Skip to content

The Glass Key (1942)

The Glass Key (1942 film)
**This entry is my contribution to the Fabulous 40s Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.  Please check out the other fabulous contributions to the blogathon here.**

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.

Ronnie Rating:


Interested in purchasing today’s film?  If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site!  Thanks! 

Dark Crimes Film Noir Thrillers / The Glass Key (’42) / Phantom Lady (’44) / The Blue Dahlia (’46)


Kristen Lopez View All

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.

29 thoughts on “The Glass Key (1942) Leave a comment

  1. Lake is cold and robotic but she can also be alluring. She’s a bit too lifeless in her role here for my taste. Neither she nor Ladd who has admitted this himself, are the most talented of actors, but they do have a charismatic screen presence, the stuff of what movie stars are made of. Donlevy is always entertaining no matter what side of the law her is on. Joseph Calleia as the town’s big shot is convincingly tough. Ladd takes a brutally vicious, realistic beating from William Bendix which is both hard to watch and a highlight in the film. A good film, but not in the stratosphere. Enjoyed reading!

    • Alluring is a great word that I should have used to describe her. I can see where she’s lifeless because the plot doesn’t give her the depth of a femme fatale, she’s in a weird limbo here in terms of character. Ladd and Lake have strong chemistry, but I really thought they made the Donlevy character just as good, yet they never used the love triangle to its full potential. The beating is brutal, weird that Bendix and Ladd became such good friends after that. Thanks for reading!

  2. I have’t seen this, so I can’t comment that much on it’s hybrid-noir status. However, I can say that you most assuredly must see Shane with Alan Ladd! LOL! As for Ms. Lake, we will have to agree to disagree. BTW, the incestuous elements of the film you discussed intrigued me. I might take a look at this one.

    • Shane is on my ClassicFlix list. Good to know the hype seems to have stuck with it. Haha, I maintain Lake has something, it’s just difficult to find the right movie. I do recommend seeing this, regardless of your Lake love lol.

  3. Very nice post! I haven’t seen this film in ages, and while I am a little sketchy on the story, I am 100% certain of the allure of Veronica Lake. I think you captured it beautifully in this post!

  4. I agree that the plot in The Glass Key isn’t the most coherent but then, we don’t really watch it for the plot. Getting to see Ladd and Lake at the peak of their glamor and style and watching Donlevy do his usual heel-with-the-traces-of-heart is a great pleasure. My favorite Ladd and Lake is still This Gun for Hire where they have a great chemistry that’s sweet and funny and protective–and yet they’re not the romantic couple in that film which makes it more interesting. Great review!

    • I have This Gun for Hire, just haven’t watched it yet. I’ll be sure to analyze it alongside The Glass Key. Glad to know it’s just as worth watching, if not more so. Thanks for reading!

  5. I would certainly consider THE GLASS KEY to be film noir. I like both Ladd and Lake in it and only wish a stronger actor had been in Donlevy’s role. It’s an entertaining picture, but not on par with THIS GUN FOR HIRE.

  6. Kristen,
    I enjoyed your honest and detailed review of The Glass Key. I was also thrilled to see another Veronica Lake picture on the CMBA Blogathon list. This was her era as you’ve pointed out here.

    You mention that Alan Ladd wasn’t all that imposing for this type of role but I’m glad he was cast anyway. His chemistry with Lake is obvious and fun to watch. It’s interesting that Alan Ladd was a shorty at 5’6 but George Raft was just one inch taller at 5’7 and quite an imposing figure in this genre. Then Bogart was just one more inch taller at 5’8. Poor, Alan! He should have worn some risers in his shoes. ha ha

    With so many outstanding films about the mob, crooked politicians etc, this isn’t my favorite but it holds it on today. As you pointed out with Dashiell, being hard to follow at times. It just needed a meatier screen adaptation otherwise it is a fine film.
    Oh, on a side note! Veronica’s gorgeous costumes are worth the price of admission alone. : )
    A truly enjoyable review!

    • I’m always hoping to spread the word on how awesome Veronica is. It is surprising she didn’t win the 1940s Leading Lady poll I had up a few weeks ago. I think one can look intimidating when the right combination of elements present themselves. Bogart wasn’t physically intimidating, but his presence and his aggression came through brilliantly. Ladd is almost too much of a pretty boy. Thanks for reading!

  7. When I think of 1940s cinema, one of the first images that pops in my mind is Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. I think they’re fascinating together and a great example of star power at its most potent. Were they great actors? No. But they possessed screen presence and charisma that more seasoned actors would kill to have. I can’t explain it, but it’s there. It’s a shame that their Paramount titles aren’t as accessible as other screen teams from the era. I think they’d be more widely seen, and appreciated, if their movies were more available. I’ve liked their all movies, but I’ve never seen “Saigon” (1948). It’s not suppose to be very good, but it’s Ladd and Lake so I would love to see it. That’s star power!

    • It’s always surprising to me which actors just don’t have their work out there for audiences to see and enjoy. I hope to find as much of Veronica’s work and review it, although it might take some time.

  8. Kristen, an interesting take on this film as early but not quite full-blown film noir. It’s been awhile since I read the novel by Dashiell Hammett it’s based on, but I recall the novel as being even more convoluted and much more cynical than the movie (especially about political corruption). So I think you’re quite right that if made a few years later, more of those qualities would have been transferred to the film. I was already thinking of Veronica Lake’s and Alan Ladd’s height when you brought it up! Of their films together, I like this one the best. The most shocking thing in the film is to see that William Bendix, who I usually think of as a lovable lug, could project a very, very dark side. Here he’s one of the most memorable thugs in all film noir.

  9. Kristen, I have this on my DVR since it played on TCM and still haven’t seen it. I love film noir but must admit am terribly deficient in the Ladd/Lane films. A confession – I do not like Veronica Lake. I am trying but it ain’t happenin’. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe the Glass Key will be THE ONE that does it. Nice post!


    PS – I adore noir posters and The Glass Key one you include in the post is drool-worthy! GORGEOUS!

    • Oh the amount of items on my DVR I still haven’t watched is incredible. I can understand people who don’t like Lake, but if they’ve at least seen something with her in it, I feel I’ve accomplished something lol.

  10. I am a fan of this film, although I haven’t seen it in 20 years. I remember being captivated by it and feeling the two stars had great chemistry together. Glad you selected this one!

  11. Interesting read. I would agree that the film is a bit difficult to follow.
    I think it’s one that I’d like to revisit. Lake and Ladd are an interesting screen team that are often forgotten today, but were perfect together because of their heights.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: