Tuesday, 23 September 2014

"The Glass Key"

This time, I decided to take a break from my usual b-movie fare and treat myself to something a little higher level.  This is "The Glass Key", the 1942 feature based on a Dashiell Hammet novel and starring Alan Ladd (!), Veronica Lake (!), and Brian Donlevy. 
Alan Ladd (later to appear in the excellent feature "The Blue Dahlia") plays Ned Beaumont, the right hand man of Paul Madvig (played by Brian Donlevy), head of the Voters' League, in a role that seems to prefigure the relation ship between the two main characters in "The Sweet Smell of Success."  Surrounding Madvig is a memorable cast of characters, including his intended, Janet Henry (played by Veronica Lake, who would also appear in "The Blue Dahlia"). When Janet's brother turns up dead, Madvig enlists Ned to thwart the investigation so that it doesn't get in the way of his political dealings with Janet's father. But Ned is a bit of a sleuth himself, and soon begins to put some pieces together.

So already we have a pretty interesting plot, and it's fleshed out with three vital elements.  The first is the mystery. It's a basic idea, the concept of wanting to know who did it, but it's easy to mess up.  This film keeps you guessing because everyone has a motive, ranging from obvious to murky.

The second is the characters. I've mentioned the principal ones, and they're all unique and memorable. Alan Ladd brings that combination of believable toughness and cleverness which has him waiting for other characters to catch up, Veronica Lake is the femme who's always looks like she's on top, and Brian Donlevy is more than convincing as a blustery man who makes questionable choices.  The two antagonists in the film (besides the forces of darkness and justice) are Nick Varna (played by Joseph Calleia) and his henchman, Jeff (played by William Bendix, who would also later appear in "The Blue Dahlia"). Of the two, Jeff is the more memorable, not through any fault of Calleia, but because the role calls him to be, and Bendix has the acting skills to pull of the complex character.

The third element is way scenes are constructed. Every scene has a point, a reason for being there, whether it’s a slow-burn of tension, character moments that destroy relationships, or an all-out explosion of violence. The scenes are all well developed and allowed to play out naturally; given room to breathe so to speak. (An example is the showdown between Ned and Jeff, the majority of which is taken up by Jeff's sadistic threats.)
I also wanted to note the accuracy of the film. Now, I'm not an expert on 30's fashion, but its interesting that all the characters look like they stepped off the cover of my copy of the book.  They have that mix of slickness and dapperness (the handkerchief in the suit pocket being my favourite touch).

So yeah, I really liked this film. It's definitely worth a watch, not in the sense that I usually say some b-movie is a decent effort, but in the "this is actually pretty good even if you're not a noir junkie" sense.
Best line: "If you must be a nitwit, don't go around with a microphone," delivered sternly by Alan Ladd.

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