Monday, May 10, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'The Glass Key'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

“The Glass Key” (1942) was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett. The novel was Hammett’s favorite among all his books. (There were five, not including short story collections.)

The book is about Ned Beaumont’s efforts to keep his friend and employer, political boss Paul Madvig, from being arrested for the murder of a senator’s son. Complicating matters is both men’s attraction to the senator’s daughter, Janet Henry.

I read the book some years ago and reread parts of it after I saw this movie. I’m afraid I don’t share Hammett’s affection for it, though the book is certainly respectable and enjoyable. But I much prefer Hammett’s first-person stuff – his Continental Op stories and “The Thin Man.”

In “The Glass Key,” Hammett seems to be aiming for a Hemingwayesque objectivity, never outright telling us how anyone feels about anything, apparently feeling that describing what they do and say is enough, and the readers can form their own conclusions. This type of writing can work really well or it can seem really mannered; it doesn’t help that Ned Beaumont is always referred to as Ned Beaumont, never as Ned or Beaumont. (Erle Stanley Gardner treated Della Street the same way. Maybe Ned Beaumont and Della Street should have paired up.)

Stuart Heisler’s movie pretty much sticks to the book, which was adapted by another mystery writer (and a very capable one, too), Jonathan Latimer. Latimer, who later adapted several of Gardner’s books for the “Perry Mason” show in addition to writing original scripts for that program, does a good job of shepherding Hammett’s work to the screen -- knowing when, for example, to combine characters for the sake of cinematic economy.

Then again, I’d be interested to know why a couple of the characters’ names were changed. Shad O’Rory, the villain in the book, becomes Nick Varna. Was Paramount afraid of offending the Irish, or had the actor – Joseph Calleia – already been cast and someone decided he didn’t look like an O’Rory? And why does Ned Beaumont become Ed Beaumont while Paul Madvig gets to keep his name?

Not that this really matters; the movie still works today, and for two reasons.

The first is the casting. Alan Ladd (Beaumont) and Veronica Lake (Janet) had already set off sparks in “This Gun for Hire.” True, the two of them have a limited range – perhaps a very limited range – but for the purposes of the film they’re perfect. William Bendix, as Varna’s chief henchman, is exactly what you’d find if the Yellow Pages had a listing for “vicious” or “brutal.” He probably could have taught Quentin Tarantino’s thugs a few things.

But Brian Donlevy, as Madvig, is perhaps the standout. He’s playing a guy who’s corrupt, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty or violent, but who is also likable – and sympathetically clueless and vulnerable when it comes to romance. That’s a tall order to fill, but Donlevy does it with little if any apparent effort. Never mind Willy Loman – if you want to take the movies of the 1930s and 1940s seriously, attention must be paid to Brian Donlevy.

The second reason the movie still works is that it seems to take it for granted that politics is, at best, a slightly tainted business, to say the least; Frank Capra’s heroes need not apply. Whether or not you agree with this philosophy, it does make for good movies, and today’s jaded audiences can probably go along with it.

Me, I’m still wondering how this kind of world view got past the Hays Office. But for the sake of enduring movie entertainment, I’m glad it did.

1 comment:

VP81955 said...

Paramount planned to make a version of "The Glass Key" in the early '30s, and its original plan was to team George Raft with Carole Lombard (; the film wasn't made until 1935, and by then, Claire Dodd was the female lead. (Lombard was actually cast before Raft, as a page from Paramount's 1932-33 product announcement book makes evident (

As for Lombard and Raft, they would make two dance films in the mid-thirties, "Bolero" and "Rumba." They apparently danced horizontally, too, as Carole told close female friends of hers that in purely sexual terms, George was the best lover she ever had.