For reasons I don't quite understand, The Glass Key (1942) isn't discussed all that much and doesn't get the same hagiography as other pictures. Nor has it been as readily available as other crime/ noir movies on home video, although I do note its available in a boxed set and a kind-of-pricey stand alone DVD. That second-class-movie-citizen status is a shame, because the film is fantastic; a winding, complicated detective story taken on not by a private eye, but the right-hand man of a political boss. Throw in some of my favorite talent (Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, William Bendix), and you've got a good picture going.
Based on the Dashiell Hammett novel of the same name, The Glass Key feels distinctly like a Hammett novel, never over-simplified, with all of the characters existing in a moral gray area, all possible suspects when it comes to a murder. Whether its The Thin Man or The Maltese Falcon, everyone has a motivation, and no one does. Sorting out whodunnit has terrific implications, but everyone might also be happy to see it just go away.
In this case, a political boss (Brian Donlevy) is wooing the daughter (Veronica Lake) of his prize candidate for the governorship - an election that will shore up the boss's power and bring him from humble roots to respectability. Lake's brother (son of the candidate) has a bit of a gambling problem and seems to be also taking advantage of the boss's sister both financially and otherwise. Shortly after the boss figures this out, the brother/ son winds up dead on the street.
The boss's right hand man (Alan Ladd) seeks to find out who killed the brother/ son, because it isn't good for business or the election, and a rival syndicate is using the death to jockey for position and take down his organization. Meanwhile, Veronica Lake is letting the political boss court her while she flirts with Alan Ladd in Lake's singular style.
The movie is occasionally fairly brutal, but there's almost nothing in the way of gun play. And there's a fine line at play about how, exactly, illegal the political maneuvering actually is. Again, a lot of moral gray areas.
There's no question The Coen Bros. were fans of both book and movie of The Glass Key. They recycle characters, archetypes and even dialog from the movie and novel as well as Hammett's Red Harvest in their 1990 gangster opus, Miller's Crossing (which, in turn, was heavily referenced in a recent episode of the Coen Bros. inspired TV series, Fargo).
It's hard to say exactly why the movie works so well, but a plot that doesn't talk down to the audience doesn't hurt, or a cast that's all in, with Ladd and Lake working in subtext in every scene gives the movie a secondary layer that makes the movie something to keep up with rather than let roll over you.
The movie does eliminate the question of Ed Beaumont's sexuality that feels, to the modern reader, like something unmentioned but perhaps up in the air, and something the Coen Bros. were willing to include and leave as blank a space in Miller's Crossing.
Released in late 1942, several months into WWII, I'm not quite sure of the production schedule of The Glass Key, but the premier likely met an America that wasn't in the mood for a cynical murder mystery/ gangster picture that was maybe a bit too honest about the machines running under the democracy folks were dying for. There would be plenty of room for hard-edged stories when GI's came back to the home front, and The Blue Dahlia, another terrific pairing of Ladd and Lake that would arrive in '46, would make the mark The Glass Key should have.
For those of you who like to complain that modern Hollywood only does remakes and sequels (and adaptations), this is the second version of The Glass Key (one I haven't seen nor found). The first came out just a few years before in 1935 and starred George Raft in the role of Ed Beaumont. And, just to confuse things, the director of this version, Frank Tuttle, would go on to direct the most famous Alan Ladd/ Veronica Lake pairing, in This Gun For Hire, also in 1942 (a movie that actually does acknowledge WWII).
It's a crazy world.
If you're a Coen Bros. fan, you really owe it to yourself to see the movie. And if you're a mystery or detective reader, it's amazing to see a Hammett book taken to the screen so closely. And, hell, if you're not a fan of Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake or William Bendix, maybe this will be the movie that will do it for you.