It’s not ‘rare’ by TCM standards, but its not easily available on DVD, so hey – you should maybe DV-R this if you haven’t already and then keep it on there forever, to watch when you’re home sick with a cold. Nothing beats the Veronica Lake Effect!
Key is based on a Dashiell Hammett novel and concerns a “hick town” run by racketeer Brian Donlevy as a kind of less comedic version of THE GREAT MCGINTY (1940). In fact, KEY and MCGINTY go well together, recalling a time in film when shady local politicians could still climb city hall ladders and backstab and make friends with slap-happy gangsters like Akim Tamiroff and William Bendix. Male friendship is what it’s all about, as in the loosely post modern remake of KEY, the Coen Brothers’ MILLER’S CROSSING (1990), but it’s no-good scheming women that set the world tumbling in motion, to its knees and beyond.
There were enough rich femme fatale poor detective romances going on in the 1940s that there was even a word for it, “slumming.” The detective could let go of his hardscrabble life and live like Nick Charles if he wanted to marry said socialite slummer, presuming he didn’t get double-crossed, or even worse- she loses interest in him now that he’s not poor, and gets contemptuous of his sponging.
Part of the appeal of THE GLASS KEY lies in Alan Ladd’s stoic rejection of this destiny, via the much richer Veronica Lake. Like many I’ve long been fascinated by the weird chemistry the pair exhibit; they seem to be born in a different time than those around them, a different projection speed; they’re as blonde, and isolated as a separate alien race, a category they fit in paranoia theory’s model of the Nordic alien (which I’ve written of here). This effect is no doubt enhanced by them being so much shorter than almost everyone around them, but each other (Lake was an astonishing 4’11” which made her one of the few women who could play opposite the 5’5″ Ladd). They have such a great sleepy chemistry, it’s like they’re dreaming while awake and whenever they’re together. You don’t have to read Wikipedia to know that both of them had hard childhoods. You can feel it in their shy delivery and wary glares. Ladd and Lake are two damaged souls recognizing each themselves in one another, and the aloof posturing, verbal attacks and avoidance strategies they used to keep the world at bay couldn’t fool the other for a minute.
The normal ‘sex appeal’ of screen sirens is kind of transcended by Lake, a very heavy drinker who once noted “I wasn’t a sex symbol, I was a sex zombie.” Ladd seems a bit of a zombie himself, and together they stand as undead outsiders in a noir world never quite asleep enough to suit them.
Perhaps that’s why Lake-Ladd films are, for me anyway, ideally seen when at home, sick with a cold, as I was all this past week. THE GLASS KEY goes down smooth and easy, with William Bendix’s fists standing in for the effects of influenza, and Veronica Lake’s smooth alcoholic tones as gentle as a shot of Tussinex Suspension.