It doesn’t seem to be widely known (or at least I didn’t know it) that the 1942 movie version of The Glass Key is a remake. (So is The Maltese Falcon.) If you did know this, you probably haven’t seen the original because it is not, as far as I can tell, available for sale.
I stumbled across this version, however, a couple years ago on YouTube (it’s not there anymore) but because it had been years since I’d seen the 1942 version (we’ll just call that one GK2 and the original GK1 for brevity’s sake) and didn’t have access to it, I couldn’t directly compare the two. Well, I’ve got it now and I found the original again– this time on DailyMotion.
I cannot for the life of me decide which I like better.
GK2 is one of the famous pairings of Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. It’s an excellent movie and probably technically better than the original. But that doesn’t mean the original is bad. GK1, produced in 1935, stars George Raft and Edward Arnold. What’s that? No female lead? Well… that’s one of the things I like about it. I may be the only person in the world who thinks this but when I got to the end of the book, I not only did not think that there was any romance angle between Ned and Janet Henry but I was pretty sure he was willing to do anything just to get her away from his friend because she was no good.
GK2 sticks to the romance. This is Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake after all. GK1 eliminates it completely. Whether it’s in the book or not, the romance in GK2 isn’t well developed which is admittedly a fault of a fair number of films. (And you can’t blame old movies for it because they’re still doing it today.) But what makes it really bad is the end where the guy who was going to marry Veronica Lake is like: oh, okay, whatever, I’m fine with this. This is completely unrealistic and stupid, but like GK1, GK2 was determined to preserve Ed’s relationship with Madvig rather than destroying it like it was supposed to be in the book.
GK2 also contains a scene from the book which is left out of GK1: the one where Ed goes to the publisher’s country home. This scene is a bit weird. It was weird in the book. What is Ned trying to do? Does he seduce the wife in order to get the husband to shoot himself or is Ned just fooling around and the husband shoots himself just for the convenience of the plot? It’s not any clearer in the movie than it is in the book.
While GK2 follows the book a little closer, it takes a few liberties which the the original does not. Opal is Paul’s sister rather than daughter. Shad O’Rory is changed to Nick Varna. Just one of those pointless cosmetic changes movies make same as how both films oddly change Ned’s name to Ed for no reason.
Edward Arnold makes a much better Paul Madvig than Brian Donlevy. Arnold is more believable as a political boss controlling a town. The other guy lacks presence. (You could take his delivery of “This is the kiss off” and compare it to Orson Welles’ in the radio version for Campbell Playhouse for instance. Now wouldn’t that have been a casting! They should have had Orson Welles in the movie.) Opal is decent in both but I like her a bit better in GK1–primarily because of the change in her role–and because the actress in GK2 does a particularly good job of being an annoying teenager. The guy who plays the senator in GK1 (Charles Richman) does an immensely better job than Moroni Olsen in GK2 even with such a small part. He gets better emotion across at the end than other guy who’s just a blob. You ought to have more of reaction when you’re talking about the murder of your son especially when the cops show up and accuse your daughter of doing it. He doesn’t managed to turn it into a completely-numb-and-shut-down reaction either. It falls flat.
As for Ed… that’s a difficult choice. I like both Alan Ladd and George Raft. Raft’s performance comes off as rather wooden. Ladd spends an unfortunate amount of the movie with his lip curled up in a sneer than doesn’t suit him. It’s not Raft’s best performance but it’s not Ladd’s either.
The one character who is indisputably elevated between older version to the newer is Jeff, O’Rory’s/Varna’s thug. He’s just a thug in GK1. Nothing wrong with that but nothing special either. In GK2, Jeff is portrayed by William Bendix who adds a manic, evil sort of charm to the role. There is something of glee in his delivery of “If it isn’t ‘Sock Me Again’ Beaumont!” Menace in his drunken friendliness. The crazed element he adds makes Jeff’s snapping more believable. The guy is just great.
In the case of The Maltese Falcon, the choice between original and remake is easy. It’s interesting to watch the original just to see it but the Bogart version is one of those few movies which borders on perfect. The original doesn’t have the skill or the atmosphere. With The Glass Key, however, some things are better and some things miss. As much as I like Bendix’s performance, the scene in the bar has one of those misses. The hanging light is knocked swinging but it doesn’t get used the way the original used it. Focusing on the light instead of the murder was a nice atmospheric touch that the remake lost.
Of course this is all just me. Nobody seems to like George Raft nowadays (judging by the reviews of his movies on IMDB). The rest of the world takes the Ned/Janet romance without complaint. The 1942 version’s the one that get remembered. But even if the original isn’t as good, I enjoyed it a lot and I’m glad I found it.