Corrupt politician Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) takes a liking to Janet Henry (Veronica Lake), so drops gangster Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) and his strongman Jeff (William Bendix) in favor of her father, reformer candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen). Then Taylor Henry (Richard Denning), the gambling son of Ralph who is seeing Madvig’s eighteen-year-old sister (Bonita Granville), is murdered. The blame falls on Madvig, leaving Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), his overly tough enforcer, to clean things up.
Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake were the “it” couple for a few years, then dropped off the Earth. Ladd was a limited actor. Lake was nearly as limited, but she looked stunning. Both were short, so fit together in a frame without the need for Ladd to stand on a box, and both had mastered the cold gaze. These were not emotional actors.
Of their four films together, three were Noirs: This Gun for Hire (1942), The Blue Dahlia (1946), and this. The Glass Key is the best of a mediocre lot, which makes it stand out in a sad way. The other two were never going to be anything better than what they were, but The Glass Key had potential. It has a clever, twisting story taken from a Dashiell Hammett novel. It has a complicated setting with a mystery that isn’t clear at the beginning. It has a multi-layered lead character, who can’t really be called a hero, eccentric villains, and a femme fatal with her own secret agenda. It sounds like The Maltese Falcon, and with a better director and a better star, it might have approached that masterpiece. But outside of Bendix as a hulking brute, everything is a little less than it should have been. Lake brings her beauty, but nothing else. Donlevy’s Madvig should have been a careful balance of strength and need, displaying the worst in man but with some shining qualities. Instead he’s a goof. How anyone this dim rose to power is beyond me. The other gangsters and politicians should have been unusual, but are played too drably. And Beaumont could have been a great, moving character, smart enough to solve mysteries, amoral when dealing with the world, and absolutely loyal. Give that to Bogart and we’d be speaking about Ed Beaumont as an icon film character. But Ladd can only manage two modes: ridiculous tough guy and smarmy grinning guy. And then there is the world. Film Noir is the home of evil and sickness. But The Glass Key has neither, instead holding nothing except some corrupt politicians. That takes away any deep, universal meaning. It isn’t saying anything about the human condition, just about a group of criminals.
This is all a bit unfair. Ladd isn’t spectacular, but he does what is required of the role. No one is terrible. The story moves along nicely. And it looks good. For a slight crime drama with a touch of romance, it’s fine. But I can’t watch it without thinking that it could have been more.