After the successful Hollywood adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Paramount joined the race to find another story by the author to bring to the screen. When an initial attempt to make a film based on Red Harvest (with Alan Ladd as the lead) fell through, the studio dusted off one of its older properties, The Glass Key, previously filmed by Frank Tuttle in 1935. Set in a world of deadbeats and crooks, against the backdrop of an imaginary ‘hick town’, the story follows Ed Beaumont as he tries to clear his boss and friend, Paul Madvig, of a murder rap. This take on Hammett’s novel, as with Tuttle’s film, differs significantly from the literary source – yet it sticks closer to the original storyline. Heisler’s remake is closer to a gangster film and eschews most of the book’s political subtext. It also softens Ed’s character: no sign of his moustache, TB, drinking or gambling. Here, Ed’s fatalism has given way to a more pragmatic and self-motivated attitude. (Ladd is like an early sketch for Heisler’s western superhero The Lone Ranger). As for Madvig, he is introduced as “the biggest crook in the state”, a macho political figure and criminal boss. With these alterations, the dynamic between Ed and Madvig and the way they complement each other is all the more coherent – the unglamorous Madvig is the fist, the classy Ed is the brain. Heisler borrows little from Tuttle’s version. Yet it is Tuttle’s This Gun for Hire, released five months earlier, that informs the relationship between Janet and Ed in The Glass Key, following as it does the successful pairing of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (which also established Ladd as a hell-bent character). Both Ladd and Brian Donlevy disliked Lake, which might explain why the real chemistry is between the two tough guys rather than the two stars for whom this vehicle was intended. This becomes one of the film’s strengths, along with the hardboiled dialogue – each line worthy of quotation – and the swift pacing and direction, which soon saw Heisler graduating to become an ‘A’ director.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: from the eponimous novel (1931) by Dashiell Hammett. Scen.: Jonathan Latimer. F.: Theodor Sparkuhl. M.: Archie Marshek. Scgf.: Haldane Douglas, Hans Dreier. Mus.: Victor Young. Int.: Brian Donlevy (Paul Madvig), Veronica Lake (Janet Henry), Alan Ladd (Ed Beaumont), Bonita Granville (Opal Madvig), Richard Denning (Taylor Henry), Joseph Calleia (Nick Varna), Moroni Olsen (Ralph Henry), William Bendix (Jeff), Donald MacBride (procuratore distrettuale Farr), Frances Gifford (l’infermiera), Margaret Hayes (Eloise Matthews), Dane Clark (Henry Sloss). Prod.: Fred Kohlmar for Paramount Pictures. DCP
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