The Glass Key is a 1931 novel by Dashiell Hammet. It was made into a movie in 1935, which is a lot better than I thought it would be. Although most critics say that film noir began in the 1940s, this version of the novel, apart from the date of production, would almost seem to qualify. Its remake in 1942, however, is unequivocally film noir, and one of the best.
When the 1942 version begins, we are introduced to Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy), a crooked ward heeler who has contempt for Senator Ralph Henry, the reform candidate for governor. When he makes a snide remark about the Senator’s son Taylor, who he says could stand some reforming himself, the Senator’s daughter Janet (Veronica Lake) slaps him in the face and calls him a crook. Being a real man, Madvig just stands there and takes it. In fact, he immediately becomes smitten by Janet. As a result of this infatuation, he tells Ed Beaumont (Ned in the novel), played by Alan Ladd, that he is going to support Ralph Henry for governor. When Sloss, one of Madvig’s henchmen, tells him he won’t remain boss for long if he supports the reform candidate, Madvig tosses him through the window and into the swimming pool.
Madvig is head of the Voters League, which sounds like a civic-minded organization. But when Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) and his bodyguard, Jeff (William Bendix), push through the doors of the headquarters, we see people shooting pool, playing poker, and shooting craps. They tell Oswald, the man who greets them at the door, that they want to see Madvig. Oswald relays the message to Beaumont, right while he’s trying to make his point with the dice he’s about to throw.
In a film noir, craps is one of the gambling games that it is respectable for a tough guy to play. The same can be said for shooting pool, playing poker, and betting on the horses. These are all games that require some skill or sophistication to do well at. Furthermore, it is with games like these that the tough guy gets to hold something, whether it is a cue, cards, dice, or a racing form. This makes him an active participant. Moreover, his physical contact with these items makes it more difficult for others to cheat him at the game.
Roulette, on the other hand, is something a tough guy must never play. There is nothing to think about, no place for skill. You don’t get to hold anything, unless it’s your chips, and you just plop them down somewhere and passively await results. As often as not in the movies, the wheel is crooked. It is strictly for women and weak men. In Dead Reckoning (1947), when Lizabeth Scott starts playing roulette, saying she has a system, Humphrey Bogart suggests she might as well throw it out the window. She loses a lot of money, but he stops her while she still has a little left, suggesting she let him see what he can do shooting craps. On the way there, the owner of the casino remarks that it all depends on the talent of the player. Humphrey Bogart wins three times in a row, getting all her money back for her. The croupier says the house will change the dice. Bogart says he can feel snake eyes in the new dice. The original dice are given back to him, and he wins back twice as much money as Scott started with. In Out of the Past (1947), when Robert Mitchum makes a snide remark about the way Jane Greer is losing at roulette, she asks, “Don’t you like to gamble?” to which he replies, “Not against a wheel.” In Casablanca (1942), it typically happens that when a married couple needs to leave Casablanca, Claude Rains, a corrupt Vichy official, will require that the wife have sex with him. Humphrey Bogart, who runs a casino, feels sorry for one couple. He sees the husband, looking weak and pathetic, sitting at the roulette table, trying to win enough money for him and his wife to leave Casablanca. Bogart tells the man what number to bet on and then signals the croupier to let the him win just enough money to book passage out of the city so the man’s wife won’t have to have sex with Rains.
I say all this, because it came as a surprise to me, when watching the 1935 version of The Glass Key, to see George Raft, as Ed Beaumont, betting against a wheel. The wheel is a fan with numbers on the blades, and men bet on the number that is on the bottom blade when the fan stops. However, he redeems himself later when he looks out the window, sees that it is raining, and calls in a bet at the racetrack. This shows knowledge of which horses do better on a wet track, something we can admire in a tough guy. Still, this scene of betting against a wheel is another reason why this 1935 version should not be counted as being a film noir. It was not in the novel and it is not in the 1942 remake, to which we now return.
After making his point, saying, “Little Joe, brother, that’s it,” Beaumont tells Varna he’ll let Madvig know he’s there. When Beaumont walks in the office, we find Madvig putting on some socks with a fancy design on them. I have never been able to tell what it is the design of. In the 1935 version, Beaumont says something about Christmas trees, and in the 1942 version, he says something about a clock. In any event, when he tells Madvig that Varna wants to see him, we begin to see that there is a difference in the intellectual capacity of the two men. With Madvig, what you see is what you get. His thinking is straightforward. He tends to insult people because it is too much trouble to lie just to be polite, because it requires double thinking, knowing what is true while saying what is false. Of course, as we find out later, he can lie when he really needs to. It’s the subtle kind of lying that is too much for him.
Beaumont, on the other hand, has the ability to think at a higher level. So, whereas Madvig cannot think past his love for Janet, Beaumont can see that backing Ralph Henry and the Reform Ticket will disrupt their whole setup, causing trouble between Madvig and Varna, who is head of a rival gang. Beaumont tells Madvig he’s wrong, “as wrong as those socks.” In the 1935 version, following the novel, he tells Madvig (Edward Arnold) on a separate occasion, “Silk socks don’t go with tweed.” Madvig replies, “I like the feel of silk,” to which Beaumont rejoins, “Then lay off tweed.” Madvig knows only what feels right to him. Beaumont knows how things will appear to others.
Madvig is going to have dinner with Senator Henry, and he mentions that it is Janet’s birthday. He asks Beaumont what he should get her. Beaumont asks, “Want to make a good impression?” When Madvig says he does, Beaumont says, “Nothing.” Madvig is stunned. “But why?” he asks. Beaumont answers, “Because you’re not supposed to give people things, unless you’re sure they like to get them from you.” It is clear that Ed Beaumont is the Miss Manners of film noir.
Beaumont asks if Madvig is sure that Senator Henry will “play ball” after the election. Madvig says, “Why he’s practically given me the key to his house.” Beaumont says it’s a glass key, which might break off in his hand. Then Madvig says he is going to marry Janet Henry, although only he and Beaumont know about it. Beaumont suspects the Senator is just using his daughter as bait. He tells Madvig he’d better insist on the wedding before election day, so he can be sure of his pound of flesh.
In the novel, Madvig objects to Beaumont’s suggestion that the Senator will go back on his word after the election, saying, “I don’t know why you keep talking about the Senator like he was a yegg. He’s a gentleman and….”
“Absolutely,” Beaumont agrees. “Read about it in the Post—one of the few aristocrats left in American politics. And his daughter’s an aristocrat. That’s why I’m warning you to sew your shirt on when you go to see them, or you’ll come away without it, because to them you’re a lower form of animal life and none of the rules apply.” That’s a pretty good line. Unfortunately, it didn’t make its way into either of the movie versions.
Meanwhile, Oswald, under Madvig’s orders, is trying to keep Varna out, but Jeff shoves him aside. When Oswald’s glasses fall on the floor, Jeff deliberately grinds on them with his heel. Once inside the office, Varna complains about his gambling joints being closed down, and that he knows Madvig is behind it. But Madvig tells him that’s the way it’s going to be, and he’ll just have to take it. Before they leave, Jeff lets a big wad of spit falls from his mouth onto the floor.
That night at the dinner party, Madvig is telling the other guests about how politics is simple, just a matter of muscle. Janet looks at him with amused disdain. As they get up from the table to go to the living room for coffee, Senator Henry tells Janet that he needs her to be nice to Madvig until he wins the election. She says at least he will be good for some laughs.
Janet’s brother Taylor signaled her while she was at the table, and she goes to meet him. He needs money to pay his gambling debts, but she has already given him all she has. Their father shows up, and he and Taylor start quarreling. When his father threatens to get him a job on Monday, that is just too much to bear, so Taylor leaves in a huff, letting in Beaumont on his way out, who just dropped by to bring Madvig some figures. He is invited to join them for coffee.
As Madvig reminisces about his days working for the Observer, Janet starts giving Beaumont a sexy look. It is clear that they are attracted to each other. Furthermore, she is Beaumont’s equal mentally, though she has a bit of a mean streak. Madvig tells what his job was, saying that if he came across someone selling the Post, he would slug him. But then he made the same deal with the Post, saying, “You see, if the guy handed me the Observer, I’d slug him for the Post. If he hands me the Post, I’d slug him for the Observer. It was very simple.”
Janet observes with amusement, “You certainly were a two-fisted newspaper man, Mr. Madvig. Wasn’t he, Mr. Beaumont?” This goes right over Madvig’s head. But Beaumont doesn’t like it.
Madvig continues. “Yeah, but there was just one hitch. I used to have to be very careful about repeating. But once I missed. I remember it was on Third and Broadway. I slugged a guy for handing me the Observer. About a week later, I got balled-up, and I found myself in the same spot. Well, the guy hands me the Post, so, I have to slug him again. You should have seen the expression on that fellow’s face.”
“There was enough there for an expression?” Janet asks as she glances again at Beaumont. Again, Madvig has not the slightest idea that he is being made fun of by the woman he loves, who instead is flirting with best friend.
On the way home, Beaumont is approached by Opal (Bonita Granville), Madvig’s sister, who asks him for money, all he has on him. He gives it to her, and she drives off. He follows her to Taylor’s apartment. She has given Taylor the money for his debt to Varna. Beaumont drags her out of there and takes her home. Being a gentleman, he lies to Madvig about where she’s been, but she defiantly says she was at Taylor’s apartment. In those days, that meant she was going to have sex with him. And in those days, that was something shameful. She even says she has been to his apartment many times. Beaumont leaves while they are arguing.
A parenthetical consideration: If Madvig married Janet, Taylor would be his brother-in-law. And if Taylor married Opal, he would also be Madvig’s brother-in-law. So, if they all got married, that would double the in-law situation. That’s not actually incest, but it is a little too all-in-the-family. In fact, I seem to recall from when I read War and Peace a comment to the effect that in Russia at that time, if a man married a woman, his sister could not marry his wife’s brother.
Anyway, when Beaumont gets home, he gets a call from Opal, who is frantic, because Madvig is heading over to the Henry house after Taylor. She’s afraid he’s going to kill him. By the time Beaumont gets there, he finds Taylor’s corpse lying in the gutter in front of the Henry house.
From this point on, things become increasingly tense between Beaumont and Madvig. There is a lot of suspicion that Madvig killed Taylor, and Varna claims to have a witness, that fellow Sloss that Paul threw out the window, who claims that he saw Madvig and Taylor arguing that night. Beaumont tells Madvig it is more important than ever to make peace with Varna, but he refuses. Adding to that is the fact that Beaumont has fallen for Janet too.
Beaumont decides to leave town. When Madvig tries to talk him out of it, Ed suggests they have a drink for old times’ sake. In the 1935 version, they knowingly go into a bar that is one of Shad O’Rory’s places, Shad O’Rory being the character equivalent of Nick Varna in the 1942 version. This is important for interpreting what happens later. In both versions, they start quarreling again, and Ed leaves. This is noticed by one of Varna’s henchmen, who passes the information on to his boss. In the 1935 version, we figure that Beaumont is purposely putting on a show, to make it look as though he is through working for Madvig. Because Madvig is not good at dissembling, Beaumont does not tell him what he is up to. In the 1942 version, it seems to be only an accident that one of Varna’s men overhears what is going on.
Varna gets the word to Ed that he wants to see him and offers to pay for Beaumont’s services, to get him to work for him, and Beaumont seems to be interested. This theme of the servant of two masters, of a man playing one gang off the other for his own profit, is said to have been the inspiration for Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which was turned into a Western by Sergio Leone in A Fistful of Dollars (1964). In all three stories, the law is weak or corrupt. And in all three stories, the protagonist is beaten severely when one of the gang leaders realizes he has been betrayed.
What Varna really wants from Beaumont is anything that might help him pin the murder of Taylor on Madvig. But when Varna realizes that Beaumont is still loyal to Madvig, he tells Jeff to beat the information out of him.
At this point, we come to the question as to whether there is a homosexual subtext in the novel and its movie versions. In a review by Curt J. Evans, he suggests that it is not so much that Beaumont wants Janet as it is that he is jealous because of his homosexual feelings for Madvig. Being straight myself, that would never have occurred to me. To me, the men are just friends. Even if Beaumont had not been in love with Janet, he could easily resent the fact that Madvig was letting his infatuation with Janet cloud his judgment, jeopardizing their political organization, without leading me to conclude that deep down he wanted to have sex with him.
Jeff is a different matter. In the novel, he refers to Beaumont as “sweetheart” and “baby.” And in the 1935 version, Jeff, played by Guinn Williams, likewise uses those terms of endearment while beating up Beaumont, and also “sweetie-pie” and “cuddles.” Still, I would never have suspected anything from that. To me, it would just be cruel sarcasm. But the 1942 version managed to penetrate my heterosexual presumptions.
Perhaps it is the way William Bendix portrayed him, but Jeff clearly seems to be a man with repressed homosexual tendencies, and when another man arouses such urges in him, he just naturally has to beat the crap out of him. Not only does he use those same terms of endearment, but he also says that Beaumont likes it, a sadist fantasizing a complementary masochism on the part of the man he wants to beat up. But my becoming aware of this repressed homosexuality was facilitated by Alan Ladd playing the role Beaumont. As noted above, in the 1935 version, Beaumont was played by George Raft, who has a standard tough-guy persona. But Alan Ladd is a small man with delicate features. It is easy to imagine him bringing out feelings in Jeff that he doesn’t fully understand.
Beaumont manages to escape from the brutal beating, which he barely survives. After Madvig is indicted for Taylor’s murder, he and Beaumont start quarreling again about Janet. Madvig claims he did kill Taylor in self-defense, but didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to lose her. Beaumont suspects there is something phony about this admission, but he is not sure what. He leaves the district attorney’s office where Madvig is being held.
The scene shifts to a bar owned by Varna. We see a black woman, Lillian Randolph, playing the piano, singing “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You.” Well, you know how it is, once your gaydar has finally been turned on, you begin seeing stuff everywhere. As she sings that love song, she gazes into the eyes of another woman, who is leaning on the piano and looking back at her. It made me wonder.
In any event, she eventually turns and begins looking at Jeff, who is also at the piano. Jeff doesn’t seem happy. Maybe the song has made him sad. Suddenly, Beaumont appears on the stairs, slowly descending. He and Jeff look at each other across the room. Beaumont approaches, looking timid and submissive. He has figured Jeff out, and is using his sexuality to seduce him. Jeff puts his arm around him and leads him upstairs to a private room, talking about how he’s going to bounce him off the walls.
Once in the room, Jeff says he knows what Beaumont is up to, trying to get him to talk. He tells him he’s a heel. Usually, that is something a woman says about a man, or a man will say about another man in reference to a woman, as in, “Your boyfriend is nothing but a heel.” Now, I realize that a man might say that to another man. In fact, in the novel, Madvig calls Beaumont a heel when Beaumont tries to tell him what Janet is up to. Interestingly, that comes right after a line that Evans cites as evidence that Beaumont might have homosexual feelings for Madvig:
“What is it, Ned? Do you want her yourself or is it—” He [Madvig] broke off contemptuously. “It doesn’t make any difference.” He jerked a thumb carelessly at the door. “Get out, you heel, this is the kiss-off.”
What was the “or is it” Madvig was referring to? In any event, Jeff uses the word “heel” in talking to Beaumont again and again, which seems express his feeling of being betrayed by someone he loves.
Varna shows up, irritated that Jeff has not stayed undercover as he was told to and irritated that he killed Sloss. They start fighting, and Jeff strangles Varna, feeling sorry for himself as he does so, saying, “I’m just a good-natured slob.” When the police arrive, before they start to take Jeff away, he tries to show his contempt for Beaumont by letting another big drop of spit fall to the floor, but Beaumont neatly slides a cuspidor underneath him to catch it.
In the end, it turns out that the Senator was the one who accidentally killed his son Taylor. I said at the beginning that the 1935 version would almost qualify as film noir were it not for the date of production. However, there are two differences in the endings that make it easy to see which one was made before the film noir period, and which one was made during it.
In the 1935 version, Madvig’s mother says that Senator Doherty, the one who will be taking Ralph Henry’s place, is an honest man, one whom Madvig will not be able to handle. She tells Madvig and Beaumont that they will enjoy working with an honest man once they get used to it. In short, corruption is coming to an end in this town.
In the 1942 version, Madvig says he hasn’t picked who will be the next governor yet, but he guarantees he’ll be a winner. There is every indication that the corruption will continue just as before, especially since Madvig will not be having anything to do with the Reform Ticket anymore.
Second, in the 1935 version, Beaumont and Janet do not fall in love, so there is no triangle between those two and Madvig. And after Senator Henry confesses, there is no more mention of anything between her and Madvig either. Instead, it turns out that Beaumont and Opal have started dating and are now in love.
In the 1942 version, however, the fact that both men are in love with Janet only aggravates the tension between them. In the final scene, Madvig finds out that Janet and Beaumont are in love. He gives them his blessing, tough-guy style, and then slides the ostentatiously expensive engagement ring off her finger, saying, “If you figure on getting married with my rock, you’re nuts.”