Stuart Heisler’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1931 novel is a rich and layered feast of a film that had me entranced and entertained, but also linking the ethos of the hardboiled anti-hero of film noir back to the then rising school of existential thinking, traceable back to ancient metaphors embedded in the fables of the Garden of Eden and Eve’s ‘original sin’.
It isn’t necessary to read that deeply into the story, but it pays to watch a complex plot attentively.
Ostensibly a story of political corruption, betrayal, and vengeance, the film is really a character portrait of Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), go-to-guy for the somewhat shady political kingmaker Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy). The character that emerges is a hardboiled archetype: smart, tenacious, aloof, cynical, devious, tough, resilient, and possessed by his own sense of honour, which is his unerring moral compass regardless of whether it’s to his advantage. I am tempted to guess that Beaumont has more than a passing resemblance to Dashiell Hammett’s self-image.
Paul Madvig, a reputedly corrupt political powerbroker, turns his back on former cronies, particularly gambling boss Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia), when he pursues Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), the daughter of gubernatorial candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen), who is campaigning on a ‘reform’ platform, promising to clean up the corruption in which Madvig is implicated. 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, Opal ‘Snip’ Madvig (Bonita Granville) and Taylor Henry (Richard Denning), the degenerate, drunken gambler son of Ralph Henry. 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 patronizing 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 Henrys will turn their backs on Madvig as soon as Ralph Henry is elected governor.
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 pretence 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 Gardner (William Bendix) in an effort to get him to reveal Madvig’s strategy for dealing with Varna as a re-born ‘cleanskin’.
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 Paul Madvig killed her lover, Taylor Henry.
Beaumont resists being vamped by Janet, who has become Madvig’s fiancée, and discovers 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 Gardner to confess to the assassination and stands by as Gardner kills Varna in a drunken rage (Gardner is never called anything but Jeff in the film, but the surname comes from the Hammett novel). 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, in turn, 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.
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 high society people like the Henrys. Hammett’s original great depression backdrop to the tale doesn’t translate into explicit visuals or action in the film, but suffuses the story with the desperation of those times nonetheless.
Watching The Glass Key left me impressed, but at a loss to describe my response. The ordinary clichés of film review, the adjectives and epithets of received film noir critique, and even the somewhat more academic disciplines of Marxist, structuralist, and post-structuralist analyses didn’t quite deliver to me the means of expressing my reaction.
It was to be a synthesis of all these methods, and more, that offered me an insight that are probably quite idiosyncratic, but struck me as thematically appropriate and analytically satisfying.
To understand the character of Beaumont in The Glass Key, I found it instructive to contrast him with Raven in This Gun for Hire, also played by Alan Ladd. Graham Greene’s point of departure in his 1936 novel A Gun for Sale appeared to be his own struggle with a Christian faith 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 high ideals to explain the concepts of corruption, integrity, and a sense of self without an external moral anchor. A fundamentally humanist, existentialist conception of existence and its ends.
Hammett is often credited with being one of the originators of ‘hardboiled’ crime fiction, and maybe his outlook helps to shed some light on what hardboiled is really all about: tough the way a man becomes after being distressed by the callouses created living life in a harsh and unforgiving 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 theoretical absolutes. The hardboiled protagonist does not have the luxury of the remove from immediate and sometimes shocking crimes afforded to the gentleman detective, like 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.
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 hardboiled 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 inhumane or pathological criminality.
That perspective illuminates another epithet commonly associated with the film noir protagonist: ‘anti-hero’. We know of the quality ‘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 Christianized derivations, but suit Judaeo-Christian cultural concepts fairly well. It seems absurd to locate Raven or Beaumont in that taxonomy.
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 for an imp, elf, or demon in 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.
In this sense it is possible to locate the mythological descent of the anti-hero, in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to the parable of Eve, by recognising her ‘original sin’ as choosing to surrender to an attainably human temptation rather than to strive for the humanly unattainable and abstract perfection of saintly innocence and virtue in the Garden of Eden.
This neatly locates our category of anti-hero somewhere East of Eden (or should that be West, for the USA’s California?), in the world we actually inhabit rather than an idealized fantasy of it.
The implied psychology dovetails with the typically atheist philosophical school of existentialism that regards human essence as a recognition of the self rather than something that precedes existence as an eternal quality. A conception that avoids the complication of a ‘higher power’ shaping pre-determined human destinies, making it pointless, or even absurd, to moralize about failing to meet some higher standard. The world is as people make it, 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 such philosophical ideas as practice in 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. The pathological category that includes Raven may claim descent from Eve, but has taken the Cain departure that condemns it to a status of irredeemably, illicitly, dangerously deviant. A deviance recognised but not condoned in the categories of ‘hardboiled’ or ‘anti-hero’, even if it is an almost integral part of any fiction deserving the term film noir—through its actual bad guys. Without this extreme of deviance, it would be the hardboiled anti-hero who would be located at the extreme end of the ethical domain, therefore negating the category of film noir entirely by writing its raison d’être out of existence.
The Glass Key makes it easy to recognise in Beaumont an archetype, if not the archetype, of the film noir protagonist without any of my philosophical considerations. 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 an attempt to murder him, or perhaps a failed suicide.
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 unravelling the mystery of Taylor Henry’s murder. Beaumont’s actions are grounded in his recognition 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 highly capable motivates his resentment and rejection of the perceived patrician ‘superiority’ of the Henry family, solely on the basis of socio-economic advantage.
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 nominally 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 men 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 quintessential noir premiss: the 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. As a perceived necessity, not as an end in itself. He doesn’t shy away from seducing a newspaper editor’s wife just to dissuade him from helping Varna, and from inciting Jeff Gardner into murder while he stands by without interceding, but then turning Gardner over to the police. Like Madvig, however, he makes no secret of who or what he is, he just doesn’t announce it quite as brashly.
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 (an undisguised adaptation of The Glass Key?). But the accent here is on ‘re-invented’, these films being no longer noir cinema for having lost an original American socio-political depression era motif whose cultural influence had faded out by the early 1960s.
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 a narrative about Beaumont—but not quite.
Donlevy was impressively and believably larger than life, almost bombastic, as Madvig, and even the somewhat overrated Lake did a much better job as the slightly haughty Janet Henry than she did as the ridiculous Ellen Graham in This Gun for Hire. Bendix as the brutal Jeff Gardner 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. There is also a hint of self-loathing homosexuality in the pleasure he takes from his physical contact with Beaumont, even if it is only shown as violence. There has been speculation about the link between repressed homoerotic tendencies in gang violence, soccer hooliganism, and even macho film violence. If Hammett or scriptwriter Jonathan Latimer built it into the story, and Bendix embedded it into his performance, they all had to be quite subtle about it, given the taboo nature of the subject matter in their own times. The Coens were much more explicit in Miller’s Crossing.
Watching the film, I was given, at first, to cursing director Stuart Heisler for the complexity and pace of the plot, but I am now leaning toward acknowledging that his style presented to us the events as they might have unfolded for Beaumont—with no clues or pat explanations to help him interpret matters or succeed in resolving them. Cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl did a commendable job of presenting the story in both the photo-realism as it existed at that time, and the atmospherically charged expressionism of the mise en scènes for Beaumont’s torture, the Matthews house, and the back-room where Beaumont manipulates Jeff to confess to one murder and commit another.
It has been said that hardboiled and film noir would not be what they are without labyrinthine plotting. Some suggest this is a feature of writing episodes for serialized pulp fiction stories, one at a time, with no continuity department to ensure a logical consistency. Others talk about the vicissitudes of life, which is rarely predictable and logical. Perhaps we have all been socialized too much to expect neatly packaged and coherent fictions. As I see it, The Glass Key works either way: despite or for its plot complexity.
The difficulty of following the storyline aside, The Glass Key struck me as both tremendously enjoyable as a film and enlightening as an entrée to film noir. So much so that I wonder whether it doesn’t steal the thunder of other works in the genre that were yet to come in 1942.
This essay was originally written in 2010 and substantially edited in November 2021 for concision.
Paramount, 1942, 81 minutes, 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 (Gardner), Moroni Olsen as Ralph Henry, Arthur Loft as Clyde Matthews, George Meader as Claude Tuttle.