B&W, 1942, 85m.
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Starring Brian Donlevy, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Bonita Granville, Richard Denning, William Bendix, Moroni Olsen, Joseph Calleia
Arrow (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Koch Media (Blu-ray) (Germany RB HD), TCM (DVD) (US R0 NTSC), Universal (DVD) (UK R0 PAL)

The Glass KeyThe Glass KeyThough he only wrote five novels, hardboiled mystery writer Dashiell Hammett remains one of the most popular and admired of an astonishing field that also includes such authors as Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. All of his books have been filmed in one way or another (though his first, Red Harvest, was only done unofficially by Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone, and Walter Hill), while movie fans primarily know him as the creator of The Maltese Falcon (which struck gold with its third adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart) and The Thin Man, which was tweaked significantly to become a long-running string of classy mystery comedies. Hammett's penultimate novel, The Glass Key, was first adapted in 1935 with George Raft, but most know it for this 1942 version, which was rushed into production after Paramount was impressed with Alan Ladd's star-making role in This Gun for Hire.

Ladd's leading lady, Veronica Lake, was brought back for her second of four films with him (followed by The Blue Dahlia and Saigon), though top-billed Brian Donlevy gets the juiciest moments here as corrupt political boss Paul Madvig, who's backing gubernatorial candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) to get his hands on Henry's daughter, Janet (Lake), whose motives seem very questionable. Madvig's bodyguard and advisor, Ed Beaumont (Ladd), is wary of the open arms the Henry family seems to be offering, and things get more complicated when Ralph's son turns up dead -- with all signs pointing to Madvig as the culprit and some opponents in the underworld eager to use violence to take him down as well. The Glass Key

Definitely on the classier side of noir films at the time (think Laura or the ones being made by Otto Preminger), this is a fast-paced and slick studio thriller with three terrific performances at the center. Lake is given the least to do (she really only has three key scenes), while Ladd is magnetic as always with his slightly wry tough guy act working like a charm. However, it's Donlevy who takes off with the film -- which isn't surprising since he gets to The Glass Keyhurl a guy through a glass pane in his very first scene. Always solid in films ranging from Kiss of Death to The Quatermass Xperiment, he's so good here you have to wonder why he didn't become more of an A-lister than some of his peers. As usual for the time, the cast is rounded out with some terrific supporting bits for actors like Joseph Calleia and reliable tough guy William Bendix, playing the nastiest piece of work in the film.

A fixture on afternoon TV and film noir festivals for decades, The Glass Key passed over to Universal from the Paramount library. For some reason Universal's been skittish about putting this film out under its own banner following its VHS release, with TCM getting it for DVD in a standalone disc and part of a "Dark Crimes" set with Phantom Lady and The Blue Dahlia. It did come out from Universal on DVD in the U.K., but you're The Glass Keybest off with the 2016 Blu-ray edition in the same country from Arrow Films. The transfer is the same recent HD one seen earlier in the year from Koch Media in Germany, featuring an impressive level of detail in a presentation that epitomizes the world "thick." It's grainier than usual for a monochrome Universal transfer from the era, but on large displays it works quite well and definitely leaps way past the standard def options we've had. The LPCM English mono audio sounds immaculate, and optional English subtitles are provided.

Film writer Barry Forshaw contributes an audio commentary (not very scene specific) concentrating on Hammett and hardboiled fiction, laying out its conventions and discussing how his prose was translated to the screen during World War II. In "Comings and Goings," 100 Film Noirs co-author Alastair Phillips spends 23 minutes with a video essay exploring the film's status in the string of Hammett adaptations at the height of the film noir wave as well as its theme of the futility of trying to make sense of the modern world. A 1946 radio dramatization of the novel for The Screen Guild Theater features Ladd again with Marjorie Reynolds and Ward Bond in a condensed half-hour version, and the disc rounds out with the theatrical trailer and a gallery of poster art and stills.

Reviewed on August 20, 2016.