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.

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Insomnia, dead of night, and film noir

This essay has been superseded in my thinking about film noir by my more recent critiques, especially the ones on Crossfire, Dark Passage, and especially Key Largo. I haven’t yet been able to spend the time to make a better effort of this piece, and it will remain here until I can.

Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the 'hard-boiled' genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.
Tinted photograph of Dashiell Hammett, an originator of the ‘hard-boiled’ genre of crime fiction, ca early 1930s.

Insomnia, I have discovered, can be put to good use if exploited the right way. Long hours of still darkness in which there is little to do but read, write, and … watch old films.

Some recent sleepless nights have been devoted to watching old American black and white films, each one proclaimed rather crassly as a ‘film noir classic’ on cheaply designed DVD jackets.

I became intrigued by the concept of a ‘black’ or ‘dark cinema’ and I broadened my ‘portfolio’ to include other films from the 1930s to the 1950s for which no such claims were made. Nevertheless, I came across a tangible but hard-to-describe common thread that linked a whole batch of these films by something other than genre, directors, actors or plot similarities.

One of the elements of this common thread was that many of these old films, though mostly devoid of special effects, colour or grand spectacle, were simply better than their contemporary successors. Somehow the stories seemed more meaningful, the visualisations more sophisticated, and the impact of the cinematography more powerful.

Another dynamic was that I thought I was beginning to get a somewhat deeper understanding of the psychology not only of the artists who made these films, but also of the imagined audiences they ‘spoke’ to with their art.

Underlying my thoughts on these dynamics was a deliberate search for common elements and patterns that I could apprehend as this elusive category of film noir.

That investigation was not as simple as it might have seemed, and ended up in a fairly personal survey of the films reviewed here.

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