MysteryPeople Double Feature: THE GLASS KEY

The MysteryPeople Noir Double Feature Series, where we screen a film adaptation of a classic roman noir and discuss the film and book, continues this upcoming Monday, June 27th, at 7 PM on BookPeople’s 3rd floor. The screening is free and open to the public! You can find more information about the film series here. 

  • Post by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery

The Glass Key is often cited as Dashiell Hammett’s most personal novel. It is a complex mystery with men trying to retain their honor in a dishonorable life. The themes are layered and the morality ambiguous. Even its faithful film adaptation, starring Alan Ladd, still never quite captures the book.

The story’s backdrop is the world of city politics. The protagonist, Ned Beaumont, serves as the right hand man for Paul Madvig, a political fixer who is little more than a glorified thug, but an honest thug. Madvig decides to throw his weight behind Senator Ralph Bancroft Henry, mainly to marry his daughter, Janet. This puts him at the wrong end of an already growing feud he has with mobster Shad O’Rory (Can you have more of an Irish gangster name?). When Heny’s son is murdered, mysterious letters hint at Madvig as the cuplrit, weakening his political muscle. Ned goes into action, switching alliances in a complex game to ferret out the killer, falling for Janet as well. It is story about the value of friendship since nothing else in the world is worth a damn. All institutions are shown as corrupt.

Paramount’s second adaptation of The Glass Key has proven to be its most successful. The screenplay by Jonathan Latimer, a hard boiled crime fiction writer himself, deftly lays out the novel’s plot and keeps much of Hammett’s dialogue. Tone and theme are a different matter. Designed at the last minute as a vehicle for rising stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, the focus moves more to Ned’s (now called Ed) relationship to Janet than the one he has with Paul. Also being a patriotic production during wartime, the institutional corruption is played down. In many ways the Coen Brothers’ Hammett-influenced film Miller’s Crossing is truer to The Glass Key in spirit.

While an entertaining movie filled with sharp performances, The Glass Key is an example of how a filmmaker can faithfully follow the book’s plot, yet not fully capture the essence of a story. The idea of friendship’s value in a society that is bereft of values becomes muddled. You do get to look a Veronica Lake and her luminous eyes, so not a bad trade off.

Double Feature Stats

Adherence To Book

3.5 out 5 (Amazing how theme and tone make a difference)

Adherence to Quality Of Book


Further Reading

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett, Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson, Hard Cold Winter by Glen Erik Hamilton

Further Viewing

Yojimbo directed by Akira Kurasowa, Bob le Flambeur (Bob The Gambler) directed by Jean Pierre Melville, Miller’s Crossing directed by The Coen Brothers

One thought on “MysteryPeople Double Feature: THE GLASS KEY

  1. Recently watched the George Raft version of the novel. Unfortunately, it, too, failed to capture all the components of the story. Notably missing: the romance angle between Ned and Janet. This version did do a good job of capturing the “bromance” of the two lead male characters. Unfortunately, the whole film was too rushed in its storytelling. Miller’s Crossing did handle a lot of the story lines quite well but.. heck,, it still wasn’t “THE GLASS KEY”.

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