"Isn't this beating likely to be fatal?"
"Not unless we want it to be."
The Glass Key (Paramount, 1942) is a film noir crime thriller directed by Stuart Heisler and starring Brian Donleavy, Veronica Lake, and Alan Ladd. It is based (at best) loosely on the 1930 serialized novel by Dashiell Hammett. The novel came at the end of Hammet's short writing career. He'd begun with short stories in 1922, and by 1930 had published 45 of them. he'd publish just seven more. He'd published three novels already -- Red Harvest (1929), The Dain Curse (1929), and The Maltese Falcon (1930) -- and would published only one more (The Thin Man ). Hammett was a lifelong alcoholic, and his heavy drinking and smoking worsened tuberculosis he'd contracted in World War I. He didn't die until 1961, but by then he was long done as a writer.
The novel is a masterpiece of the hard-boiled detective genre (the literary style which inspired film noir). Paul Madvig is a gangster who is backing the corrupt Senator Henry for re-election. Ned Beaumont is Madvig's right-hand-man and best friend, but Beaumont realizes that times have changed and the Senator is no longer a "sure thing". Indeed, not even all Madvig's sleazy campaign tricks and ballot box-stuffing can win things this time. Madvig dismisses Beaumont's warnings. The novel really gets moving when Beaumont discovers Taylor Henry, son of the Senator, dead on the sidewalk outside Madvig's nightclub. Madvig tells Ned to hinder the District Attorney's investigation. Beamont is alarmed, because the D.A. usually is in Madvig's hip pocket, and the fact that he's not this time around shows how little power Madvig really wields now. Moreover, Madvig appears almost divorced from reality, and Ned realizes it's because he's in love with the Senator's daughter, Janet. To avoid doing what Madvig wants, Ned Beaumont heads for New York City to collect a gambling debt. Beaumont begins to realize that his luck has changed: He keeps losing at cards, he gets beaten up instead of collecting his debt, and he returns to his unnamed home town in disgrace. Furthermore, Beaumont receives letters blaming Paul Madvig for Taylor Henry's death. Beaumont suspects that Opal, Paul's daughter and Taylor's girlfriend, sent the letters. Things get much worse when Paul Madvig refuses to spring a henchman's brother from jail. Beamont warns him that the henchman will switch to the gang run by Shad O'Rory, but the lovelorn Madvig doesn't seem to understand. Sure enough, the guy switches gangs, Madvig starts a gang war with O'Rory, and Ned Beaumont is captured by O'Rory's thugs and brutally beaten for weeks so he will spill the dirt on the Senator and Madvig. Beaumont escapes, barely, realizes that solving the murder (which he has put off for weeks for fear that Paul committed the crime) becomes his only hope of saving himself...
The title of the novel refers to a discussion Paul and Ned have. Paul claims that by backing the Senator, the Senator will help him "go legit" and he can win Janet's heart. This is the key to everything, he says. Ned warms him that this is a "glass key" and will likely break.
The Glass Key was made into a highly successful (if largely forgotten) gangster film by Paramount in 1935. It starred George Raft as "Ed Beaumont" (Ed???), Edward Arnold as Paul Madvig, Claire Dodd as Janet Henry, Rosalind Keith as Opal Madvig, Charles Richman as Senator Henry, Robert Gleckler as Shad O'Rory, Guinn Williams as Jeff, and a very young Ray Milland as Taylor Henry. It was one of Raft's biggest box office winners.
Paramount remade the picture just seven years later in 1942. It's a better version, and stars Brian Donlevy as Paul Madvig, Veronica Lake as Janet Henry, Alan Ladd as Ned Beaumont, Bonita Granville as Opal Madvig, Richard Denning as Taylor Henry, Joseph Calleia as Nick Varna (not Shad O'Rory), and William Bendix as Jeff.
This film differs from the novel in that Janet Henry is clearly playing Madvig for a fool at her father's request. It adds an unnecessary plot element (Taylor owes Varna a lot of money in gambling debts) which confuses the film (Senator Henry is a reform candidate). The henchman's betrayal and gang war is eliminated, and a new plot device about an eyewitness to the crime (who is gunned down before he can talk) is added as padding. The novel contains a nerve-wracking climax in the home of a crooked newspaper editor, a revelation about someone Ned never suspected, and a better investigation by Ned and Janet into the death of Taylor. But at least the film includes a truer version of the death of Shad...er, Nick Varna.
William Bendix is great as the sadistic thug Jeff.