The Glass Key (1942) – Classic Noir Review

Enduring Appeal of a Film Noir Classic

Stuart Heisler’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel still influences Hollywood, with a tale of dubious alliances and loyalty.

In The Glass Key, Alan Ladd plays Ed Beaumont, right-hand man to Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a boorish, ambitious player with political aspirations. When the murder of a reckless playboy casts suspicion on his boss, Ed works to protect Madvig. Matters are further complicated when Madvig falls for the daughter of a wealthy industrialist (Veronica Lake) – especially when Ed falls under the spell of the same girl.

It’s a labyrinthine plot, typical of the genre. Given the right running time (the film plays out in under 90 minutes), the script distills Hammett’s usual complexities adequately – but it’s still hard to follow. Although fans of the hardboiled crime tradition will know, that’s part of the fun.

Faithful to Hammett’s Hardboiled Style

Hammett popularised the kind of story-telling that threw the reader into morally murky waters. In The Glass Key, there aren’t any good guys as such – just the corrupt, or the even more corrupt. This isn’t a weighty theme, however – the movie skips along with snappy dialogue and flashy smiles. But unlike other Noir-ish movies – Casablanca, for example (released in the same year), there are no noble heroes; characters are motivated by self-serving agendas, acting to protect their own interests.

Alan Ladd The Glass Key
Alan Ladd & Veronica Lake in The Glass Key

The Glass Key is celebrated as one of the earliest pairings between Ladd and Lake, who went on to make a total of seven movies together. Although Lake shares top billing here, she’s actually in only a handful of scenes, but when the pair first meet in this, the scene crackles with energy.

Veronica Lake glides gracefully through her brief scenes, her distinctive voice punctuating the dialogue with effortless style. Ladd is perfectly cast, his face seeming to barely mask a sardonic smile. Brian Donlevy is superb as the oafish yet successful Madvig. Another standout performance comes from Ladd’s counterpart: a thug called Jeff, played by William Bendix.

A Standout Action Scene

In perhaps the most startling and memorable scene, Ed is held captive by Jeff and repeatedly beaten. The ferocity and intensity on display is shocking for a film almost seven decades old. Bendix relishes the role, giving a creepy, homo-erotic spin to his psychopathic punishments, wooing Ed with pet names; continually, he refers to his quarry as ‘sweetheart’ and ‘baby’.

Ed’s flight from danger is an audacious, physically punishing scene that has him fall three stories, through a glass roof and onto a dinner table. Unlike the action heroes of today, he spends the next few days in the hospital and never completely recovers.

Summing Up

Held alongside other movies of the genre, The Glass Key is a slighter example of Film Noir. In terms of plot, however, it was hugely influential: Akira Kurosawa acknowledged it as the chief inspiration for Yojimbo (1961), a film that in turn influenced many subsequent Hollywood movies, most notably A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

These examples are eclipsed by the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990), which effectively rewrites The Glass Key for a modern audience. An undisputed classic of the era, The Glass Key is essential viewing for any self-respecting fan of the genre.

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