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The Glass Key (1942), a complicated tale of political corruption and murder, centers on a nonchalant political boss from the wrong side of the tracks, Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), who backs a reform candidate for Governor, partly because he is in love with the candidate's daughter (Veronica Lake). He closes down a local gangster's casino, infuriating the gangster and his henchmen. When the candidate's carousing son turns up dead, Donlevy is the obvious suspect, and his right hand man, Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), must try to figure out the truth - all the while falling for Lake himself.
Full of tough talk, brutal violence, and a dash of romance, this 1942 version of Dashiell Hammett's novel is quite faithful to the book, and it's generally considered superior to the 1935 film version starring George Raft. Perhaps the main difference between the two, aside from the remake's shadowy noir look and bigger budget, is that the character of Ed Beaumont as played by Ladd is much less concerned with behaving morally than George Raft was in the original. Beaumont is loyal to his boss Madvig, but he has no problem with standing by during a murder, stealing and destroying a will, and basically causing a character to commit suicide. Of course, for the film noir style that was just getting underway in 1942, such antiheroic qualities were perfect.
The Glass Key started production before the release of This Gun for Hire (1942), the first Lake/Ladd pairing which would soon ignite screens across the country. And interestingly enough, Lake wasn't originally cast in the new film. Patricia Morison shot a few scenes before it was decided that she was too tall. Lake was then brought in to replace her mainly because she looked good standing with Ladd (he was 5'5", she was barely 5 feet). Little did the studio executives know how lucky a choice they had made, for like This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key would become a huge hit thanks to the public's excitement over the red-hot team. (Two more Ladd/Lake films were to follow: The Blue Dahlia, 1946 and Saigon, 1948.)
Ironically, top billing went to Brian Donlevy - who delivers a superbly charismatic performance - and the picture was practically stolen by William Bendix. Has there ever been a more lovable pathological screen heavy? He gives Ladd one of the cinema's most memorable beatings, calling him "baby" in the process. He spits contemptuously at the floor before leaving a room, and he has the film's best, funniest lines. "I'm just a big good-natured slob," he says after strangling a character to death. At a funeral, he suggests to his boss that they "knock off [Donlevy] right here - that way they won't have to take him far to bury him."
During the film's memorable beating scene, Bendix accidentally slugged Ladd in the jaw for real, knocking him out. (The take survives in the finished film.) Bendix felt awful and he burst into tears. When Ladd woke up, he was so touched by Bendix's reaction that he became friends with the actor and requested him for many of his future films, helping him with his career as best he could.
But that wasn't the only accidental real-life beating on the set. In the opening scene, Lake's character was called upon to sock Donlevy in the jaw. Lake disliked Donlevy. They had worked together on I Wanted Wings (1941) and she knew he didn't think much of her acting ability so she took this opportunity to actually hit him, and as he wasn't prepared for a punch of any real force, she almost knocked him out. "I'd learned in my Brooklyn youth to lead with the hip when you throw a punch," Lake wrote in her autobiography. "Every pound I owned was behind it when it caught his jaw." Seething, Donlevy asked her why she had connected, and she admitted she didn't know how to pull her punches. "I'll give you until the next take to learn," he said and walked away.
Though Ladd and Lake were by all accounts never more than cordial with one another (studio publicity to the contrary), Lake, like Ladd, hit it off with William Bendix, and they too became close friends. "I came to adore the guy," she later wrote. "It was a platonic adoration for a marvelous human being."
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Stuart Heisler
Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Cinematography: Theodor Sparkuhl
Film Editing: Archie Marshek
Art Direction: Haldane Douglas, Hans Dreier
Music: Victor Young, Walter Scharf
Cast: Brian Donlevy (Paul Madvig), Veronica Lake (Janet Henry), Alan Ladd (Ed Beaumont), Bonita Granville (Opal 'Snip' Madvig), Richard Denning (Taylor Henry), Joseph Calleia (Nick Varna).
BW-86m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold