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Glass Key, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Not quite as fragile as it may seem."
3 stars

"The Glass Key" is the sort of murder mystery where the fact that a man is dead comes across as an inconvenience and romantic attraction is often asserted as much as felt. On the other hand, it's also a movie with as much stuff happening as you can fit into 85 minutes without it feeling like too much, and never being dull counts for a lot.

We open with Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), who runs the political machine in a medium-sized New Jersey city and is expected to play kingmaker in the upcoming gubernatorial election. Surprisingly, he throws his support behind Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), a reform candidate - mostly because his daughter Janet (Veronica Lake) turned his head. While Madvig makes nice with the beautiful people, his right hand man Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) deals with the less savory elements, like the gambling debts of Janet's brother Taylor (Richard Denning), whom Opal "Snip" Madvig (Bonita Granville), Paul's sister, has more than a bit of a thing for. When the dead body turns up, Madvig's old and new enemies are looking to pin it on him, and Ed's efforts to get him off the hook aren't helped by how little his boss seems to be bothered by the turn of events.

Madvig has a lot of enemies, to the point where it's difficult to keep track of them - there's a businessman who likely expected Madvig's support, a gangster, and a reporter, with the district attorney's involvement inevitable as well. It's a murder mystery that has no shortage of suspects so long as the term is described as "characters who are not the detective" (with Ed taking that role), especially if you take it as a given that framing Madvig may be all the motive someone needs. The trouble is, not many of them are really interesting enough for the audience to really invest in that story, even when it does connect to the good stuff.

What is the good stuff? Mainly, how class works as a dynamic in the story. The glass key of the title comes from Ed telling Paul that the Henry clan may say they've given him the keys to the kingdom, but that key will shatter if he turns it too hard, and that hangs over almost every interaction in the movie: Madvig may wield considerable influence, but his working-class roots show, and there's no chance that Janet will actually marry him once he's no longer useful. Madvig may be in denial about this, but Ed is hyper-aware, and there's a similar undercurrent to the other Madvig/Henry pairing, that Taylor may be a screw-up, but he'll only be allowed to fall so far, and Snip may only be allowed to climb so high.

The cast does a nice job with this, though it's not quite the arrangement the opening credits promise. Brian Donlevy may be first-billed, but Madvig is actually something of a supporting character, one who is always acting himself. Still, Donlevy makes him an interesting one, allowing the practiced artifice and overpowering infatuation to run into each other so that the audience is never quite sure where one ends and the other begins.

Still, it's Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake who sit at the center of the movie, and while it takes a long time for the attraction that characters talk about to really manifest, they're quite good individually. Ladd plays Ed Beaumont as a smart guy perhaps too committed to the chip on his shoulder to really succeed, although capable of great charm and sarcastic wit when pushed. Lake brings grace and refinement to Janet, but keeps in-character when she has to show a flash of passion because someone has hurt her brother or because Ed is just so frustrating. There are a couple of other nice performances in there, too, with Bonita Granville doing what's needed to make the audience believe that Opal will run to her brother's enemies because they at least seem to care about what matters, while William Bendix takes a character that could just be Thug #2 and making him one of the film's most memorable.

The thing is, for as much fun as it is to watch Ladd and Bendix abuse each other verbally and physically, that dynamic in particular has done more than its bit by the end, and for all that the various reversals, escapes, and arguments keep things moving, director Stuart Heisler and screenwriter Jonathan Latimer eventually wear themselves out. The finale is one of those mystery-movie last acts where everybody gets accused of committing the murder, to the point where it feels a bit artificial. It's not necessarily surprising that things turn out this way; Latimer is adapting a Dashiell Hammett novel, and Hammett tended to be more interested in corrupt men and institutions more than the crimes that corruption lead to. To be fair, this stretching mostly leads to the viewer noticing it's stretched rather than actual watch-glancing.

Ladd, Lake, and Bendix would reunite a few years later to tackle a script by another pulp master ("The Blue Dahlia" by Raymond Chandler) and make a somewhat better movie. This one's no slouch, though - whether filling out a double feature or a box set, it's a quick, often-clever movie tha certainly earns its keep.

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originally posted: 12/05/13 11:27:07
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  23-Oct-1942 (NR)
  DVD: 10-Jun-2013


  19-Nov-1942 (M)

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