The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - THE GLASS KEY (1942) | The Movie Waffler

Blu-Ray Review - THE GLASS KEY (1942)

Second screen adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel of political intrigue.

Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Stuart Heisler

Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, William Bendix, Joseph Calleia, Richard Denning, Bonita Granville, Moroni Olsen

Knock back a shot of scotch or rye every time someone is thrown through a window or slapped about the face by a cool as ice Alan Ladd, and you'll be legless by the third act.
This month sees the release by Arrow Video of two adaptations of the work of hard-boiled novelist Dashiell Hammett, both starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Directed by Stuart Heisler, 1942's The Glass Key (a version of the novel had been filmed in 1935, starring George Raft) is a tough as old boots knockabout tale of the dirty underworld of big city politics. Knock back a shot of scotch or rye every time someone is thrown through a window or slapped about the face by a cool as ice Ladd, and you'll be legless by the third act.

A pre-Quatermass Brian Donlevy is Paul Madvig, a society hoodlum looking to go straight in the world of politics. He backs candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) for the governor's race, mainly because he wants to get his hands on Henry's feisty daughter Janet (Lake). She's making googly eyes at Madvig's right hand (and fist) man, Ed Beaumont (Ladd), who shuns her advances out of a misplaced 'bros before hos' allegiance to his boss and friend. Ladd and Lake make a cute couple, if only because the 5'5" Ladd makes the 4'11" Lake look statuesque, and vice versa.

Part of Beaumont's job is to keep Madvig's teenage sister, Opal (Bonita Granville), out of trouble, which involves keeping her away from Janet's brother, Taylor (scifi stalwart Richard Denning), whom the kid is smitten with. Shortly after Madvig hears of Taylor's intentions towards his sis, Taylor's body is discovered by Beaumont, who assumes his boss is the killer, and sets about attempting to cover up his involvement.

Much intrigue follows, with Beaumont making dangerous enemies of an Italian mobster (Joseph Calleia) and his henchman, Jeff (William Bendix - if you've ever wondered how Spencer Tracy might have turned out had he been dropped on his head as an infant, here you go), whose interest in dishing out a beating to Beaumont veers into not so subtly homoerotic territory.

As a special feature on Arrow's disc goes to lengths to illustrate, The Glass Key is a movie constructed of entrances and exits. Most scenes open with Beaumont entering a location through a door, later exiting after causing all manner of mayhem, both physical and psychological.

Beaumont is a particularly dark protagonist, and where it not for his affection towards Madvig, it would be easy to label him a sociopath. When a husband commits suicide after catching Beaumont pawing his wife, he breaks the news to the widow with the chillingly unsympathetic line, "Yeah he's dead, dead as a mackerel!" In his first encounter with Janet he eyes her with an icy glare, a creepy smirk on his mouth like a lipstick mark on the collar of an unknowing adulterer. It's an expression repeated later when he watches gleefully as a man is strangled before his eyes. Sex and violence are two sides of the same coin for Beaumont.

Somehow Ladd manages to be wooden (he walks as though he left a coathanger in the shoulders of his trenchcoat) and charismatic all at the same time. The romantic subplot between himself and Lake is an odd one, as their shared screen time amounts to no more than about 10 minutes, and there's a marked absence of chemistry between the pair. Ladd spends more time in the arms of Bendix than Lake does in his own, and the 'relationship' between the two men is far more interesting than the film's 'traditional' romance.

Considering the movie takes place predominantly indoors, director Heisler and cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl do a fine job of keeping it visually interesting, and the production design plays a key role in establishing the level of threat in the various rooms Ladd enters, from the safe light of a hospital ward to the chaotic feng shui of Jeff's torture dungeon. The adapted screenplay by Jonathan Latimer (a novelist himself) contains some real stingers - "My first wife was a second cook in a third rate joint on fourth street!"

Audio commentary by Adrian Wootton, CEO of Film London.
Commentary on selected by Alastair Phillips, who highlights the 'comings and goings' theme.
A 1946 radio dramatisation of The Glass Key by The Screen Guild Theater, starring Alan Ladd, Marjorie Reynolds and Gene Kelly.
A hilarious original theatrical trailer.
Gallery of stills and promotional materials.
The first pressing features an exclusive collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Kat Ellinger.

The Glass Key is released on Blu-Ray September 19th by Arrow Video.