I immediately had the movie in mind when I was asked if I wanted to participate in the Fabulous 40s Blogathon: Anything with Veronica Lake! Thankfully, the blogathon served a dual purpose as not only did it allow me to participate in my first activity as a Classic Blog Association Member, but I can cross my first Veronica Lake noir with Alan Ladd off my list. The Glass Key is difficult to follow at times, with its rapid-fire discussions of political machinations and standard film noir double crosses, but it’s a beautifully composed movie for the 1940s (this is before film noir hit its stride) and has stellar performances from Lake and Ladd. I’m more determined than ever to see the remaining films by this legendary on-screen team.
Crooked politician Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) falls for Janet Henry (Lake), the daughter of reformist politician Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen). Paul is determined to take back the city from gangsters like Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) and hopes to do so with his second-in-command Ed Beaumont (Ladd). When Janet’s brother dies, Paul becomes the prime suspect, leaving Ed to solve the mystery and clear his friend’s name.
The Glass Key was on my TCM Top Twelve in October, and is the second film Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd did together (out of four). Having just finished up a book about film noir, you can see early elements of the style within The Glass Key; while at the same time it’s not quite as noir as it would be if filmed a few years later. There isn’t as much reliance on shadows as noir would soon be identified with. Characters are always well-lit, and while scenes are set in smoky bars and shady backrooms, there isn’t any particular emphasis on these settings. They’re simply events where things happen before the characters move on to a new location. You also don’t feel a sense of the city here. In fact, I’m not sure if we’re told where events take place. With that being said, The Glass Key is proof of the early influences that would ultimately come to encapsulate the noir movement. The aforementioned shady locations contain crooked politicians, violent gangsters, and a motley crew of characters who all have their own agendas. You, of course, have the femme fatale (a role that Veronica Lake would hold throughout the 1940s). Here, though, Lake isn’t villainous, despite the script’s third act argument that she is. This combining of what we know about noir with what doesn’t fit makes The Glass Key feel like a hybrid. You can spot the noir elements when they appear, while at the same time the story and characters are unique for not falling into the tropes of the genre.
The biggest hurdle to get over is the plot of The Glass Key. It’s based on a Dashiell Hammett novel so the plot is hard to follow, particularly when it comes at the audience all at once in the beginning. The gist is that Paul Madvig is a crooked politician, but decides to reform himself in order to marry the daughter of his reformist rival. He plans to do this by kicking out a few gangsters. It’s easy to follow once all the players are introduced and the murder is revealed. Interestingly, the characters appear to be identified as one thing, without all following the conclusions you’d assume characters like them would engage in. For instance, Madvig is said to be a crooked man, yet he doesn’t do anything particularly crooked in the events of the movie. Sure, he mentions no longer offering protection to Varna’s crew, and Beaumont threatens the D.A. who he has dirt on, but we never see Madvig engage in anything corrupt. The unrealized expectations keeps the audience on their toes, but it’s hard to hate Madvig when we don’t see anything worthy of the hate. The romance between Lake and Ladd’s characters doesn’t help, and while their romance isn’t as fully developed and never takes away from the plot, I felt it could have been thrown out entirely. Janet tells Ed that Madvig is funny, and she tells her father a romance with Madvig wouldn’t be so bad. These two could work out, and maybe Janet’s goodness would rub off. The romance between her and Ladd feels like an afterthought by the end. There are good scenes of them seducing each other, but after all is said and done the two lovers go off, apparently to get married and live happily ever after. It feels unbelievable, and is probably there due to the strictures of the time.
The hybrid nature permeates the core of the story and the characters themselves. The interconnections of all the relationships becomes incestuous, showcasing the small world we live in, but also highlighting that amongst all the political corruption every family suffers from their own blend of hardships. The Henry family are just as corrupt, only it’s internalized. Their problems are of the domestic variety, but could open up a far darker movie that the script never delves into. Janet’s father essentially pimps his daughter out to Paul for political clout, while at the same time condemning Janet’s brother Taylor (Richard Denning). Madvig, himself, isn’t perfect due to his own controlling relationship with his sister (furthering the incestuous tone because of the differing relationships between brothers and sisters). I’ve mentioned Madvig as being likable already, but the way actor Brian Donlevy plays the role, it’s evident there’s a darkness underneath that friendly exterior; I just wish we got to see it. Of course, one can see a close bond between Paul and Ed that could be argued as a homosexual triangle, with Janet in the middle. Janet asks Ed about his relationship with Paul several times, and at the climax he’s ready to throw Janet under the bus in order to secure Paul’s freedom.
I’ve never seen Alan Ladd in anything prior to this, so I didn’t have any preconceived notions about his performance. The script writes the character with a tongue in cheek tone; obviously understanding that Ladd is not a physically intimidating man. One of the reasons Lake worked so well opposite him was due to the fact she was shorter than he was. The movie plays with Ladd’s lack of stature to great comedic effect. In one scene, he gets out of a sticky situation by kicking the baddie in the shins! The character is much like average Joes of the early noirs. He’s in a position of power, but he’s not a private eye or involved in law enforcement in any way. He’s aware of the situations in advance, and is able to solve the mystery with little deduction. He’s the everyman, who happens to have an advantageous position to figure out and solve the mystery. He also has a bad streak to him which rounds out the character. He’s not pious or self-righteous. He smiles when he sees the trouble he’s created and has no problem getting the ladies to fall for him.
We have to talk about Ms. Veronica before we’re through. I can understand audiences who find her cold and robotic, but that’s part of her allure. She’s so perfect and flawless she shouldn’t exist in the real world, which makes her dangerous and mysterious. Her cold features work best in this role where she is trying to please all the men in her life. She’s forced to rely on her eyes to convey what she’s really thinking. As Paul tells a story, you can see her eyeing Ed. If she’s bored, a coy smile crosses her lips and her eyes make a half-roll. It’s evident to the audience, but not to the people around her. She’s placed in the middle, while at the same time, the relationship between Paul and Ed doesn’t need her. When Paul goes to Ed’s hotel and discovers Janet’s glove, with her initials on it pointed straight at the audience, he doesn’t give it a second thought. She’s not nearly as fleshed out as a femme fatale should be, but that’s because she isn’t meant to be one. She is feisty though and her opening into the movie is her slapping Paul in the face!
Overall, The Glass Key is a worthy, early foray into film noir. The acting and intense relationships between all involved keeps the plot moving briskly, although you will have to pay attention early on in order to suss out the plot. The reveal of the murderer is pretty easy to figure out, if you’re looking for the least likely candidate. I adored Veronica Lake, as well as Alan Ladd. I’m hoping to see the rest of their films they worked on together.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.