The Glass Key (1942)
The Glass Key (1942)

Genre: Film Noir Running Time: 1 hr. 25 min.

Release Date: October 23rd, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Stuart Heisler Actors: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Brian Donlevy, Bonita Granville, Richard Denning, Joseph Calleia, William Bendix, Margaret Hayes




ead of the Voters League, Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) – with a reputation as cheap muscle turned crooked politician – plots to aid the governorship election of Ralph “Old Man” Henry (Moroni Olsen), whom he feels can be easily manipulated once in office (bringing about the reference to the “glass key” of the title, which might be an influence more fragile and less useful than anticipated). He also has his sights set on Henry’s daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake). Madvig’s assistant, Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), acts as an enforcer and advisor (who desperately needs to carry a weapon), involving himself in every sticky situation, including pushing around the weak-minded authorities in Madvig’s pocket. But his allegiance is regularly tested when Madvig acts alternately coy and careless about his connections, activities, and corruptions (though his loyalty is unusually stubborn for an antihero).

Ralph’s son Taylor (Richard Denning) is in love with Madvig’s 18 year-old sister Opal (Bonita Granville), creating a stir with Paul, who forbids their seeing one another. When Opal phones Ed to warn him that Paul intends to kill Taylor, Ed rushes over to Taylor’s apartment to discover his dead body. At the funeral, it’s evident that Paul is a primary suspect, but evidence is elusive. However, District Attorney Farr (Donald MacBride) is scheduled to meet with Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), a gangster and gambler – whose operations are routinely shut down by Madvig merely to set an example of power – who claims to possess a secret witness to the crime. Meanwhile, Janet pleads with Ed to help her uncover the murderer.

Based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the film features plenty of paradigmatic film noir elements, including wise-cracking tough guys, oversized henchmen, poison-pen letters, shadowy confines, criminal enterprises, brutal violence, double-crosses, and an impressive stunt (in which a man falls from a roof through a glass ceiling window). It also has a circuitous, overly complex plot full of secrets, lies, and misdirection. But the attitudes are more hardboiled than the dialogue, with words primarily used for exposition instead of poetically embellished talk. Frequently, characters announce precise intentions, specifically so that the audience can understand the complex relationships between them.

There are no true good guys in “The Glass Key”; merely corrupt hoods plotting cover-ups, battling equally nefarious enemy politicians or malleable government officials, all grappling for survival until the end credits. Even the femme fatales on the protagonist’s side are suspicious and disagreeable. No one is likeable and no one is heroic. In the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, loses, or gets the girl, since none of the leads are worth cheering on; one scene in particular, in which Ed is worked over by thugs, is strangely unable to garner any sympathy (and torture is a predominantly surefire method for commiseration). But at least Veronica Lake remains in her standard, blonde-bombshell attire, sexily showing off her tiny frame with see-through dresses.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10