Sunday, August 14, 2016

"The Glass Key" (1942)


The Glass Key (1942) is based on a Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, and is actually the second film adaptation -- an earlier one made in 1935 starred George Raft (quick, someone get DKoren a swooning couch!).  Orson Welles also adapted it for the radio in 1939 for his excellent show The Campbell Playhouse (listen to it here on YouTube).  This version has a screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, who also wrote on of my guiltiest semi-noir pleasures, Plunder of the Sun (1953), as well as many episodes of Perry Mason.  The film is directed by Stuart Heisler, who mostly directed westerns, but does a serviceable job here as well.

I read the novel about a decade ago, but I read all of Hammett's novels in a row at that same time, and now I mix most of them up in my head, except for The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man.  Which means I should re-read them all one day, I suppose.  At any rate, I won't be speaking here to whether or not this is faithful to the novel, just how the movie works on its own.


So there's this guy named Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) who is some kind of crooked political figure.  I have never managed to figure out what he is -- some kind of city official or something?


He has ties to bad guys who run nightclubs and speakeasies (this seems to take place during Prohibition), but he decides to support a "reform party" candidate's bid for governor because he falls in love with the candidate's daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake).


Of course, this makes all his old buddies in the underworld sore because he starts working against them.  Not only that, but Madvig's right-hand-man, Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) sees that Janet is only stringing Madvig along to get his support for her father.  So Beaumont tries to convince Madvig to quit pursuing Janet and stop angering his old buddies, but Madvig is besotted.


Also, Madvig's sister Opal (Bonita Granville) is running around with Janet's brother Taylor (Richard Denning), who owes Madvig's erstwhile pals a lot of money.


Then Taylor (Janet's brother) turns up dead.  Beaumont discovers his body and thinks Madvig killed him to keep him away from his sister (Madvig's, not Taylor's or Beaumont's -- I know this is a little convoluted, but please try to keep up).


Madvig thinks Beaumont killed Taylor to separate Madvig and Janet.  Janet thinks Madvig killed her brother, Opal is convinced he did it to keep her away from Taylor, and the police start to think he did it too.  Especially when someone starts sending anonymous notes to the police, the newspapers, and everyone else involved.


Then Madvig's old pals decide that the way to get at Madvig is to corrupt his right-hand-man, Ed Beaumont.  When dear Beaumont turns out to be thoroughly loyal to his boss (and I've never figured out why he's so loyal, I just go with it cuz Alan Ladd plays "loyal" very convincingly), they turn him over to a sadistic thug named Jeff (William Bendix), who beats poor Beaumont up very enthusiastically and thoroughly.  And then beats him some more.


And keeps on beating him, just because Jeff likes to beat people up, especially Beaumont.


Beaumont cleverly escapes, starts putting puzzle pieces together, figures out who did kill Taylor, finds a way to keep Madvig safe from the underworld, and generally fixes everything.  Except he and Janet fall for each other, even though she accepted Madvig's proposal.  But, in the end, that turns out okay too.


As you can tell, this is kind of a tangled film.  I've watched it several times now, and I still haven't figured out a few things, as I mentioned.

One of my favorite moments is the spot where Beaumont gets mad at Madvig for being so thick, they have a big argument, and Beaumont smashes a beer glass and threatens Madvig with it.



It's kind of an unexpected moment, and I think it's mostly there so you suspect Beaumont has turned his colors in the next scene.  But it also lets you know that Beaumont is a Tough Guy so that the beatings he takes later on carry more weight.  And especially so that Ladd's finest scene holds even more emotional punch.

I mentioned earlier that Jeff (William Bendix) beats Beaumont beyond all reason.  Beaumont escapes, but later encounters Jeff again and has to try to get some information out of him.  Jeff is mostly drunk, but still very menacing.  They highlight the fact that Bendix is taller, broader, and beefier than Ladd, to good effect.


Jeff says friendly things to Beaumont because there are people around, but he gets gradually scarier and scarier.


And Alan Ladd does a brilliant job of looking like a terrified man trying to appear unconcerned.  He goes very still and watchful and wary.  Jeff takes Beaumont upstairs to a private room above the speakeasy "for a drink," and Beaumont looks increasingly frightened.


This is speculation, because noir made under the Hays Code makes you read between the lines a lot to get the nastier aspects of a story, but I get the feeling that Jeff did more than just beat Beaumont while he was a captive -- Jeff gets very handsy, even for a drunk guy, and the level of fear in Beaumont's eyes when Jeff gets him in a room alone is stronger than I would expect if he was anticipating "only" a beating.


I may be very far off base here, but I think the filmmakers are implying that, well (trying to be delicate here), Ed Beaumont was not merely beaten, but also violated while he was Jeff's prisoner.

Beaumont gets hold of a glass bottle and toys with it, reminding us of that beer-glass-smashing scene, reassuring us and himself that he has a weapon if he needs one.


In the end, it's his own fear as much as the hulking Jeff that Beaumont has to conquer, and Ladd plays that scene beautifully.


Studio execs saw how well Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake had played off each other in This Gun for Hire (1942) and quickly put them in another film noir together.  Unfortunately, this film as a whole isn't as good as its predecessor, at least not in my Alan Ladd-loving opinion.  Ladd feels here as if he hasn't quite grown into his trench coat and fedora -- he has to work hard to convince me he's super-duper tough in this, whereas in Gun I had no trouble believing he was scary-tough, maybe because he also had a little-boy-lost thing going on to balance him out.  He's stiffer in many scenes here, like he's trying too hard because he knows he's supposed to be a star now.


Or maybe it just feels that way to me.  He has some excellent scenes too, as I've discussed, but overall he doesn't have the same relaxed, comfortable presence throughout that he displays by the time The Blue Dahlia (1946) rolls around a few years later.

Still, this is an enjoyable bit of early-'40s noir, and worth seeing.

Is this movie family friendly?  No.  While the violence is mostly implied, it can be brutal.  I have a hard time watching the beating scenes -- they feel worse to me than anything Russell Crowe dishes out in L.A. Confidential (1997), if you can believe that.  Partly it's because Alan Ladd is my current celluloid beloved, but mostly it's just squirm-inducing filmmaking.  Which means it was well-made, but not for kids or sensitive folks.


This is my second entry into the Film Noir Blogathon hosted by Quiggy at The Midnite Drive-In.  This has been an amazing event, and if you're at all interested in film noir, you definitely want to check out the incredible variety of posts people are contributing.  I know I'll be working my way through them for days to come.

31 comments:

  1. As soon as you said Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were both in this movie, I knew they'd end up together by the end. *flips hair* I'm clever, aren't I? ;-)

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    1. Jessica, hee! Yeah, they do end up together in this, and have the possibility of being together in The Blue Dahlia, but they don't end up at all together in This Gun for Hire...

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    2. Yeah, but they have a sort of Semi-Romantic Encounter before he--ahem--kicks the bucket, don't they? And that counts too.

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    3. Jessica, they do have some sparkage in TGFH, but they never act on it. It's more that he gets a big crush on her in his little-boy-lost way, and she accepts that, and realizes that if things were very different, she could maybe like him that way too, but as it is, she just pities him a whole lot and kind of almost mothers him a little.

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  2. Good point re: implied violence. Sometimes the violence you can't see is the most disturbing, as it is in this film.

    I really enjoyed your review!

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    1. Silver Screenings -- exactly. What you don't see and have to imagine is often far worse than something you do see.

      Thanks!

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  3. Free TCM movie class alert!!!! It's on Slapstick!!!
    https://www.canvas.net/browse/bsu/tcm2/courses/slapstick/

    So excited!!!

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    1. I enjoyed this film but agree that it's confusing. I was going to say maybe it just needed a second viewing but it seems that won't help...

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    2. Phyl -- sweet! I will check it out. Thanks for the heads-up!

      And yes, unfortunately, there are just parts of this that don't seem to make sense. And oddly enough, they aren't plot-related, they're character-related. I'm hoping to reread the book sometime soonish to see if that sheds some light.

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  4. A fun review! It's been ages since I've seen this one; at the point where 'Beaumont escapes', is this when he falls through a skylight? If so, I LOVE that sequence! I seem to remember liking the film as a whole as well...but as far as Ladd films go, it's still 'This Gun for Hire' for me!

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    1. Thanks, Todd! Yes, this is the one where he falls through the skylight, right into the middle of a family's dinner table. It's a splendid sequence, full of moxie and quick-thinking, and filmed very nicely.

      As far as Ladd noirs go, I love "This Gun for Hire" best too.

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  5. Going to watch this and "This Gun for Hire" for a post upcoming soon. Very soon. Not like 6 months or so. But probably the middle of September since September is wide open at this point. Good review,

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    1. Quiggy, that would be a fun post! I'm sure you'll come up with some interesting observations, since they were filmed back-to-back, but are so different.

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    2. Quiggy, also, Ladd's birthday is in September, so that would be especially good timing.

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  6. I suspect I would like this one. Need to watch it at some point!

    There's a couple Dana films that I have a really hard time watching because he gets beaten so badly.

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    1. DKoren, I think you might! I would most happily watch this with you sometime.

      I took notes while watching this, and one of them says, "And now it's time for the Obligatory Beating the Snot Out of Alan Ladd Scene," because my poor Alan gets beaten in SO many movies. This is the worst I've seen so far, though -- it's torture, not just a fight.

      I didn't put this in my review because I was so tired when I finished it off and kind of forgot, but this is the film where he and William Bendix met, and where Bendix didn't pull one of his punches and knocked Ladd cold. The cameras were rolling, and the director put it in the film, so I think it must be the punch where Alan falls backward on to the bed, because he does look very much gone right then. And then Bendix was soooo worried and remorseful when he came to that Ladd forgave him and they became best friends.

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  7. I haven't seen this one yet! It's been on my list for ages!
    Excellent post! :D

    Carol

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    1. Carol, thanks! I hope you get a chance to watch it soon. I'm so happy it's available on DVD at last.

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  8. I've been wanting to watch this movie for years, but never really did that. Your review just gave me more meaning to do so. Thanks!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

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    1. Le, I hope you can find it soon, as it's definitely worth a watch. I'm working my way through the blogathon entries as I have time, so I'm sure I'll get to yours before long!

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  9. Well said. It is hard to go wrong with a Ladd and Bendix pairing not to mention Miss Lake. The story hums right along, the look of the film by the rather unheralded cinematographer, Theodor (BEAU GESTE)Sparkuhl supplies all the needed blacks and greys. Director, Heisler scored earlier with the under-rated noir, AMONG THE LIVING, and would helm the top drawer noir, STORM WARNING at the end of the decade. A good film all around and a fine review by you. I have seen the Raft version, this one and also the 1949 version produced by STUDIO ONE. It stars Donald Briggs in the Ladd part, Jean Carson doing Veronica Lake and Lawrence Fletcher in the Brian Donlevy bit. I have a bit up on it at IMDB if you are nterested.
    Again, well said.
    Gord


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    1. Thanks, Gord! I've really been enjoying your comments :-)

      In most of the films Ladd and Bendix made together, you can really get the sense that they were good friends off-camera. Which makes their antagonism in this all the more noteworthy, I think.

      I haven't seen any of the other movie versions, but I've read the original novel by Dashiell Hammett long ago. I'd like to try to see it again.

      How cool that you contribute to IMDB! I'll have to go read your stuff there.

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    2. Er, I meant I'd like to try to *read* the Hammett book again.

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    3. Since you are a Ladd fan you should go to You-Tube and look up,

      General Electric Theater S03E11 – Committed...with Alan Ladd (this should get you to it)

      It is a neat noir like half hour from 1954 that was made with the director and cameraman from THIS GUN FOR HIRE. Check out my short blurb on IMDB. gordonl56 is my IMDB handle. Small L not a one before the 56. I'm sure you will love the video.

      Gord

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    4. Gord, I've seen that ep of General Electric Theater!!! It's based on Alan Ladd's radio show, Box 13, and I'm pretty sure I read somewhere that it was meant to be the pilot for a new TV version of the radio show, but none of the studios picked it up. I just watched "Committed" for the first time a few weeks ago and quite enjoyed it, especially since I'm a fan of his radio show too. In fact, I was a fan of the show before I became a fan of Ladd himself!

      I'd love to see Ladd's other two episodes for GE Theater, especially Silent Ambush, but I haven't found them anywhere yet.

      Nice, detailed review of this one on imdb!

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  10. I am also a fan of BOX 13. Fun stuff. Glad you liked the COMMITTED episode. Another Ladd film you should hunt up if you have not already seen it, is, HELL ON FRISCO BAY from 1955. It is another film with the same director, Frank Tuttle, and cinematographer, John Seitz from THIS GUN FOR HIRE. E.G. Robinson and Joanne Dru lead the supporting cast along with Paul Stewart. Look quick and you will see Rod Taylor and Jayne Mansfield in early bits.

    Gord

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    1. I haven't seen Hell on Frisco Bay yet, but it's on my radar :-)

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  11. And of course there is my review up at the usual place.

    Gord

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    1. It turns out I've read a great number of your reviews, as I tend to read what people think of Alan's movies after I've seen them. Many of which have been by you!

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    2. Well I do hope the reviews were of some help. I do try and fit in as much Ladd as I can. Just started posting on IMDB again after taking a break since the end of Jan.

      Gord

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    3. If nothing else, it's always wonderful to find out when someone liked a movie I liked :-)

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