Thursday 10 September 2020

Movie Review: The Glass Key (1942)

A delicately convoluted film noir, The Glass Key mixes politics, corruption, crime, romance and divided loyalties into a steaming brew.

Shady political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) wants to continue his rise from humble beginnings to the top of the influence ladder, with fixer and advisor Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) by his side. Paul falls in love at first sight with the feisty Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), the daughter of political reformist Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen). To Ed's surprise, Paul joins forces with Ralph for the upcoming election, just to get close to Janet. 

Janet has limited interest in Paul, but the chemistry between her and Ed is instantaneous. Soon Paul is confronted with two other big problems: Janet's gambling-addicted brother Taylor (Richard Denning) is found dead, and rumours circulate that Paul is responsible. And a falling out with political rival Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) results in violence. Ed has to navigate the turmoil to try and save his long term friendship.

An adaptation of a Dashiell Hammett book, The Glass Key (a reference to a coveted but fragile invitation to the inner sanctum of the elite political class) is almost overrun by characters and events. In addition to Janet, Ralph and Taylor Henry and Nick Varna, Paul's naive sister Opal (Bonita Granville) and Varna's goon Jeff (William Bendix) also circle the chaotic lives of Paul and Ed, not to mention a district attorney, a newspaper publisher, and a witness-in-hiding. With a running time of just 85 minutes, director Stuart Heisler works frantically to cram everything in, and the break-neck pacing threatens to spiral out of control.

But at its essence, this is a compelling story of friendship and loyalty. Paul and Ed are partners on a winding path to the top of the sordid political heap. Paul is the fast-talking, always smiling if smarmy public face, while Ed is the dour behind-the-scenes operative clearing out obstacles and hiding the wreckage. Paul is never short of a long story, while Ed counters every nascent threat with a condescending sneer. Now their friendship crashes against multiple concurrent tests, starting with both falling for the same woman.

Ed also fundamentally disagrees with Paul's opportunistic support for Ralph Henry and is perturbed by the unnecessary chasm between Paul and Nick. Their bond of trust is further tested by anonymous rumours insinuating Paul killed Taylor, the type of dirt Ed is an expert at suppressing if he wasn't distracted by the erosion of the friendship fundamentals. Ed's willingness to sacrifice is at the heart of The Glass Key, and the loyalty theme overcomes the excesses in Jonathan Latimer's script.

In a grey world filled with power-hungry individuals, a strong cast overcomes the lack of sympathetic characters. Brian Donlevy is first-billed, but star-on-the-rise Alan Ladd grabs the spotlight, and Heisler gradually establishes Ed Beaumont at the centre of the drama. Ladd responds with a spiky performance, creating in Ed a man with the mouth and guile to back his belief that he is smarter than everyone around him. The sparks between Ladd and Lake jump off the screen, Heisler again quick to capitalize with sly camera positioning to capture their dangerous flirting.

The Glass Key may be heavy with a touch too much plot, but it never stops clicking.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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