Stuart Heisler, 1942
Starring: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd
Political boss and gangster Paul Madvig decides to support a candidate, Ralph Henry, because he’s in love with Henry’s cool, blonde daughter Janet. Though she clearly thinks Madvig is a fool, she plays along on her father’s behalf, eventually accepting a marriage proposal. Madvig’s second-in-command, Ned Beaumont, doesn’t trust Janet and can see right through her motives, though he’s also attracted to her. Unfortunately Janet’s brother, an irresponsible playboy, is killed and Madvig is the main suspect. One of Madvig’s enemies, Varna, tries to make the most of this and has Ned beaten when he won’t play along. He manages to escape, badly injured, but will Ned be able to stay alive long enough to find the real killer?
This is the second version of Dashiell Hammett's novel after a 1935 adaptation starring George Raft and the second pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though The Glass Key is an entertaining early film noir, it doesn’t quite match up to Ladd and Lake’s wonderful first film together, This Gun for Hire. Ladd does resume his role as antihero and — though not quite as captivating as The Gun for Hire’s Raven — Ned is quite a bastard. There are some very dark scenes in the film, thanks to Ned’s questionable morality. He goes so far as to seduce a man’s wife right in front of him and goads the man into suicide, which is practically shown on screen. His relationship with Madvig is similar to later male relationships throughout noir, when two men become very close and either a woman — or a crime — comes between them. Gilda is a key example of this and in both films, there is an undeniable element of homoeroticism. Ned seems to only care for Madvig’s interests and his well-being, sacrificing Madvig’s own sister, Janet and her family, and others in their political network.
During the film’s most memorable scene, Ned is being beaten by a thug, Jeff (William Bendix in a great side role), who has his arm around Ned and calls him “baby,” “sweetheart,” and other names. This is one of Hollywood’s most graphic beating scenes of the period. Compared to contemporary action films, Ed’s swollen, disfigured face and lengthy healing time in the hospital are quite believable. Bendix apparently actually knocked out Ladd and was horrified, though the two went on to become very close friends. Ladd was beaten, whipped, and terrorized in a number of his films, even more so than Bogart, and emphasizes some of the elements of sadomasochism and homoeroticism inherent in film noir.
The weaker elements include Veronica Lake’s performance. She’s not at her best here, though she’s lovely to look at, but is far too cold and unemotional to summon much interest in her character. Lake uses her facial expressions expertly by throwing disgusted, coy, or calculating glances out in nearly every scene, I only wish there was more of this. All the political intrigue feels a bit pointless and rambling and there are plenty of plot elements don’t make a whole lot of sense — a man alters his political career to marry a woman, but then doesn’t care when she’s in love with this best friend? Speaking of, Brian Donlevy is likable as Madvig, but also overacts. Partly this works, because Madvig is a bit loud and buffoonish, but it also dates the film.
The Glass Key isn’t an absolute must-see, but is a pleasant way to pass the time and will be enjoyed by anyone who loves Ladd and Lake, early film noir, or political melodrama. It’s available in a Turner Classic Movies DVD set with The Phantom Lady and The Blue Dahlia.