The Glass Key (1942)

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Ostensibly a story of political corruption, betrayal and vengeance, the film is really a character portrait of Ed Beaumont (Ladd), go-to-guy for the somewhat shady political kingmaker Paul Madvig (Donlevy). More than that, the character that emerges is a hard-boiled archetype: smart, tenacious, aloof, cynical, devious, tough, resilient and possessed by his own sense of honour that is his moral compass regardless of whether it’s to his advantage or not. I am tempted to guess that Beaumont has more than a passing resemblance to Hammett’s self-image.

The story is complex and a lot of information is packed into every scene, making it difficult to present a synopsis that does the screen story justice. but the gist is that Paul Madvig, a reputedly corrupt political powerbroker, turns his back on former crooked cronies, particularly gambling boss Nick Varna(Calleia), when he pursues Janet Henry (Lake), the daughter of gubernatorial candidate, Ralph Henry (Olsen), who is campaigning on a ‘reform’ platform, promising to clean up the corruption Madvig is implicated in. The deal is that Madvig will back Henry’s candidacy in return for tacit consent to court Henry’s daughter. Matters are complicated by an affair between Madvig’s sister ‘Snip’ (Granville) and Taylor Henry (Denning), the degenerate, drunken gambler son of Ralph, brother of Janet. When Beaumont finds Taylor dead after an implied argument with Madvig, the latter becomes the prime suspect.

Beaumont, who also has an eye for Janet Henry, but has taken a dislike to her for what he thinks is her condescending manner and manipulation of his friend, has a falling out with Madvig when they argue about the relative merits of alienating Varna, not because Beaumont is a friend of Varna, but because he thinks it’s a politically foolish move, and because he suspects both the Henries will turn their backs on Madvig as soon as Ralph is elected Governor.

Alan Ladd as Hammett alter ego Ed Beaumont.
Alan Ladd as Hammett alter ego Ed Beaumont.

After the argument, and rumours about it have circulated, Beaumont meets with Varna, feigning interest in an offer to reveal dirt on Madvig in return for a gambling house and up-front cash. He keeps up the pretense just long enough to learn that Varna plans to use a newspaper he controls to smear Madvig, thus also discrediting Henry. Then he turns Varna down, but is kidnapped and repeatedly and brutally beaten by Varna thug Jeff (Bendix) in an effort to get him to reveal Madvig’s secrets to use in the smear campaign. Beaumont stubbornly refuses to rat on his friend despite being beaten almost to death, escapes and foils Varna’s planned smear campaign, which by now includes Snip, who has been led on by Janet to believe her brother killed her lover.
Beaumont resists being vamped by Janet, who has become Madvig’s fiancée; he knows she wrote some anonymous notes suggesting Madvig is the killer.

An indictment based on eye-witness testimony is brought against Madvig, but the eye witness is assassinated in broad daylight. Beaumont entraps Varna enforcer Jeff, while drunk, to confess to the assassination and stands by as Jeff kills Varna in a drunken rage. The Attorney General won’t drop the indictment against Madvig, but Beaumont forces him to issue a new indictment against Janet Henry. The new indictment forces her father to confess to the accidental killing of his own son, letting Madvig off the hook.

Having cleared his friend without seeking a reconciliation, and ready to leave town for good, Beaumont lets his feelings for Janet show, and when Madvig realises they are genuinely in love with each other he gives them his blessing, making for a somewhat incongruous happy ending.

Although Madvig is the central character, Beaumont is the focus and hero of the piece. Just looking at photographs of Dashiell Hammett and reflecting on his own somewhat adventurous life it becomes pretty obvious that the Ned Beaumont of the novel, (Ed in the film) is based on the author himself. A laconic, disillusioned, morally ambiguous and dissolute man with few beliefs and a lot of bitter cynicism, particularly about his humble origins and the condescending manner for which he resents the Henrys. Hammett’s original Great Depression backdrop to the tale doesn’t translate into explicit visuals or action, but suffuses the story with the desperation of those times nonetheless.

Watching The Glass Key left me enthusiastic about a film I had enjoyed and that had left an impression on me, but it also brought me to a disjuncture in my ability to describe my response. The politics in the film are virtually invisible, serving only as a device allowing Beaumont’s character to be revealed to us. He’s clearly no angel, but he does come across as an admirable man all the same.

glass-key-poster-002The ordinary clichés of film review, the canonical adjectives and epithets of received film noir critique, and even the somewhat more academic disciplines of Marxist, structuralist and post-structuralist analyses I parsed didn’t quite deliver to me the means of expressing what I could sense about the film but not adequately put into words. It was to be a pastiche of analysing my own subjectivity as informed by all these methods, and more, that offered me an insight that could very well be regarded as idiosyncratic, but struck me as thematically appropriate and analytically satisfying.

In defining the character of Beaumont in The Glass Key I found it instructive to contrast him with Raven in This Gun for Hire. Graham Greene’s point of departure in A Gun for Sale appeared to be his own struggle with a Christianity he couldn’t reconcile with the harsher realities of his era, which took the fictional form of a proto-military/industrial complex conspiracy to assassinate a foreign government official. Hammett’s point of departure in The Glass Key seemed to be past the point of abandoning whatever spirituality might have been part of his intellectual makeup, looking exclusively to human characteristics, frailties and contexts with no pretension to ideals to explain the concepts of corruption, integrity and a sense of self without an external moral anchor.

Hammett is often credited with being one of the originators of what is loosely described as ‘hard-boiled’ crime fiction, and maybe his humanistic, even existentialist, outlook helps to shed some light on what hard-boiled is really all about: tough the way a callous becomes after being distressed by the chafing of a harsh world, cynical or pessimistic because of that painful experience, and grounded entirely in the gritty reality of actual circumstances rather than in the abstraction of ideals and absolutes. The hard-boiled protagonist does not have the luxury of the remove from immediate and sometimes shocking crimes afforded to the gentleman detective after Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who examines crimes forensically after the fact rather than dirtying his hands in the rough-and-tumble of the unfolding crime in the here-and-now.

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Raven is certainly all of the above, but he is also a perpetrator of such crimes and a self-confessed sociopath, placing him at an extreme for even hard-boiled protagonists. Beaumont isn’t quite innocent, but his ‘crimes’ are by way of human surrender to temptations that constitute misdemeanours and omissions of ‘good’ behaviour rather than ‘inhuman’, psychotic or otherwise pathological criminality.

That perspective illuminates another epithet commonly associated with the film noir protagonist: ‘anti-hero’. We know of the property ‘heroic’ that it refers to an almost super-human status, as in the legendary ancient Greek and Roman heroes, and to virtues such as courage, righteousness and charity, which appear to transcend the Christianised derivations thereof, but suit Judaeo-Christian cultural concepts fairly well. It would be absurd to locate Raven or Beaumont in this characterisation.

Turning the whole ethos of ‘heroicism’ inside out doesn’t really work to define the notion of anti-hero. We don’t have sub-human, cowardly or deliberately ‘un-virtuous’ heroes; that description would be more fitting to an imp, elf or demon in a fantasy fiction. What we do have are characters who are removed from the super-human category and who relate to an exclusively human plane of experience and action.

These characters are concerned with petty and grand realities rather than fanciful but remote catechisms, and with survival under real-world circumstances rather than ‘noble’ quests for abstract and unattainable ideals. In this sense it is possible to locate the mythological descent of the anti-hero in Judaeo-Christian tradition to the fable of Eve by recognising her ‘sin’ as choosing to surrender to an attainably human temptation rather than to strive for the humanly unattainably abstract perfection of innocence and virtue in the Garden of Eden.

Beaumont after a savage beating that shocked audiences of the time and was emulated in Yojimbo, For A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing.
Beaumont after a savage beating that shocked audiences of the time and was emulated in Yojimbo, For A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing.

This neatly locates our category of anti-hero somewhere East of Eden, in the world we actually inhabit rather than an idealised fantasy of it. Moreover, it dovetails with the typically atheistic philosophical school of existentialism that locates human essence as posterior to a recognition of the self as human, therefore voiding the necessity of a ‘higher power’ than humanity shaping our pre-determined destinies. This existential perspective makes deference to idealised standards or codes redundant, if not absurd in a world that is as it is, which is not the perfection of a Garden of Eden or a Kingdom of Heaven. The works of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Heidegger that dealt with these topics were already known in Hammett’s times, even if Husserl and Sartre had yet to solidify 20th century thinking about the direct intervention of philosophical practice into the real world of pressing contemporary issues.

Applying the East of Eden hypothesis to Raven and Beaumont, we can readily identify the latter as an anti-hero in Eve’s tradition, choosing the attainably human even if not idealistically virtuous, but we have some problems with Raven, whose pathological category may claim descent from Eve, but has taken the Cain departure that condemns it to a status of irredeemably, illicitly, dangerously deviant. This deviance is recognised but not condoned in the categories of ‘hard-boiled’ or ‘anti-hero’, but it is an almost integral part of any fiction deserving the term film noir. Without this extreme of deviance, it would be the hard-boiled anti-hero who would be located at the extreme end of the moral dimension, thus negating the category of film noir entirely by writing its raison d’être out of existence.

This philosophical and self-reflexive aside to my consideration of the film nevertheless makes it fairly easy to recognise in Beaumont an archetype, if not the archetype, of the film noir protagonist. We know of his past only that he might have been fished out of a river by Madvig, suggesting a somewhat gloomy personal history that resulted in attempted suicide or murder.

What we see on film is a man whose anchor in life is his loyalty to his friend and his faith in only himself in unraveling the mystery of Taylor Henry’s murder. Beaumont’s actions are grounded in his apprehension of the circumstances as such that only he can act decisively to help his friend. It is not a sense of nobility or heroism per se that motivates him to pit himself against powerful, ruthless foes, like Varna and his henchmen, but a recognition of himself as capable of doing so regardless of the consequences, moral or mortal.

This recognition of himself as capable of intervening to attain his ends is what motivates his resentment and rejection of the mooted patrician ‘superiority’ of the Henry family when compared to his own less exalted background, as evidenced by his rejection of Janet Henry’s romantic overtures.

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Beaumont’s sense of self includes his own appreciation for honesty and integrity, even where this isn’t linked to virtue. For Beaumont this is precisely the case with Madvig, who is portrayed as a shady, colourful character, but esteemed by Beaumont for being on the ‘dead up and up’, a phrase he throws in Janet’s face, suggesting she ‘ought to try it sometime’.

It is no accident that the unfolding plot shows Beaumont trying to achieve outcomes that are far more equitable and ‘just’ than those being engineered by ostensibly honourable people like the Attorney general, Ralph Henry, and newspaper editor Clyde Matthews, even if Beaumont’s methods are ethically questionable. And in showing the supposedly honourable to be every bit as corrupt and morally reprehensible as Madvig, if not more so for their hypocrisy about it, we are led to the noir premise — the noir protagonist takes on a hostile, corrupt and imperfect world on its terms and with its methods.

Beaumont is less brash and muscle-bound than the flamboyant, larger-than-life Madvig. There is a hint of an unrevealed sophistication and a lot of street smarts about Beaumont that Janet Henry finds much more appealing than the raw earthiness of Madvig. At the same time though, Beaumont is revealed as a cunning manipulator who outwits everyone else in the piece. He doesn’t shy away from seducing a newspaper editor’s wife just to dissuade him from helping Varna, and from inciting Jeff the thug into murder while he stands by without interceding, then turning Jeff in to the police. Like Madvig, however, he makes no secret of who or what he is, he just doesn’t announce it quite as loudly.

It seems to me that what impressed me so much about the film was that it really is an exemplar, or manual, of film noir as much as an example of it. There is no doubt in my mind that the film was a major influence on all noir films to follow, and on the further development of the anti-hero as re-invented for a new generation of films in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, Sergio Leone’s For a Fistful of Dollars, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Miller’s Crossing, which is an undisguised adaptation of The Glass Key. But the accent here is on ‘re-invented’, these films being no longer noir cinema.

Ladd might not have been the most expressive of performers, but even if he only played himself, he established the character of Beaumont indelibly and stole the show with a stolidness that suited the part. In a sense the other rôles are no more than interchangeable components in an almost formulaic narrative — but not quite.

Donlevy was impressively and believably bombastic as Madvig, and even the somewhat overrated Lake did a much better job as the slightly superior Janet Henry than she did as the ridiculous Ellen Graham in This Gun for Hire. Bendix as the brutal Jeff is my pick as best supporting actor, packing a quite sinister menace into his portrayal of the somewhat simple-minded but fearfully sadistic enforcer, particularly during the drunken confession scene in which he murders his own boss.

Though I was given, at first, to cursing director Stuart Heisler for the complexity and pace of the plot, I am leaning toward acknowledging that his style presented to us the events as they might have unfolded for Beaumont — with no hints or deus ex machina to help him succeed. Sparkuhl did a commendable job of presenting the story in both the photo-realism as it existed at that time, and the atmospherically charged impressionism of the mise en scènes for Beaumont’s torture, the Matthews house and the back-room where he manipulates Jeff to confess to one murder and commit another.

I must confess that although The Glass Key might have been both tremendously enjoyable as a film and enlightening as a guide to film noir, I feel some trepidation about its potential to spoil other travels into noir territory.

 


Codicil

Credits

1942, 81 minutes, Paramount, black and white. Also known as Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key.

Directed by Stuart Heisler; produced by (as Associate Producer) Fred Kohlmar; written by Jonathan Latimer, based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett; cinematography by (as Director of Photography) Theodor Sparkuhl; music by Victor Young.

With Brian Donlevy as Paul Madvig, Veronica Lake as Janet Henry, Alan Ladd as Ed Beaumont, Bonita Granville as Opal ‘Snip’ Madvig, Richard Denning as Taylor Henry, Joseph Calleia as Nick Varna, William Bendix as Jeff, Moroni Olsen as Ralph Henry, Arthur Loft as Clyde Matthews, George Meader as Claude Tuttle.

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