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.