Saturday, April 5, 2014

Stubs - The Glass Key (1942)


The Glass Key (1942) Starring: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd. Directed by Stuart Heisler. Produced by B.G. DeSylva (as Executive Producer). Screenplay by Jonathan Latimer. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett. Run time: 85 minutes. U.S. Film Noir, Drama

Dashiell Hammett is one of the greatest detective writers ever. He created such iconic characters as Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon) and Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man). Relying on his experience as a Pinkerton detective, he created the Continental Op which appeared in his first two novels, Red Harvest and The Dain Curse, both published in 1929. The Glass Key, published in 1931, was a bit of a departure for Hammett, not focusing on a PI, but instead relying on gambler and racketeer Nick Beaumont to investigate the murder of a local politician’s son when it appears his best friend and political boss Paul Madvig is the prime suspect.

Like The Maltese Falcon, which was made multiple times, The Glass Key had previously been made as a feature in 1935. That version directed by Frank Tuttle starred George Raft, Eddie Arnold and Claire Dodd. While this is not the preferred version of the film, The Glass Key was Raft’s biggest film of the 1930’s. Some say the 1935 version suffered due to interference from the then just adopted Motion Picture Production Code in Hollywood.

Publicty still from the 1935 film version of Hammett's The Glass Key, starring George Raft.

Best known as a vehicle for Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, fresh from their pairing in This Gun For Hire (1942), our version of The Glass Key actually stars Brian Donlevy, a veteran actor who had previously appeared in such films as Beau Geste (1939), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor; and the Preston Sturges comedy The Great McGinty (1940).

Brian Donlevy stars as Paul Madvig in The Glass Key.

Donlevy plays Paul Madvig, a tough political boss and leader of the Voters League, who decides to run reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) for governor after falling for Ralph's beautiful daughter Janet (Veronica Lake). When one of Paul’s assistants, Henry Sloss (Bernard Zanville), protests Paul’s action, feeling that it will undermine his power, Paul throws him through a glass window.


Paul hears Henry Sloss's protest and then throws him through a window.

But Sloss is not the only one with concerns. Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), Paul's best friend and adviser, warns him not to get in too deep. Paul insists he has a key to Ralph Henry’s house, but Ed warns that it is really only a glass key that could easily break off in Paul’s hand.

Paul is trying to change his ways, even going so far as to call the police on gambling houses he once provided protection for. This includes the nightclub run by Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who comes to Paul’s headquarters to protest his club being shut down by the police and demanding the protection for which he has paid. But Paul tells him that he is cleaning up the town and immediately calls the police to shut down Varna's club for good.

That night, Paul dines at the Henry home, trying his best to woo Janet, who is only pretending to be interested in Paul to help her father’s candidacy. Taylor (Richard Denning), Ralph's son, comes home, but refuses to join them. When his father confronts him about his behavior and debt, Taylor leaves to go drinking and gambling.

Ed comes by with some information Paul requested. Janet overtly flirts with him and expresses her disbelief that he takes Paul seriously. Ed rebuffs her, telling her Paul is always straightforward and advising her to be more like that herself.

When he goes home, Ed is confronted by Paul's eighteen-year-old sister Opal (Bonita Granville) who wants to borrow money from him without explanation. Ed gives her the money, but follows her when she leaves. Opal goes immediately to Taylor’s apartment to give him the money so that he can make a payment to Varna for his huge gambling debt.

Ed arrives and forcibly drags Opal from Taylor's apartment back to her home. As soon as he gets home, Opal calls him in hysterics and tells Ed that Paul has gone to see Taylor, and that she fears he will kill him. Ed tries to sooth her concerns, but still goes to investigate. He discovers Taylor’s dead body on the sidewalk outside the Henry house. Before calling the police, Ed goes to see Paul, who maintains that he is innocent.

Ed confronts Opal (Bonita Granville) at Taylor's (Richard Denning) (l) apartment.

But suspicion of murder falls quickly on Paul and Ed becomes determined to clear his friend’s name. At Taylor’s funeral, Varna tells Janet that he and The Observer newspaper have evidence that will convict Paul of the murder.

Soon afterwards, District Attorney Farr (Donald MacBride), a political cohort of Paul’s, and Ed both start receiving anonymous typed notes suggesting Paul’s guilt. Despite his connection to Paul, Farr feels public pressure to solve the crime, even if it means arresting Paul.


The DA and Ed receive anonymous typed notes pointing to Paul's guilt in Taylor Henry's murder.

Meanwhile, Paul grows resentful of Ed's advice to make peace with Varna and the two friends have a falling out. Ed plans to leave town. While he’s packing, Janet seeks his help in finding her brother's killer, but even though Ed grudgingly admits that he likes Janet, he refuses to help her.

Once again, Ed tries to advise Paul that he is being outsmarted by his enemies, but the friendly talk turns into a fistfight and the men part company. When Varna hears about the fight, he offers Ed $20,000 and stewardship of a casino if he will give The Observer information with which to frame Paul. Ed rejects his offer and is taken hostage by Varna, whose thugs, Jeff (William Bendix) and Rusty (Eddie Marr), beat him. (In fact, Bendix actually knocked Ladd unconscious with one of his punches.)

William Bendix plays Jeff one of Varna's enforcers.

After several days of brutal beatings, Ed starts a fire and escapes Jeff and Rusty, but crashes several stories through a glass skylight. Before his final lapse into unconsciousness, Ed manages to warn Paul that Varna is bringing in Sloss, who claims to be a witness to Taylor's murder and will testify against him.

Ed endures several days of beatings before he starts a fire and escapes.

Slowly, Ed recovers from his wounds only to learn Janet and Paul have become engaged. Ed becomes alarmed when Paul mentions that Opal has taken a trip to the countryside. After learning Clyde Matthews (Arthur Left), publisher of The Observer, has a house there, Ed leaves the hospital and goes there. He finds a gathering including Opal, Varna, Jeff, Rusty and Matthews and Matthews' wife, Eloise (Margaret Hayes).

Convinced of her brother’s guilt, Opal has given a statement to Matthews to publish, which verifies that Paul pursued Taylor after they argued. Hoping to shake up the group's complacency, Ed tells Eloise that Varna, who holds the mortgage on the paper, is using Matthews to publish Opal's article, and as soon as it is published, will force the paper into bankruptcy. Disgusted that she has spent five years with a loser, Eloise then seduces Ed. Distraught, Matthews commits suicide. Ed is the first one into the room and finds a suspicious-looking note naming Varna as executor of his estate. Ed immediately burns the note.

Eloise seduces Ed while her husband Clyde Matthews contemplate suicide.

Just as Rusty and Jeff are about to beat Ed again, Paul appears and knocks them out. Varna leaves, but Ed advises Paul to get a judge to immediately appoint an administrator for Matthews’ estate and to have that administrator kill Opal's story.

Paul captures Sloss, but when he tries to bring him in, a mysterious gunman kills him as Ed and Paul look on helplessly. Paul then admits to Ed that he killed Taylor, saying after they argued he hit Taylor, causing the latter to fall, strike his head on the curb and die.

Paul is arrested by Farr for Taylor’s murder. Ed, meanwhile, has discovered that Janet has been typing the anonymous notes. Ed tracks the sadistic Jeff to a grungy bar and cautiously tries to lure him into linking Varna to Taylor's murder. But before Jeff can talk too much Varna shows up and tells him to keep quiet. Jeff resents Varna's control over him, and after admitting that he killed Sloss, he attacks Varna and chokes him to death.


Jeff manhandles Ed, whom he also affectionately calls "cuddles".

Ed has Jeff arrested and presses Farr to make out an arrest warrant for Janet because he is convinced that she is guilty of killing her brother. Farr and Ed go to the Henry home late that night to arrest Janet. But before they take her away, Ralph Henry breaks down and confesses he killed his son accidentally during an argument, and had asked Paul not to say anything.

Ed has Jeff arrested in The Glass Key (1942).

Paul is released and makes plans to select a new gubernatorial candidate. Ed, still planning on moving away, finds Janet waiting for him in his apartment. Janet confesses that she is in love with Ed and asks him to take her with him. Although Ed shares her feelings, he is loyal to Paul and turns her down. But Paul arrives and overhears their conversation. After taking back his engagement ring, Paul sends the two off with his best wishes.

Paul gives Ed and Janet his blessings and sends them off.

I have to wonder if the success of the 1941 Maltese Falcon, itself a second remake, prompted Paramount to take another shot at The Glass Key. But this remake doesn’t succeed as well. The plot is somewhat convoluted, there are some plot holes and the movie sort of drags in places.  

Some of my disappointment I can put down to the story, but frankly Alan Ladd and Brian Donlevy put together don’t add up to one Humphrey Bogart. While I know that Ladd would go on to be a big star, he comes across as a little wooden as Ed Beaumont. His character is not as unpredictable as Spade’s nor as menacing when he needs to be. Donlevy seems to have more screen presence, though his character is not that involving. Paul tends to lead with his fists. 

I found Alan Ladd to be a little wooden in the role of Ed Beaumont.

I feel I should say something about Veronica Lake. Considered an icon of the 1940’s with her long blonde hair which she wore in a peekaboo style, she is certainly an attractive woman, but I dare say she didn’t really draw me in this time. She is most famous for her role in Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) opposite Joel McCrea and her pairings in film noir with Alan Ladd, including This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key and the Blue Dahlia (1946) made her a star. But her movie career never fully recovered after her role as Dora Bruckmann, an unsympathetic Nazi spy in The Hour Before Dawn (1944). Only 19 going on 20 years old when she made The Glass Key, Lake’s career was virtually over by the time she was 27.

Veronica Lake was just 19 when she played Janet Henry.

Another thing that keeps this movie from being as good as the Maltese Falcon is that the supporting characters are not as interesting. There is no Gutman or Cairo or Wilmer in The Glass Key or anyone that comes close. And the love story of Ed and Janet is not as interesting (or seemingly as dangerous) as Sam Spade’s relationship with Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). While Ed might set Janet up as the murderer to get a confession from her father; Sam, with only a twinge of regret, turns Brigid over to the cops for actually murdering his partner, Miles Archer.

The one exception from Glass Key’s supporting cast seems to be William Bendix and his portrayal of Jeff, one of Varna’s henchmen, who eventually kills his boss. Jeff is a complex character. He confesses to liking Ed, but likes beating the crap out of him even better. He refers affectionately to Ed using pet names like Cuddles, even as he is hauling him away to beat him up. His is truly a unique character. While Bendix certainly has the look and build of a goon, this is not a role you would associate with the titular character of Life of Riley, the TV series he starred on for six seasons during the '50s.

William Bemdix portrays the complex Jeff in The Glass Key (1942).

Comparing The Glass Key to The Maltese Falcon, one of my favorite films, may seem a little unfair. I would have been tremendously surprised if Key would have usurped Falcon on my top ten list, but they do beg some comparison. They are based on the work of the same author, have similar plot devices and each feature major stars of their day. However, there is so much to making a movie and as we all know, the quality of the source material is only one piece of the puzzle. Films come together in different ways and for whatever reason, let’s call it movie-magic, one ends up a good film and the other a classic. In this case, The Maltese Falcon is the classic and The Glass Key is merely good.

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