Stuart Heisler helms 1942’s The Glass Key, which is based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name and serves as the second film version of the book after a 1935 Frank Tuttle joint. Heisler’s picture features a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer and carves out a lot of the political subtext, but it still weaves a deliciously dark noir tale.
At its core, The Glass Key is entrenched in a simple brutality that washes over all the major players. There’s a lot of corruption and betrayal in Heisler’s world and nobody gets away clean, even when romantic interludes threaten to drown the screen in syrupy muck.
Brian Donlevy is political operative Paul Madvig and he runs headlong into Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), the daughter of Reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen). She gives him a good sock for insulting her brother Taylor (Richard Denning), who has gambling problems.
Madvig aligns his interests with the Reform candidate and hopes to needle into Janet’s good graces, but she’s more interested in his right-hand man Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd). Things get wild when the aforementioned gambler turns up dead, which leads to Madvig considered as the prime suspect.
There are several complications to work through. Taylor, for instance, is dating Madvig’s younger sister Snip (Bonita Granville). This creates a schism as Beaumont tries to protect Snip from Madvig’s fury, which subsequently leads the disapproving brother to lose his lid a little.
Ed falls for Janet despite his best efforts to favour his loyalty to Madvig. There’s something special about the relationship between Madvig and Beaumont, something to their fresh-faced interactions. The darkness shades over to some extent, but the friends never lose what keeps them honest.
Beaumont is captivating in that he’s happy in the shadows. He takes one hell of a thrashing from henchman Jeff (William Bendix), but he won’t cough up any details to the newspapers. In one of the movie’s most troubling scenes, he brazenly flirts with a publisher’s wife (Margaret Hayes) and the poor sap kills himself. Now that’s dark!
Speaking of Jeff, he develops an odd and kind of codependent relationship with Beaumont. It erupts from violence, but the protagonist earns the henchman’s regard when he proves he can take a beating. And Jeff refers to himself as a “big, good-natured slob” just before he strangles someone, which is all kinds of awesome.
The Glass Key doesn’t spend much time on any one set of relationships and keeps things moving through the warren of difficulties, which sometimes dulls the emotional edge. Happily, the pervading emptiness makes for an attractive cinematic trait and Heisler uses Theodor Sparkuhl’s cinematography to navigate the complex terrain without resorting to showy sidebars.
A solid film noir with a delightfully rotten core, The Glass Key showcases crude amorality without pulling any punches. There’s a lot of shady, sordid stuff going on and Ladd’s Beaumont has to be one of the most unscrupulous protagonists in the genre’s extensive history. And that’s saying something.