Thursday, November 15, 2007

Please, Hammett…don’t hurt ‘em


Frequent visitors to Thrilling Days of Yesteryear may be aware of my affection for The Glass Key (1942), the film adaptation of the Dashiell Hammett novel starring Alan Ladd and Brian Donlevy as a pair of corrupt political ward-heelers, and luscious Veronica Lake as the femme fatale who comes between them. In olden days, before the marvelous advent of DVDs, I would generally have to dig through the somewhat smaller (but no less dusty) TDOY archives to find my VHS copy of this movie (I taped it off of AMC before they…well, let’s not get into that—it’s such a nice day) or, if I happened to run across it by accident on the tube, would be forced to watch it because my TV remote would cease to work until it was over. (I know—I can’t explain it, either. “It baffles science!”) Fortunately, I now have Key on a Region 2 DVD release, and all is right in the House of Yesteryear.

Hammett’s novel was published in 1931, and four years later Paramount brought it to the big screen with George Raft and Edward Arnold in the Ladd/Donlevy roles, respectively. The 1935 version isn’t shown on television much (if at all) but I fortunately tracked down a copy—on DVD, no less—and finally got around to watching it last night. I still think the ’42 version is superior (and even that one isn’t really perfect, since it deviates from Hammett’s novel a great deal) but if you can take it upon yourself not to compare the two, the 1935 Key is not a bad little melodrama.

The plot, for those unfamiliar with either the book or the 1942 version, centers around Paul Madvig (Arnold), a powerful “fixer” whose “Voters League” is the main political influence in town. Madvig has put the weight of his machine behind the campaign of Reform Party senator John T. Henry (Charles Richman), ostensibly because he’s quite taken with Henry’s daughter Janet (Claire Dodd) and plans to ask her to marry him. Paul’s support for the Reformers doesn’t sit too well with his right-hand man, Ed Beaumont (Raft), particularly since Madvig’s campaign to “clean up” the town is creating friction amongst Madvig’s “business associates”—namely, an ambitious nightclub racketeer named Shad O’Rory (Robert Gleckler). Things go sour when Janet’s irresponsible brother Taylor (Ray Milland)—in hock to O’Rory and stepping out with Opal Madvig (Rosalind Keith), Paul’s daughter—is found murdered on the streets by Beaumont after an argument with Madvig, and a witness (Harry Tyler) provided by O’Rory fingers Paul as the culprit.

Because actor Arnold had about a quarter-of-a-century on Rosalind Keith, age-wise, I guess it made more sense for her to play his daughter rather than sibling (unlike Bonita Granville’s sisterly turn in the 1942 version,). Apart from the addition of a couple of characters (W.C. Fields cohort Tammany Young as a comic relief mug working for Arnold, and character stalwart Emma Dunn as Arnold’s sainted Irish mother) and the plot point that has Beaumont pursuing Opal rather than Janet Henry, there’s really not a whole lot of difference between the two versions of Key. The 1942 remake is undeniably glossier, with a bit more star power, but at the same time the characters are presented in an edgier fashion; Arnold seems to be more of a benevolent banker proud of his Rotarian status than a seriously threatening machine boss (but you could argue that most roles he tackled utilized that characterization). Character great Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, who was usually cast as either a punch-drunk mug or Western hero sidekick, uses this benign façade to play the part of O’Rory’s sadistic henchman Jeff—the role played by William Bendix in the 1942 version. While I thought Williams was good, Bendix is better—particularly that homoerotic fascination he has with “Sock-me-again” Beaumont. Yes, I said I wasn’t going to compare the two versions of Key, and obviously I’m failing miserably—but the 1935 film does feature an eye-popping car crash at the beginning…and if you check out Beaumont’s nurse in the scene where he’s brought into the hospital after taking one of Jeff’s beatings, you’ll be delighted to learn that she’s played by Ann Sheridan, shortly before she went to work for Warner Brothers and became their “Oomph Girl.”

I purchased the 1935 Key from Vintage Film Buff.com, which has more than a few cherce rarities (some of which I was helpless to resist buying, and which I’ll cover in the next few days). It’s part of a double-feature disc (Gangsters, Dicks & Dames #1) that includes the 1931 gangster epic City Streets as a companion feature; a film whose story was also written by Hammett (his only original story for the silver screen, in fact) and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, whom Hal Erickson at allmovie.com describes as “never one to hide his talent under a bushel basket.” Mamoulian’s direction does have a tendency to be a bit too arty, but nevertheless his unique touches make Streets a must-see; Gary Cooper plays a shooting gallery showman (known only as “The Kid”) who falls hard for Nan (Sylvia Sidney, in a role originally intended for Clara Bow), the daughter of mob henchman Pop Cooley (Guy Kibbee). Ordered by gang boss “Big Fella” (Paul Lukas) to rub out another goon (Stanley Ridges) so that he can start making time with Ridges’ gal (Wynne Gibson), Pop presses Nan to hide the gun used in Ridges’ murder—but she’s picked up by the police and convicted as an accessory after the fact. When she’s finally sprung from the Big House, Nan is stunned to learn that “The Kid” has followed her earlier advice and joined Pop in the rackets—but she’s had a change of heart, and begs her boyfriend to abandon his new line of work…particularly when “Big Fella” starts getting designs on her.

City Streets is a fascinating early talkie which runs counter to the Warner’s formula displayed in releases like Little Caesar (1931) and The Public Enemy (1931), and will surprise those whose “gangster” education consists of those nevertheless important films. (Mamoulian bragged that while there were ten killings in Streets, the audience sees none of them onscreen.) The performances in Streets are also first-rate, with Kibbee and Lukas effectively playing against type and Cooper in a role that he never duplicated again, to my knowledge. Visually stunning (with camerawork by Lee Garmes) and very similar to Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927) in its evocation of atmosphere, I’d recommend it in a New York minute.

One thing I wanted to add re: Key and Streets—the cover of the DVD box reads: “Digitally mastered directly from film elements.” My guess is that the source for these movies is of the 16mm variety, and although they’re not pristine (both of them look like they’ve taken a few too many trips through the projector sprockets) they’re in better-than-you’d-imagine shape. I have made similar purchases of hard-to-locate films from Mom-and-Pop places in the past, and with a few exceptions, they’ve either been copied from an old VHS copy (putting things on DVD from VHS does not necessarily look better—as serials expert Ed Hulse is fond of saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”) or taped from TV.

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