The Glass Key, 1942. 9/10

Nice title for this film noir. I take it that, unlike a skeleton key, which unlocks anything, one made of glass doesn’t work at all. Great cast for The Glass Key too. Brian Donlevy is reforming politician Paul Madvig, Bonita Granville is his sister Opal; Alan Ladd is Paul’s friend Ed Beaumont, and Moroni Olsen is Ralph Henry, Paul’s political ally. Janet (Veronica Lake) and Taylor (Richard Denning) are Ralph’s sister and brother. William Bendix is the sadistic underling Jeff to Joseph Calleia’s Nick Varna, the notorious gangster. Add on D.A. Farr (Donald McBride) and newspaper editor Clyde Matthews and his wife Eloise (Arthur Loft and Margaret Hayes).

Varna’s getting hung out to dry by the new regime, which doesn’t sit so well with his rackets. “I’m too big to take the boot from you” he tells Paul. It’s obvious that it’s Janet who initiates Paul’s tilt towards her dad’s camp. She’s the “key” to Paul’s future, giving him an opening, but rendering him “breakable”. Ed’s taken with her too.

Opal asks Ed for money for her boyfriend Taylor; who’s in hock to Nick. Ed finds Taylor dead. Paul is suspected by a reporter, a mouthpiece for Nick. The D.A. has an anonymous incriminating letter; apparently Nick has more dope on Paul. “That pop-eyed spaghetti vendor!” responds Paul to these allegations. Janet goes to Ed for help in finding her brother’s killer. She doesn’t believe Paul’s involved. Paul and Ed meet up–although they talk about Nick, they’re really arguing about Janet.

Nick tries to recruit Ed to set up Paul for Taylor’s murder. Ed seems to agree–then refuses. Jeff works him over in the most noirish basement hole possible. A gruelling, very long scene. Wisely, once he’s left alone long enough, he creates a diversion by starting a fire, and escapes. Another classic noir scene–he falls through a skylight right onto a restaurant table. Recovering in the hospital, Opal starts asking him a bunch of questions about Paul “If you want to be an idiot, don’t go around with a megaphone!” he responds, annoyed.

Then Janet and Paul show up. Ed checks himself out to look up Opal, whom he fears in into some trouble with Nick. He’s right. They’re all at Matthew’s, using Opal to finger Paul. Eloise tries to seduce Ed. Clyde, financially ruined by Nick, kills himself. Luckily, Paul shows up to get Ed out of hot water. Paul confesses to Ed that he did kill Taylor, accidentally, he says. He’s kept quiet about it to keep in Janet’s good graces.

Now Paul is indicted for Taylor’s death/murder. Ed goes to a dive to find Jeff. Why? To get him to talk–a one on one with a psycho. What a scene; long, tense. Nick shows up; the swinging overhead lamp does its surreal dance of shadow. Jeff, drunk, is loose-lipped enough to blurt out he was the gunman in an earlier murder. As Jeff strangles Nick, Ed gets Nick’s gun, then the cops. In the station, Jeff can’t resist calling Ed a wise-guy, but Ed tells him “You’re gonna die laughing.”

Ed convinces the D.A. that Janet killed her brother, but when it comes down to it, Mr. Henry confesses. Paul’s story was correct, but it was the old man who accidentally killed Taylor. Well, that was a clever deception, as Ed apparently knew it was him all along. He figured the old man would confess to protect Janet. A few too many spins around the plot maybe.

Still, the Glass Key was better than I expected. There’s those memorable scenes with Bendix that typify the genre. Also, even though The Glass Key is a bit longer than most noir films, it never lags. Lake’s role is central both to the romance and the Tyler murder aspects of the plot; she’s convincing as a sultry love-interest for Ed and Paul, as well as mysterious enough to have been up to no good. Ladd’s performance is stronger than Donlevy’s, but Ed is the more important character. Calleia might’ve been a little slimier, but he was fine. Granville, like Donlevy the Ladd duo, is somewhat in the shadow of Lake.

Other than the plot having a few too many strands, and a half dozen too many characters to sort out in its web, The Glass Key is first rate film noir. Farmermouse snitched a few too many whiskies, so he’s seeing nine stars for this. 9/10.

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