Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, March 07, 2011

Somnolente Noir: THE GLASS KEY (1942)

Alan Ladd is "tired of hick town stuff" in a weird tale of brotherly love and deceit called THE GLASS KEY (1942). The "hick town" is run by racketeer Brian Donlevy as a kind of less comedic version of THE GREAT MCGINTY (1940). In fact, KEY and MCGINTY go well together, recalling a time in film when shady local politicians could still climb city hall ladders and backstab and make friends with slap-happy gangsters like Akim Tamiroff and William Bendix. Male friendship is what it's all about, as in the loosely post modern remake of KEY, the Coen Brothers' MILLER'S CROSSING (1990), but it's no-good scheming women that set the world tumbling in motion, to its knees and beyond.

There were enough rich femme fatale poor detective romances going on in the 1940s that there was even a word for it, "slumming." The detective could let go of his hardscrabble life and live like Nick Charles, presuming he didn't get double-crossed, or even worse- she loses interest in him now that he's not poor, and gets contemptuous of his sponging. Part of the appeal of THE GLASS KEY lies in Alan Ladd's stoic rejection of this destiny, via the much richer Veronica Lake. Like many film lovers, I've long been fascinated by the weird chemistry the pair exhibit, and how other similar pairs, such as Claire Trevor with Laurence Tierney (BORN TO KILL) or Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews (LAURA), lack that same chemistry, much as they may have chemistry on their own. Ladd and Lake seem to be born in a different time than those around them, a different projection speed, both blonde-haired, alcoholic and short (him 5'5" she 4'11"), isolated as a separate alien race, a pair of lost Nordic hybrids (which I've written of here) trapped in the sticky webs of human desire, villainy, and wretchedness... but never complaining or tolerating wrongness when they see it.

THE GLASS KEY is the perfect Lake-Ladd film second only to THIS GUN FOR HIRE (the same year as KEY, 1942) In GUN, they're just pals who come to trust each other in a world full of duplicitous poisonous snakes (which in a way makes it even sexier and sadder). But in KEY they have such a great sleepy chemistry, it's like they're dreaming while awake and whenever they're together they're packing or leaving or otherwise hanging out in empty rooms. You just get used to seeing one or the other's leaving trunks dead center in the room whenever they're together.  You don't have to read Wikipedia to know that both of them had hard childhoods. You can feel it in their shy delivery and wary glares. Ladd and Lake are two damaged souls recognizing each themselves in one another, and the aloof posturing, verbal attacks and avoidance strategies they used to keep the world at bay couldn't fool each other for a minute.

The normal 'sex appeal' of screen sirens is kind of transcended by Lake, a very heavy drinker who once noted "I wasn't a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie." Ladd seems a bit of a zombie himself, and together they stand as undead outsiders in a noir world never quite asleep enough to suit them.

Perhaps that's why Lake-Ladd films are, for me anyway, ideally seen when at home, sick with a cold, as I was all this past week. THE GLASS KEY goes down smooth and easy, with William Bendix's fists standing in for the effects of influenza, and Veronica Lake's smooth alcoholic tones as gentle as a shot of Tussinex Suspension.

The sadomasochistic pair bond between Alan Ladd and Bendix is also something very special, and an interesting echo of the rough and tough fight at the drop of a hat rapport between Donlevy and Tamiroff's mobster in the GREAT MCGINTY (directed by Preston Sturges who also directed Lake in the previous year's SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS). The willingness to fight and 'take' punishment is often decoded as being allusions to homosexuality, but I would disagree. I'd say it's more of a kind of code of masculine ethics ala FIGHT CLUB or A MAN CALLED HORSE. Taking a beating is what makes a man tough, fighting back until all that's left of you is fingernails. Bendix's sick excitement over 'bouncing' Alan Ladd around the room "like a ping pong ball" is contagious, and in one of the big climactic scenes it's hilarious and heartening to watch Ladd calmly, like a patient cobra, draw out the sadistic tough talk of Bendix in an upstairs barroom. Bendix hams it up, but is a delight, playing basically the same brute he'd ushered in with THE HAIRY APE (1944) and the later Lake-Ladd film, THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946). 

The Great McGinty (1940)
And Ladd's canny beating-taking for his dim-witted boss buddy is therefore a cool triumph. This, like Hammett's other novels mirrors later films like THE GODFATHER, where we're introduced to the machinations of power and feel lucky we're not involved: it's too dangerous grabbing at the big brass ring, and you have to presume your enemies have already planned six moves ahead, and you need to plan the seventh in advance or else take your face smashing-in stoic like a brave. It's not often either you see a movie where the good guys have the district attorney in their pocket, and people wage war via whole newspapers and elections the way we argue in chat rooms today.

Last interesting anecdote: I've always been upset there's really one or two films where Lake has her signature hair over the eye. According to Susan Kelly: By this time the peek-a-boo hairstyle had become a nationwide fad, so much so that government officials actually had to request that Ms. Lake stop wearing her signature style because women in war plants who were copying it were catching their hair in the machines!

Well, that explains a lot, but I still regret the abundance of skull-tightening headgear Lake wears, as it seems to all but castrate her for the bulk of KEY's running time. On the other hand, the film's really about the buddyhood of two men, and how one should never let a girl who doesn't even like you interfere with your 'bros before ho's' mentality, especially right before an election. Got that? On the other hand, I'm sick so don't listen to me, and Lake went on to drunken despair, getting kicked off pictures, and tending bar in women's hotels after the 1940s wore themselves out, but she still had her pilot's license, and I would like to know why I can't seem to find a good old-fashioned pulp-art covered paperback version of Hammett's original Glass Key anywhere and last I checked this 1944 version is not on R1 DVD. What gives... pally?


  1. Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney lack chemistry? Wow, they were in several films together. Hard to believe Hollywood would perpetuate such lack of chemistry. Have you seem them in "Where the Sidewalk Ends"?

  2. Thanks for your comment! Carl, I never meant to say they lacked chemistry - I said they lacked the 'same' chemistry as Ladd and Lake, who almost seem more like brother and sister than lovers. I'd say their modern equivalent would be Angelina Jolie and her weird brother she brought to the 1999 Oscars.

  3. PS - I have seen SIDEWALK but forgot Tierney was in it, I'll have to revisit.

  4. Great review -- I haven't seen this one, but loved the Lake/Ladd pairing in This Gun for Hire. Gonna have to pick up this movie the next time I order from Amazon UK.


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