The Glass Key (1942), was originally written by Dashiell Hammett, and in many ways resembles The Maltese Falcon. The protagonist works two battling factions against each other, all the while remaining true to his principles. Whereas in The Maltese Falcon the conflict arose over wealth, here there is a battle for political power. The trouble starts when Paul Madvig, the "biggest crook in the state," backs the Reform Party ticket of Ralph Henry for governor. Paul backs Henry in spite of the Reform Party's platform of ending crime because he is infatuated with Henry's daughter, Janet Henry (Veronica Lake).
Madvig confesses his love to his friend and partner Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd), and asks Ed what kind of present he should get Janet for her birthday. Ed advises him not to get her anything, especially since Madvig doesn't know if a present would be a welcome gift. Madvig dismisses his advice, but this scene shows a fundamental difference between Paul and Ed, Paul muscles his way foreword without thought. Ed is a strategist and thinks carefully before he acts. It will be a future source of conflict.
Paul Madvig's change in political affiliations doesn't sit well with Nick Varna, who has been able to run his clubs free from police interference under the opposing party's rule. Since Madvig declared his support for Henry, in fact, the police have closed his clubs down. He and his hired muscle, Jeff (played superbly by William Bendix), visit Madvig to demand that he allows his clubs to reopen.
Paul refuses to open the clubs back up, and Varna storms off. The rest of the film shows the conflict between Madvig and Varna, which centers around the murder of Ralph Henry's son, Taylor. Taylor Henry is unemployed, a gambler, and is in love with Paul Madvig's sister, Opal. Paul, of course, doesn't approve of the pairing which causes sisterly-brotherly conflict. Add into the mix Ed discovering the body and you have a mystery on your hands. It also provides a conflict in which Varna tries to pin the murder on Madvig, while Madvig tries to protect Janet, who he thinks committed the crime.
Ed, after seeing Janet patronize Paul, who is painful unaware that he's being mocked, quits. He will have nothing to do with Madvig and packs his bags for New York. Ed the thinker can't stand Paul the muscle. When Paul tries to dissuade him from leaving, and the conversation almost turns to blows. Varna learns of this and calls for a meeting between the two.
Varna tries to pay Ed to tell incriminating stories to the local paper (which Varna has purchased). When Ed refuses, he has his German Shepherd and Jeff overpower Ed, knock him out, and imprison him. Despite numerous beatings from Jeff, Ed never incriminates Paul Madvig in the murder of Taylor Henry.
Which returns us to our comparisons with The Maltese Falcon. Even though Ed can't stand Paul Madvig, he won't betray his former friend. He stands by his principals, just as Sam Spade won't let Brigid get away with murder. Like Spade, he doesn't follow common ethical codes, he in many ways is as much a gangster as Madvig or Varna, but his code of ethics won't let him betray a friend.
Like Spade, he can easily work two sides against the other. On one side there is Varna trying to get Taylor Henry's murder placed on Paul Madvig's shoulder's, on the other side there is Opal Madvig and Janet Henry, also trying to do the same thing. Janet, in fact, writes anonymous letters to the editor implicating Paul in her brother's death. Opal finds herself believing in her brother's guilt, and agrees to give incriminating stories to Varna's paper. Ed makes advances to the paper's editor's wife after she learns her husband is broke, causing the editor to commit suicide, and burns his will leaving the paper to Varna. The trustees of the original will are on Madvig's side, and will stop unfavorable stories Varna tries to have published.
Like in many of his other stories, no one is innocent in Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key, so when we see posters proclaiming, " A vote for Henry is a vote for honesty," we should be mindful this may not necessarily be the case. The pursuit of political power, like the pursuit of wealth, is a corrupting force in the urban experience. Hammett's stories are about people that stay true to their ideals in this experience, and in The Glass Key, Ed Beaumont is the personification of this theme.
Text (c) LCB 2000
AMAZON.COM is the registered trademark of Amazon.com, Inc.