Monday, November 14, 2011

and then there was the time I found out my favorite movie was "heavily borrowing" from another movie

This evening I finally watched the 1942 film The Glass Key, a movie I've been trying to see since I first watched (and thoroughly enjoyed) the pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in This Gun for Hire.  Ms. Lake would have been 92 today, and so TCM was showing some of her films.

all movie posters are better when they feature William Bendix playing a little chin music

At age 15 I rented Miller's Crossing from my local video store. I had just seen The Godfather for the first time the previous summer thanks to my uncle's remarkably good movie selection (he also showed me Das Boot) and I was young, impressionable and learning about both gangster flicks and cinema. And so when Miller's Crossing landed in my VCR, I simply had never seen anything like it.  My entire world of gangster movies came from Godfather I & II and maybe The Untouchables.  I was utterly unfamiliar with the topsy, turvy world of the likes of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, etc...

Of course, back then there was no such thing as the internet.  And I wasn't reading local or national reviews, so it was a different era of film appreciation, especially for a teenager.  I didn't even really have money for much in the way of books, and the ones I did buy or receive were all very general in nature (and I don't think the local library had really anything worth reading).

At some point, I became interested in learning more about mid-20th century crime fiction and began reading a bit more.  I still recall sitting on a plane and starting Hammett's Continental Op book Red Harvest, and sort of freaking out.  "The snappy dialog in Miller's Crossing?" I leaned over and said to Jason, "They lifted it from this guy.  This Hammett guy."

The should have called it "The Big Homage"

I really had no idea, despite the multitude of times I'd watched the movie that the Coens hadn't just been sort of paying homage to Hammett's books and the movies made from them.  They had lifted them whole lines of dialog, the crummy, underworld vibe and grim world view Hammett pitched when he wasn't putting cocktails in the hands of Nick and Nora Charles.

But The Glass Key has always had an odd home video life and thus eluded my ability to see it.  Until this evening.

And as much as I felt I'd kind of unlocked the Hammett/ Miller's Crossing connection, man...  The Glass Key.  

Characters, whole scenes, relationships between characters...  not exactly line-for-line, but clearly someone was watching that movie over and over while writing the screenplay, and counting on the fact that you either didn't know or remember The Glass Key very well, or, more likely, they just loved the movie so much they didn't care if the parallels were seen.

I've long since lost the ability to quote along to movies, but I can almost mutter along with Miller's Crossing.  So, yeah, its  unnerving to see this movie and realize what a debt of gratitude the Coens owe this largely undiscussed 1942 flick.  Sure, the Coen's version is starker, has more depth, is more frank, etc...  but there's no doubt.

It The Glass Key runs again on TCM, give it a shot.  And if you've never seen Miller's Crossing, you should.  Its still a damn good movie on its own.

Ms. Lake, the original Yoko for gangsters.
and now I find out from Randy there are two versions of this movie out there.  I was only aware of the 1942 version.

Wheels inside wheels, people.

But I'll read the book, first, before seeking that version out.


JAL said...

The Coens seem to lean heavily towward homage or a re-invisioning, though I had no idea the roots of Miller's Crossing.

This could make for some fun double features with, if it were up to me, "Sullivan's Travels" (more Veronica Lake) and "O Brother Where Art Thou?" at the top of the list.

The League said...

The Coens have never been the most public of movie-makers, and while I'm still impressed with their output, once you realize that Miller's Crossing is one part The Glass Key, one part The Conformist, one part Red Harvest, and a smattering of other influences, you wonder what's really going on there. I guess it'd be nice if they were as straightforward about nodding to their influences as, say, Tarantino, if they were going to be lifting so much.

But they don't even really have extras on the their DVDs, so I'm not sure what I'd expect.

JAL said... I stumbled upon this recently. It might be an old read to many.