Looking for a way to quickly cash in on the public’s fascination with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in Frank Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire (1942), Paramount had mystery novelist (and sometime screenwriter) Jonathan Latimer dust off Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, which (oddly) Frank Tuttle had filmed in 1935. The problem was that they needed a romance between Ladd’s tough guy Ned Beaumont and Lake’s Janet Henry, so Latimer added one — and in the process set up a triangle conflict with Ned’s best friend, political boss Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), whose plans to marry Janet are behind his ill-advised decision to back reform candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen). (This aspect of the 1942 film made its way into the Coen Brothers’ unofficial version of the book — and Hammett’s earlier Red Harvest — Miller’s Crossing in 1990.)
Mostly, the Latimer version otherwise take sticks closely to the 1935 film. Many scenes are duplicated almost exactly. Just why Paramount gave the film to Stuart Heisler to direct is a little unclear. He’d done an atmospheric job on a couple of underrated B horror movies — The Monster and the Girl and the little-seen Among the Living (both 1941) — but nothing suggested he was right for The Glass Key. And really, he’s mostly just efficient in copying Tuttle’s original, though one scene involving a swinging light fixture that’s brilliantly done in Tuttle’s film (it prefigures the climax of Psycho) is botched by Heisler. But he delivers a slick movie that moves at breakneck speed — and does what Paramount really wanted by concentrating on the chemistry between Ladd and Lake. It remains the best film Heisler ever made.
The story is remarkably convoluted — who killed Senator Henry’s worthless son (Richard Denning) — for what is ultimately a pretty simple solution. But that solution is handled with a hard-boiled denouement that (in one line from Ned) outdoes anything found in the 1935 film for sheer callousness. It’s even a little startling today when you realize how far Ned is prepared to go to crack the case and clear his pal — Madvig, the prime suspect — of the charge, especially, since he’s willing to sacrifice Janet in the bargain. (That she seems to just overlook this by the fade-out is a little hard to swallow.) Much of what makes all this work is the chemistry of the three leads — Ladd, Lake and Donlevy — but work it does.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Glass Key Tuesday, June 10 , at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.