Friday, November 25, 2011

The Glass Key (1942)

I like to think of myself as a bit of a film noir fan.  I am no expert (yet), but I'm a big fan of what I've seen so far.  I'm also a big fan of literary noir; my favorite author is Dashiell Hammett, and my favorite work by him is The Glass Key.  One of my favorite movies of all time --- the sublime Miller's Crossing --- is more or less based (the directors say "influenced") on The Glass Key, too.  Needless to say, I was happy to find the second, and more famous, film version of The Glass Key on television this week.  But would it live up to my high expectations?  See what I did there?  That's a cliffhanger, folks.

Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) is the right hand man for the town's head mobster, Paul Madvig (Brian Donleavy).  Ed is smart, mean, and relatively emotion-free.  Paul is a gutsy fighter who worked his way up the mob scene through violence and perseverance.  Paul has become infatuated with Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), the daughter of the reform candidate for governor, Senator Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen, the voice of Disney's magic mirror), so he has given his considerable political support to Mr. Henry's campaign.
Her dad's the head of the Committee for Hot Senatorial Daughters
That's a problem; reform candidates are trying to change the system, but Paul obviously isn't interested in changing the fact that he's pulling the strings in this town's politics.  That's a little dumb, but Paul also combines this folly with the choice to battle an up-and-coming mobster, Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who is strong enough to give Paul some serious trouble.
"Have you ever considered being less stupid?"
Even that wouldn't be a fatal error if it wasn't for the mysterious murder of Senator Henry's son, Taylor (Richard Denning).  Why is all that a problem?  Well, Taylor died in circumstances that implied that Paul was the killer.  When you combine that with a shaky political alliance and a worthy adversary making war, you have more than a small problem on your hands.

That summary doesn't really do the story justice.  While Paul Madvig is definitely the cog that turns the wheels of this plot, the main character is absolutely Ed Beaumont.  Ed is smart, except when he's gambling.  He's tough, especially when being weak would benefit his body.  Most importantly, though, Ed is the eyes through which we see the plot.  He doesn't know who killed Taylor Henry, but he's sticking by Paul until his mind gets changed.  He knows he shouldn't give a fig for the manipulative Janet Henry, but he is more than willing to manipulate her to find the truth.  And, eventually, love her in a sexual fashion.
"Have you heard of sexual healing?"

This is the second film version of this story (the first was made in 1935), but it is definitely the more famous one.  That is primarily due to the on-screen chemistry of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.  The duo had teamed up in This Gun For Hire already, but the film had not been released before The Glass Key began filming; apparently, their chemistry was enough to guarantee a reunion here, as well as in two other films.  Alan Ladd is pretty good in this role, especially for the time.  He's not as tough as Bogart (or, for that matter, Gabriel Byrne, who would reprise the role), but he's somewhat no-nonsense and certainly has more charm than his sourpuss character deserves.  One thing I definitely didn't like about his performance was when he had to play conniving or desperate; Ladd smirked in those scenes, where he definitely should have had anything but a smirk on his face.  Veronica Lake is a pretty lady, but not the femme fatale that I think Janet Henry should be.  She is supposed to be a lying, manipulative bitch, after all.  I will give her credit, though; her scenes with Ladd make his frequent goofy smiles completely understandable. 
Noir heroes should leer, not smile
Brian Donleavy was okay as Paul Madvig, but I thought Donleavy was a tad young for the part.  He certainly played up Madvig's stupidity well enough, but I think his character deserved a little more age to explain how disassociated he was with reality.
Paul Madvig: distrusting of beards and attractive ties
 The rest of the supporting cast was merely okay, with the exception of William Bendix, who played Varna's muscle.  While he was certainly not the most subtle actor in the movie, Bendix was definitely the most intimidating and the best physical presence.  It's hard to find an actor who can convincingly play a thug that loves violence, but Bendix turned in a great performance in a relatively minor role.
Bendix, pondering the effects of violence, in-between beating sessions

The direction in The Glass Key is decent, but nothing more.   Stuart Heisler told a comprehensible tale, despite several twists and turns in the plot, but he didn't do much more.  The lighting is pretty standard, the acting isn't fantastic, and the camera work is nothing special.  While there are better examples of noir villains in this era, I think Heisler did a pretty good job with the actors, especially the charismatic bad guys.
Charismatic and snappy dressers!

The Glass Key is a pretty solid movie, even if it doesn't match up to my admittedly high expectations.  I don't believe in noir heroes who show emotion, and Alan Ladd spends a lot of time smiling at Veronica Lake.  Much of the film feels dated, particularly Brian Donleavy's emotional reactions.  His obviously faked knockout "punch" didn't help, either.  This story has a lot of potential; it could be a story of political intrigue, a mobster story, or just the tale of a smart hood.  The Glass Key decides to use Ladd and Lake's admittedly good chemistry and instead craft a story of star-crossed love.
Or stare-crossed love!  Get it?  Okay, I'm sorry.
I'm not saying that this is a bad movie, by any means.  I was just underwhelmed because I am familiar with the source material and wanted it to live up to the book.  It doesn't.  Luckily, it retains enough of Hammett's characters to make this an entertaining film.  It's not as tough and gritty as I like my noir, but I can't ignore how much I like this story.

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