Henry.

The 1942 rendition of The Glass Key joined the ranks of numerous crime-detective thrillers of the era, nestled snugly within the dark, violent, and brooding milieu of film noir. While much attention is often paid to the genre's signature expressionistic lighting and moody atmospheres, it's the subtler nuances of tone and mood that truly define noir. In the case of The Glass Key, style reigns supreme, overshadowing even the substance of its narrative. The film's visual aesthetics, meticulously crafted to evoke a sense of existential despair, imbue it with an air of sophistication that elevates it above mere pulp fiction.

Yet, despite its visual prowess, the remake of The Glass Key falls short of fully embracing the bleak fatalism characteristic of noir. Rather than exuding the heightened realism and brooding intensity expected of the genre, the film adopts a curiously neutral visual scheme, lacking the grit and urban harshness of its contemporaries. While certain scenes succeed in capturing the essence of noir—such as the rain-drenched funeral and the climactic confrontation in the speakeasy—the overall ambiance feels subdued, failing to immerse viewers in its world.

Structurally, the film hews closer to Hammett's original narrative, restoring key incidents omitted from the previous adaptation. Of particular note is the enhanced characterization of Janet Henry, which adds depth to her relationship with Madvig and sparks a riveting dynamic with Beaumont. Their sharp-witted banter, tinged with sexual tension and class-conscious antagonism, foreshadows the sophisticated interplay between Bogart's Marlowe and Bacall's Sternwood in The Big Sleep.

In essence, while The Glass Key may not fully embrace the noir aesthetic of its predecessor, it remains a noteworthy entry in the genre, buoyed by its strong performances and sharp dialogue. Despite its shortcomings, the film serves as a testament to the enduring appeal of Hammett's gritty underworld and the timeless allure of the femme fatale.

The Glass Key (1942)

The simple Hollyw00d-styled love tension simmering between Janet and Beaumont may command attention, but it never overshadows the central relationship at the heart of the narrative—the bond between the two male protagonists, Beaumont and Madvig. 

The Glass Key (1942)

Despite Beaumont's lingering disapproval of Madvig's involvement with the Henrys and his warnings against tangling with political adversaries like Nick Varna, their camaraderie remains steadfast. The symbolic glass key, a recurring motif from the original film, resurfaces in their dialogue, symbolizing the trust and mutual understanding between Madvig and Senator Henry. Beaumont's cautionary words—"a glass key. See that it doesn't break off"—underscore his commitment to protecting Madvig's interests, even if it means risking his own safety.

Veronica Lake in The Glass Key (1942)

Brian Donlevy's portrayal of Madvig in The Glass Key drew comparisons to his role as a machine politician in Preston Sturges' The Great McGinty, albeit to the detriment of his performance. While Donlevy's depiction exudes a certain comic undertone reminiscent of his character in McGinty, it fails to capture the multifaceted essence of Hammett's Madvig. 

Alan Ladd in The Glass Key (1942)

Veronica Lake in The Glass Key (1942)

From the outset, Donlevy's Madvig comes across as impulsive, crude, and lacking in the dignity and authority befitting a political leader. His portrayal leans dangerously close to the oafish and comical, undermining the character's credibility and the depth of his relationship with Beaumont.

In contrast, Alan Ladd delivers a controlled and intelligent performance as Ned Beaumont, effectively conveying the character's determination and intensity. Despite being younger and conventionally handsome, Ladd's portrayal is consistent and compelling, although occasionally marred by a hint of callowness. His interpretation of Beaumont, particularly in a scene absent from the first film, showcases Ladd's ability to embody the character's darker complexities. In a sequence where Beaumont manipulates a vulnerable newspaper publisher, Ladd skillfully balances charm with a chilling ruthlessness, revealing the character's capacity for casual cruelty beneath his composed exterior.

Ladd's portrayal highlights the nuanced facets of Beaumont's nature, emphasizing the character's relentless pursuit of his objectives, even at the expense of others. It is in these moments of moral ambiguity and calculated manipulation that Ladd's performance truly shines, offering a glimpse into the darker depths of Ned Beaumont's psyche.

Beaumont's unwavering loyalty to Madvig drives his relentless pursuit of justice, even in the face of false accusations and personal peril. His dedication to Madvig's cause is evident in his assertion to Janet that Madvig has earned his loyalty by remaining honest and upright. While Janet may fail to comprehend the depth of the bond between these two men, the film's narrative endeavors to make it palpable to the audience. However, despite its efforts, the film falls short in fully elucidating the intricacies of their relationship, leaving a notable gap in the storytelling.

Indeed, this failure to effectively convey the profound connection between Beaumont and Madvig constitutes a significant flaw in the film's execution. Despite the thematic resonance and narrative potential inherent in their dynamic, the film struggles to fully capitalize on this central relationship, resulting in a missed opportunity to deepen the emotional resonance of the story.

A dark and elusive novel, and a difficult one to categorize, The Glass Key could not have been an easy work to bring to the screen, either in 1935 or 1942. The evidence of the two films does not establish conclusive superiority of one over the other, nor does the later film demonstrate an appreciable degree of maturity in its treatment of the material. In retrospect, it appears that 1942's The Glass Key was interim noir , coming between the not-yet assimilated divergences of Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon and sardonic mid-40s dramas like Double Indemnity and The Killers that audiences would come to accept in their stride. As a movie year, 1942 was typified by Wake Island , Mrs. Miniver and Yankee Doodle Dandy- popular films that manifested a patriotic and optimistic spirit. Filmmakers were not yet ready to offer an uncompromised adaptation of The Glass Key , and it's probable that audiences were not yet ready to accept one. As Hollywood's experience with The Maltese Falcon showed, it might take a third try to get it right.

"The Glass Key": The Original and Two Copies

Saul N. Scher

Literature/Film Quarterly

Vol. 12, No. 3 (1984), p 159 

Published By: Salisbury University

Once upon a time, there was a story called The Glass Key, and a big movie company called Paramount made it into a movie in 1935 with a man named George Raft. They still had the story in 1941 when they met a man named Alan Ladd, who they really liked while he was in another movie called This Gun for Hire. Before that movie even came out, a big boss at Paramount said they were going to make a special movie just for Ladd. 

Joseph Calleia in The Glass Key (1942)

The Glass Key story was really popular because of another movie called The Maltese Falcon in 1941 with a man named Humphrey Bogart and a lady named Mary Astor. So, Paramount thought making a new version of The Glass Key would be good for Ladd. They said they wanted a "sure-fire story" to help Ladd.

They said they were going to start making the new movie in October 1941. But then, two months later, they said Ladd was going to do another story called Red Harvest instead of The Glass Key. They said a man named Jonathan Latimer would write it, and another man named Fred Kohlmar would make it. There was also another man named Brian Donlevy who was going to be in it.

The Glass Key (1942)

But then, they changed their minds again—Red Harvest didn't happen, and they went back to making The Glass Key with Donlevy and Ladd. They picked a man named Stuart Heisler to be the boss of the movie.

At first, a lady named Paulette Goddard was going to be in the movie, but she couldn't because she had to do something else. They asked a lady named Patricia Morison to be in it instead, but then they saw Ladd and another lady named Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire and thought they should be in the movie together instead. 

Lake was going to be in another movie called I Married a Witch, but they didn't do that one because another man said no. They made it later with a man named Fredric March and Lake.

Alan Ladd and Joseph Calleia in The Glass Key (1942)

Some other people in the movie were Bonita Granville, Richard Denning, and Joseph Calleia. Some really old movie stars like Maurice Costello, Jack Mulhall, and Pat O'Malley had small parts too. Some other people showed up for a little bit in the movie, like Dane Clark (as "Sloss"), Laraine Day (as a nurse), Lillian Randolph, and Vernon Dent, but they weren't on the list of names.

Variety magazine gave the film a favorable review: "Parading a murder mystery amidst background of politics, gambling czars, romance and lusty action, this revised version of Dashiell Hammett's novel—originally made in 1935—is a good picture of its type...Mixed well, the result is an entertaining whodunit with sufficient political and racketeer angles to make it good entertainment for general audiences. Donlevy makes the most of his role of the political leader who fought his way up from the other side of the tracks."

 Variety. Film review, 1942. Accessed: April 28, 2008.

Critic Dennis Schwartz wrote, "The film is mostly done for entertainment purposes, as it lightly skips over the corrupt political process as merely background for the unlikely love story developing between the engaging Lake and the deadpan Ladd. The film had many undeveloped film noir themes used by other films. Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep borrowed freely from The Glass Key." 

Schwartz, Dennis. Ozus' World Movie Reviews, film review, December 4, 2004. Accessed: April 28, 2008

The Glass Key (1942)

Critic Hal Erickson wrote: "Dashiel Hammett's The Glass Key, a tale of big-city political corruption, was first filmed in 1935, with Edward Arnold as a duplicitous political boss and George Raft as his loyal lieutenant. This 1942 remake improves on the original, especially in replacing the stolid Raft with the charismatic Alan Ladd...Far less complex than the Dashiel Hammett original (and far less damning of the American political system), The Glass Key further increased the box-office pull of Paramount's new team of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake."

Erikson, Hal. Allmovie by Rovi, film review, no date. Accessed: August 19, 2013.

The Glass Key (1942)

Diabolique called it a "superb film noir, achingly gorgeous to look at, and less weighed down by patriotism than This Gun for Hire. Lake is clearly inexperienced but is so beautiful and enigmatic you overlook her flaws, and she once again teams marvelously with Ladd – two blonde shorties, full of mutual smirking/contempt/admiration. The core of the film is a platonic love story between Ladd and Brian Donlevy – but these actors don’t have chemistry; Ladd and Lake do."

 Vagg, Stephen (11 February 2020). "The Cinema of Veronica Lake". Diabolique Magazine.

Alan Ladd in The Glass Key (1942)

The Glass Key embodies the quintessence of the film noir genre, boasting an intricate tapestry of crime-laden narrative threads, a brisk narrative tempo, and a multifarious ensemble of characters whose interactions traverse unforeseen trajectories. It stands as a paradigmatic specimen within its genre, punctuated by sporadic instances of narrative brilliance.

The titular metaphor, ingeniously employed by one of the narrative's protagonists, serves as a cogent emblem of the intricate relationships that constitute the narrative's thematic nucleus. Paul Madvig, portrayed with aplomb by Brian Donlevy, epitomizes the archetypal corrupt political puppeteer, catalyzing discord within his inner circle by forging an unlikely alliance with the reformist Ralph Henry. 

Brian Donlevy in The Glass Key (1942)

This seismic shift engenders consternation among Madvig's erstwhile confederates and confounds his steadfast assistant, Ed Beaumont, poignantly portrayed by Alan Ladd. Madvig's sanguine anticipation of a newfound destiny is poetically encapsulated in his assertion that Henry has "bestowed upon me the key to his abode," yet Beaumont cautions him with a somber rejoinder: "it's a glass key—be wary lest it shatter." 

The precarious fragility of the characters' interpersonal dynamics and professional endeavors forms the crux of the narrative's tension, compounded when the nefarious demise of Henry's wayward progeny thrusts each character into a maelstrom of perilous circumstances.

Laraine Day in The Glass Key (1942)

While Ladd and Donlevy deliver commendable performances in their respective roles, the portrayal of Veronica Lake as Henry's daughter, a pivotal catalyst for the narrative's progression, falls somewhat flat, failing to imbue the character with the requisite vitality to propel the ensuing action. Notwithstanding, the film's supporting cast emerges as a veritable tour de force, with Joseph Calleia delivering a masterful turn as a malevolent tycoon hell-bent on exacting retribution upon Madvig, and William Bendix injecting moments of levity—albeit occasionally verging on the histrionic—as one of Calleia's henchmen.

This film, The Glass Key, initially left me underwhelmed upon my first viewing, perhaps due to inflated expectations stemming from my burgeoning appreciation for film noir and my admiration for Veronica Lake. Disappointingly, Lake's trademark snappy dialogue was conspicuously absent, compounded by a convoluted storyline that reflects the novel and a general sense of noirish confusion.

The Glass Key (1942)

The confusion reflects an intricate narrative crafted by Dashiell Hammett. Indeed, Hammett's narratives are renowned for their enigmatic complexity, requiring multiple viewings to fully grasp their nuances.

Nevertheless, even with a newfound comprehension of the plot, William Bendix's portrayal still evokes a palpable sense of discomfort. His depiction of a brutal and sadistic thug is so unnervingly authentic that it leaves an indelible impression. In fact, his on-screen prowess is so formidable that he reportedly delivered a punch powerful enough to render Alan Ladd unconscious during filming.

Amidst the ensemble cast, Brian Donlevy's portrayal stands out as the pinnacle of excellence, portraying a nuanced portrayal of a slightly corrupt politician. While The Glass Key of 1942 may not exude the same electrifying energy as other Ladd-Lake noirs, it nevertheless merits inclusion in the collection of any discerning aficionado of film noir, albeit with tempered expectations regarding its narrative zest.

Bonita Granville in The Glass Key (1942)

The Glass Key (1942)

Directed by Stuart Heisler
Genres - Mystery, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Detective Film, Gangster Film  |   Release Date - Oct 14, 1942 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 85 min.

The Glass Key (1942) Wikipedia

Brian Donlevy and Alan Ladd in The Glass Key (1942)

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