The Glass Key: Will It Snap?



Directed by Stuart Heisler

Paramount, 85 minutes, NR (pre-ratings)




In most film noir movies, it’s best not to trust anyone unless you are very sure of their character–very sure. The Glass Key is considered a noir classic and it’s one that plays off the theme of moral ambiguity. “Classic” might be too strong, but it is based upon a Dashiell Hammett story, and Hammett knew a few things about the elusive distinctions between right and wrong.


On the surface it seems straight forward. Reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) is running for governor of a state that could use a good corruption cleansing. He entrusts his campaign to political fixer Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a man who operates in the ethical gray zone, but nonetheless earns Ralph’s trust and is engaged to his daughter Janet (Veronica Lake). Soon, Madvig is so deeply ingratiated into Henry’s good graces that he brags to his associate Ned Beaumont (Alan Ladd) that he practically has the key to the Ralph’s house. Beaumont warns Paul to make sure it’s not a glass key– a term meaning one that it might snap and a metaphor for an act that can’t be undone. 


What can be done and undone is a theme of the film. Henry’s son Taylor (Richard Denny) is the classic family black sheep who everyone but daddy knows is worthless. Another noir standard is that it’s never a good idea to be on the outs with a gangster and Taylor has racked up some significant debt to  local thug Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), who is just fine with the state’s crooked politics and worries that Madvig might get Ralph Henry elected. Janet’s not exactly a peach either. She wears Paul’s engagement ring, but he’s challenged in the couth department and Janet prefers Ned, though he’s too loyal to Paul to tread on his turf.


When Taylor becomes his best self–a corpse–the question arises as to who offed him. Varna has an alibi and all signs point to Paul, who vigorously denies it. The allegations though, are enough to steer Ed away and Varna tries to recruit him. Janet is another enticement and we can’t help but wonder whose side she’s on. The Glass Key becomes one of those tales in which any of a number of people might wish Taylor dead–including family members and friends–and not even District Attorney Farr (Donald McBride) trusts that evidence and suspects match. Like Farr, you might not expect the ultimate resolution.


The performances of Ladd and Lake stand out in the film. Ladd never quite cracked the A-List in his day, but managed to get steady work in Hollywood in roles such as he played in The Glass Key: a brooding, but steady guy whose inner qualities rather than conventional good looks made him attractive. He was only 5’5” –not exactly Cary Grant territory– but was often paired with Lake, who was just 4’11.” Lake is probably best remembered for her luxurious peek-a-boo blonde mane, but she also exuded qualities associated with a femme fatale: snark, slinkiness, cleavage, and an ever-present air of danger. In The Glass Key, Ladd and Lake smolder rather than sizzle, because that’s what their respective parts demanded. Donleavy is also quite good. He’s oily, but he keeps us guessing whether he’s just an effective political operative or as crooked as an elbow filled with fish hooks.


The Glass Key is a solid noir film, though not it’s a bit like Ladd in that it’s not quite top-tier. As a film, it can be confusing if you’re not paying close attention. Jonathan Latimer’s script is problematic, though it might not have been his fault. Hammett’s novel was a heralded work, but one that was rougher and had fuzzier lines between right and wrong. The Hollywood Code of the day had strict standards about how crime was presented. Beaumont gets a small makeover for the film, but it’s just enough to soften him. Ditto Janet, who is more duplicitous in the novel. But assuming that Hammett isn’t at the top of your reading list, the film version of The Glass Key will do you. I doubt it will destroy your faith in politics; more likely, it will confirm what you’ve long suspected.


Rob Weir   

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