“ Genre: Crime & Thriller / Theatrical Release: 1942 / Parental Guidance / Director: Stuart Heisler / Actors: Brian Donlevy, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Bonita Granville, Richard Denning ... / DVD released 2007-02-12 at Universal Pictures UK / Features of the DVD: Black & White, PAL „
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The Glass Key is a hard boiled film noir from 1942 and is based upon a novel by the master of detective fiction... Dashiell Hammett.
It tells the story of Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) a corrupt and quick to resort to his fists politician who, upon meeting a beautiful young woman, Janet Henry (Veronica Lake) decides that he is going to change his ways and shut down crime in his city.
With the aid of his best friend Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) Madvig sets about aligning himself and his supporters with Janet's father, Taylor, and his reform party, much to the dislike of his old 'friends', especially one Nick Varna.
When Harvey's son, and Janet's brother, is murdered suspicion immediately falls on Madvig. A prior argument about his relationship with Opal, Paul's sister, being the main piece of evidence.
When everyone except Ed seems to believe that Paul did indeed commit murder it will be a challenge to find a way to prove his innocence... if he is indeed innocent!
The Glass Key is one of the best film noirs and is a perfect example of the genre. It possesses a 'hero' of dubious morals, in fact at one stage you are truly shocked by his actions, who is working for someone who is acknowledged as a corrupt politician right from the off. Seeing as Madvigs reason for 'turning good' is just because of a woman, not through any life changing circumstances or a realisation that what he has been doing is wrong, you can see how noble the two main male characters are.
But then that is what film noir is all about. When watching it you are leaving behind the world of moral absolutes and diving headlong into a murky arena where there is no such thing as black and white. A lighter shade of grey is the best the world seems to be able to offer in its heroes. Even the cops seem to be happy to take the easy route, if it will save them a lot of footwork, investigation and paperwork.
The 'bad' guy isn't overly evil either. He certainly is no worse than Madvig himself. He is just a businessman who happens to run a business that is illegal (a club/casino I think) and likes to force people to agree with him. He normally does this with the help of Jeff (William Bendix), his muscle man and probably the best character in the movie. He certainly is the most out and out thug like but played with such aplomb and confidence by Bendix that you really enjoy seeing him on screen, even if you don't like the way he acts and what he does.
That no one else in the movie is that likeable, apart from maybe Taylor and the police detective, especially all the main characters says a lot for the mood and atmosphere of the movie... and of film noir in general.
Bonita Granville (the original Nancy Drew!) is the closest to being a sympathetic character. Opal is very young and when she thinks her brother has killed her man she acts exactly like you would imagine a young, spoilt girl would, rebelling against her brother convinced he is guilty.
Donlevy is very good as Madvig. He plays a corrupt, passionate and aggressive man just perfectly. Most importantly the way he acts around Janet makes you believe that he has turned soft over her, that the power of a beautiful woman has tamed him, and Veronica Lake sure looks damn beautiful, sexy and incredibly sultry. Any man could fall for her womanly charms very very easily.
Alan Ladd though is the star, maybe not in billing at this early stage of his career, but he exudes a machismo that goes far beyond charisma. He has been a favourite of mine ever since I discovered Box 13, a radio adventure series he starred in during the 50's. As Ed he is the kind of character film noir is all about. Charming but tough, good looking but with an ugly side lurking beneath his looks. At any moment you know he could turn and unleash a violent side that is every bit as bad as those he is fighting against. Flying fists and gunplay are just as likely to be used as the first solution to a problem as diplomacy.
Still film noir is all about bullets, broads and crime so what else would you expect?
Running at only 81 minutes The Glass Key packs in a lot of story in that short time. It never lets up its pace and is a superb example of what film noir is all about.
As always with a black and white thriller the use of Black and white, the light and shadows, especially in a movie all about the thin line between black and white moralistically, is used to tremendous effect. Foreboding and tension is built using the shadows and darkness, something that works incredibly well at keeping you on edge.
There are better film noirs, but they would be the very well known ones like Double Indemnity. For a lesser known movie this is a fabulous film noir and if you like that kind of film than you should try and see it.
*Dictionary definition of Film Noir is 'A movie characterised by low-key lighting, a bleak urban setting and corrupt, cynical characters' or 'a movie that is marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, menace and cynical characters. The term was first coined by French critics to describe American detective and thriller films of the 1940's.*