Sometimes only half measures are needed for a movie to register as something it may not necessarily be. Mark Fraser revisits an early 1940s Hollywood work which enjoys a questionable reputation.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Although Stuart Heisler’s 1942 take on Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key is regarded in some circles as film noir, it is not an outstanding example of this cinematic style by any stretch of the imagination. While the movie does contain some elements of noir – namely crime, corruption and a reasonable dose of ruthless psychology – it also lacks many of its standard features. Additionally, when it does focus on corrupt politicians and society’s criminal underbelly, The Glass Key predominantly does so in a fairly sanitised way. Ultimately, within its monochrome milieu, there is far more black and white than shades of grey.
As a result it’s arguable this movie is not classic Hollywood film noir in the purest sense of the term. Rather, it is something of a melodramatic precursor to the stronger American noir works which emerged during the second half of the 1940s – films that were darker, more cynical and strongly existential in their collective outlook. If anything The Glass Key is a reflection of what the United States was like just before World War II; when optimism was slowly returning following the Great Depression and the country didn’t have the weight of the world on its shoulders.
It mirrors an age in which good inevitably overcame evil and honour prevailed, not one where society’s rules were continually being compromised, bent and broken in an environment dominated by “cynicism, pessimism and darkness” (Schrader, 1972).
This is not to say The Glass Key fails to exploit its noir qualities, particularly when compared to similar movies of its vintage. As Hollywood film writer-director Paul Schrader pointed out in his seminal 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir”, Heisler’s effort sits comfortably with other early 1940s works like John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Frank Tuttle’s This Gun For Hire (1942) and Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) – black and white crime melodramas which lack “the distinctly noir bite the end of the War would bring”.
Nevertheless it is still undeniably a product of its time, looking and feeling more like a conventional studio movie than one which explored “previously forbidden themes” and emphasised the “aberration of the American character” (Schrader, 1972).
From a narrative point-of-view The Glass Key is something of a mixed bag, starting out as a veiled bromance between a questionable businessman and his enforcer before becoming a politically-driven murder mystery and, by its closing moments, a belated romance.
At the centre of all this is Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), the loyal right hand man of Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a racketeer who decides to turn the tables on local gangster Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) by backing reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) in the coming election for governor – mostly because he’s got the hots for Henry’s feisty daughter Janet (Veronica Lake).
Things start to go awry, however, when Janet’s compulsive gambling brother Taylor (Richard Denning) – who is in love with Madvig’s younger sister Opal (Bonita Granville) and owes Varna a bunch of money – turns up murdered outside of the family mansion.
Suspecting Madvig of the crime (and fundamentally disagreeing with his boss’ new political strategy), Beaumont leaves his employ, only to be courted by the vindictive Varna, who plans to expose the corrupt dealings of his now-rival in the local newspaper (which he also happens to own).
Being a man of impeccable honour, Beaumont arrogantly refuses the gangster’s generous offer and, for his sins, is beaten up and tortured by the brutish Jeff (William Bendix) and Rusty (Eddie Marr) as they unsuccessfully try to force him to spill Madvig’s beans to the press. Fortunately he escapes during what is the film’s best (albeit brief) action sequence and winds up in hospital.
From this point onwards everything is pretty run-of-the-mill melodrama, although the movie does boast a few truly dark incidents that visit some of noir’s better-known traditions.
Aside from the above-mentioned torture episode, when Varna’s henchmen keep the bloodied and bruised Beaumont captive in a dingy loft, the second takes place when the latter – who prematurely checks himself out of hospital – visits newspaper publisher Clyde Matthews (Arthur Loft) at his country mansion, where he finds Varna, Jeff, Rusty and Opal collaborating on a story to discredit Madvig.
Not only does Beaumont circumvent proceedings by revealing that the crime kingpin has no intention of stopping the media outlet from going broke, but he starts seducing Matthew’s flirtatious wife Eloise (Margaret Hayes) in front of the poor man, eventually driving him to suicide.
The other classic noir moment occurs towards the end of the movie when, during another (and much tenser) back room confrontation, a steely Beaumont verbally sets the drunken Jeff up, effectively goading the witless thug into strangling Varna.
Had either of these scenes of mean-spirited psychological manipulation been excluded, The Glass Key would have dangerously looked like nothing more than a low rent gangster opus in which talk overrides action.
Fortunately Heisler and his scriptwriter Jonathan Latimer saw fit to make it clear that their protagonist has a formidable dangerous streak – not to mention a strangely persuasive one as well.
Despite these excursions into darker territories, The Glass Key still stands on shaky noir ground given it fails to embrace many of the other key principles which make this style of film-making so distinctive. Arguably the main one missed by the movie is what Schrader called the “over-riding noir theme” – that being a passion for the past and present, but also a fear of the future.
“The noir hero dreads to look ahead, but instead tries to survive by the day, and if unsuccessful with that, he retreats to the past. Thus film noir’s techniques emphasise loss, nostalgia, lack of clear priorities, insecurity; then submerge these self-doubts in mannerism and style,” he wrote.
Admittedly this describes Beaumont, but only to a point. At no juncture in the movie does he ever really look back at anything nostalgically; nor is he insecure or swamped with self-doubt. Moreover, his strong code of honour makes his priorities very clear.
Bearing this in mind it’s arguable that Beaumont is, in some ways, almost the antithesis of the noir protagonist who emerged in American cinema post-World War II. Although he’s obviously ruthless, his sense of morality is not unambiguous enough to render him a problematic outcast. Furthermore, he does not appear to be caught up in any kind of existential funk – after all, he successfully ends up getting the girl despite himself.
Aside from character idiosyncrasies, Schrader also identified four other key elements that are crucial for a movie to be regarded as a member of the film noir club. Interestingly, only one is applicable to The Glass Key.
As it was probably shot within six months of the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the movie lacks both the war-post war disillusionment and realism which permeated later noir films.
Meanwhile, from a visual point-of-view, it doesn’t draw too heavily on the aesthetics of German Expressionism, relying instead on predominantly standard studio sets and lighting.
Where The Glass Key does fall within Schrader’s criteria, however, is in its “hard boiled” literary roots where the writers (including Hammett) “created ‘the tough’, a cynical way of acting and thinking which separated one from the everyday emotions – romanticism with a protective shell.”
This is undeniably Ladd’s Beaumont all over.
In the final analysis The Glass Key misses the noir mark for a number of reasons.
With the exception of a few key scenes, stylistically the lighting is mostly flat, compositions lack depth of field, the narrative fails to employ “a complex chronological order” to reinforce the feelings of hopelessness and lost time, while the characters don’t suffer from “an irretrievable past, a predetermined fate and an all-enveloping hopelessness” (Schrader, 1972).
It also has a happy ending where everything is more or less satisfactorily resolved and a blossoming romance looms on the horizon.
Furthermore, perhaps with the exception of Janet – whose only real act of betrayal is writing anonymous letters implicating Madvig and Beaumont in her brother’s murder – the film doesn’t have a strong femme fatale; a woman who, in the words of Roger Ebert, “would just as soon kill you as love you”.
Having said all this, The Glass Key is still worth visiting for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Ladd – who really deserved top billing – does enjoy a tall and reasonably intimidating presence. Despite his reputation for being short, Heisler, his cinematographer Theordor Sparkuhl and costume designer Edith Head actually make the sharply-dressed actor look a bit lanky. (The scene when Beaumont first meets Janet at her father’s house, though, is a wee bit strange – it’s hard to tell if he’s mentally undressing the woman or simply sneering at her with utter contempt.)
Secondly Bendix, as the psychopathic Jeff, is a scene chewer. Claiming to be “just a good natured slob” who can easily be pushed around following his arrest, this wisecracking henchman ends up personifying the truly violent aspect of the criminal underworld. He’s also not without a sardonic sense of humour, giving Beaumont nicknames like “Baby”, Sweetie Pie”, “Sweetheart” and “Cuddles”.
And, despite its somewhat watered down take on noir, The Glass Key it is not completely devoid of its qualities. Sparkuhl’s crisp black and white camerwork, for instance, is extremely effective during the movie’s darker moments, while there are times (albeit too few) when the lighting favours oblique and vertical shadows as opposed to horizontal ones – a technique which “[tends] to splinter a screen, making it restless and unstable” (Schrader, 1972).
Taking all this on board, one could argue that while The Glass Key isn’t exactly pioneering film noir, it definitely would have helped unlock the door for subsequent – and noticeably grimmer – noir works.
Words by Mark Fraser
Paul Schrader: “Notes on Film Noir” – Schrader on Schrader & Other Writings (editor – Kevin Jackson), Faber and Faber Ltd, 1990, p 80-94
Roger Ebert: “A Guide to Film Noir Genre” (sic) – Roger Ebert.com, January 30, 1995
Top 10 Films reviewed The Glass Key on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Films which released the film in the UK September 19, 2016
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