Imagine a glass key twisting in a lock and falling to the ground in glittering shards....The plot of THE GLASS KEY, despite its folklore-esque title, is not indicative of an amuletic object as is THE MALTESE FALCON. Rather the glass key is a metaphor for the types of fragile human relationships explored in the film.
Dashiell Hammett, dean of the hard-boiled school of fiction, authored THE GLASS KEY. It was dedicated to one of his former lovers, American author Nell Martin. THE GLASS KEY was said to be Hammett's personal favorite amongst his own works. As a side note, Hammett was a pretty hard-boiled guy himself, being one of the survivors of the deadly Spanish flu pandemic!
This noir version is actually the second cinematic adaptation of the book. The first GLASS KEY film was produced by Paramount in 1935 and received strong reviews in the New York Times.
The two starring roles in the 1942 film are played by Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. The pair also starred together in THIS GUN FOR HIRE released in the same year. Interestingly enough, they were cast together not because of chemistry, although that was present in truckloads, but rather in regards to their petite statures! Alan Ladd stood only 5'5" and Veronica Lake was a tiny 4'11".
Really, THE GLASS KEY embodies the definition of noir. Hook, line and sinker: Janet Henry (Veronica Lake) is the hook, Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) has got all the lines and Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) sinks everyone who crosses him, or his boss Madvig.....
We will start with the hook. Of course it's the dame. Janet Henry, daughter of a politician, has got a mean but intriguing right hook when defending the gambling ways of her younger brother, Taylor Henry.
Paul Madvig shouldn't have said it so loud. "If Ralph Henry is so anxious to reform someone, why don't he start on that son of his?! He gets in more jams than the Dead End Kids!"
Janet walks right up to Paul and slaps him across the face. He is titillated by her blonde beauty, confidence and passionate anger. "What a slugger...."
Madvig exclaims to his right-hand man: "Ed! I just met the swellest dame. She smacked me in the kisser."
At that moment, Paul Madvig has decided to himself that Janet Henry is the women that he will marry and that he will support her father in a bid to be re-elected as senator.
The shocked look on Ed's face, more than anything else, is that of a jilted lover. Now the viewer begins to see hints of a homosexually charged relationship between Ed and Paul, very similar to what one observes between Neff and Keyes in DOUBLE INDEMNITY.
Veronica Lake's deadpan depiction of Janet Henry has all the qualities of a medieval painting of a devilish Madonna. The clever costume designer had Lake appear in several scenes with hair totally covered by nun-like hats, giving her exquisitely molded face an eerie otherworldly quality. The electricity between Janet Henry and Ed Beaumont is evident from their first meeting as she shoots him naughty sidelong glances, however he is highly suspicious of her manipulative un-veiled advances.
It fascinates me to notice so many examples of clothing used symbolically and erotically in noir films. Especially footwear---think of Edward G. Robinson painting Joan Bennett's toenails in SCARLET STREET, hep kitten Ella Raines's rosette heels enticing Cliff the drummer in PHANTOM LADY, and who could forget that first sexy glimpse of Phyllis Dietrichson's anklet and platform shoes on the stairwell in DOUBLE INDEMNITY?
A particularly intimate scene takes place near the beginning of the THE GLASS KEY, while Ed and Paul are talking in his office. Ed is perched on the edge of Paul's desk, and Paul has his feet propped up on the desk with his shoes removed. Ed is seriously advising Paul to keep up his good relations with underworld gangster Nick Varna, rather than backing the reform candidate, Janet Henry's father. The entire time, Ed cannot take his eyes off Paul's feet on the desk and finally affectionately criticizes his time-piece themed socks.
"It's wrong. As wrong as those socks."
"Wait a minute, what's wrong with them?"
"The clock. It ticks too loud."
Then the plot really gets twisted around. We discover that Paul Madvig's younger sister is in love with Taylor Henry, much to the chagrin of her older brother. The events of an evening result in the murder of Taylor Henry. Ed Beaumont discovers the body. And THE GLASS KEY quickly becomes a whodunit mystery.
The relationship between Ed and Paul reaches its head during a heated argument that can only be described as a lovers quarrel shortly after the funeral of Taylor Henry. Ed has proclaimed he is leaving town for good. He and Paul have one last beer together at a table in the back of the bar. By the time the waiter appears they are already going at it and the subject is Janet Henry. The look on the waiter's face is that of someone who is observing an argument between a couple.
Ed growls an impassioned: "Take your hands off me!"
Paul gets knocked out and then when he gets back up to defend himself, Ed ruthlessly breaks the beer mug on the table and threatens him with the sharp remains.
In spite of this hot tiff, Ed Beaumont continues to remain fiercely devoted to Paul Madvig, for reasons unbeknownst to the viewer, but alluded to throughout the film. One can glean that Ed Beaumont has a gambling problem and perhaps Madvig fished him out of a very deep hole.
Another performance in THE GLASS KEY that cannot go without mention, is William Bendix playing the role of Jeff, gangster Nick Varna's thuggish henchman. Bendix administers to Ladd, perhaps the most overtly sadomasochistic beating that I have yet to observe in a film noir. I would go so far to say it would even rival the beating of Mike Hammer in KISS ME DEADLY.
At one point Jeff is roughing Ladd up with such homoerotic glee, punching him onto nothing other than a bed, another one of Varna's thugs blurts out: "Watch it! You're liable to croak him."
Jeff insists that his victim is enjoying it. "He's a tough baby, he likes this." Ed Beaumont certainly is a tough baby....Ed's daring creative escape from Varna's cronies makes the whole movie a worthwhile watch.
Yet as a true thick-skinned Hammett character, Ed Beaumont goes back for revenge and more. Ed sets up another typically noir scenario, cornering and manipulating an inebriated Jeff in a sordid dark room above a bar. Again, the shadows of set and cinematography make this scene a viewing necessity for every die-hard noir fan. This scene is one of those which christened the birth of true film noir.
During their sordid exchange, reiterating noir's foot fetish, Varna walks in and the hulking Jeff drunkenly throws his arm around Ed Beaumont and proclaims, "Hiya Nick. Meet Mr. Beaumont. He's a heel!.....(to Beaumont)I think you're a pair of heels."
THE GLASS KEY is not the same kind of stylish catchy thriller as THIS GUN FOR HIRE, it has a definite slower pace. However the former more clearly illustrates the elusive atmosphere and thematic elements which define film noir.
Alan Ladd reigns supreme in both films, as a master of multifaceted characters. Not only did he master the role of a feline-loving hitman in THIS GUN FOR HIRE, but he interjected a profound complexity to the character of Ed Beaumont.
All of the key components of noir are present in this film: a very definite crisis of patriarchy, strong willed femme fatales and a plot centered around an expose of a political nature. And in regards to the surreal aesthetics attributed to noir film, what else could so gloriously conjure the ghost of Andre Breton like the shots of a somber black umbrella parade through the rain at Taylor Henry's funeral?