By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood December 4, 2012 at 12:04PM
On December 3, the TCM Vault Collection released a tantalizing box set of three film noirs, “The Glass Key,” “Phantom Lady” and “The Blue Dahlia,” all previously unavailable on Region 1 DVD. The connecting thread is crime fiction -- the first two films are based on novels by Dashiell Hammett and Cornell Woolrich, respectively, and the third is from an original screenplay by Raymond Chandler.
“The Glass Key” was Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake’s second onscreen pairing, made the same year as the duo’s better-known noir “This Gun for Hire,” in 1942. Production on “The Glass Key” actually began before “This Gun for Hire” was released, showing the amount of confidence Paramount had in Ladd and Lake’s sizzling chemistry. The studio knew it had blonde, exquisitely fine-boned lightning in a bottle. In the film, which is a very good adaptation of Hammett’s novel of the same title, Ladd plays Ed Beaumont, the right-hand man of slightly scuzzy yet good-natured politician Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy). When Madvig is accused of murder, Ed pounds the pavement searching for the real culprit. Lake plays Madvig’s socialite fiancée, Janet Henry, who obviously has her Siamese eyes set on the younger and better-looking Ed.
Hammett anti-heroes get roughed up liberally, even gratuitously. True to form, a grim, stylish sequence occupies the middle segment of “The Glass Key,” in which Ed endures a relentless fever dream of beatings from within the baddies’ basement. Punch, kick, dunk in the tub, repeat. It shows the film’s commitment to capturing the grizzly violence of its source material, while also providing a showcase for contract player William Bendix, who looks like a chubby Gene Wilder, and has his own unhinged brand of sadistic sparkle.
“The Blue Dahlia,” made in 1946, was Paramount’s shot at reuniting Ladd and Lake following Ladd’s military service during World War II. It centers on a recently-returned war vet (Ladd), whose wife winds up murdered soon after his homecoming, leaving him in the hot seat. While boasting an interesting collaboration of talent-- not the least of which is one of the few original screenplays written by Raymond Chandler -- the film is easily the weakest of the three in the box set. I remarked aloud while watching it that notorious hard-drinker Chandler must have been roaring drunk while writing it -- and I was right! Legend has it that Chandler, completely intoxicated, would feed a few script pages at a time to the production team from the back of his limo. The film has a distinctly scene-to-scene feel, with flat direction and a dithering sense of direction. But it seems audiences and the Academy thought otherwise in 1946. “The Blue Dahlia” was a hit, so much so that it inspired the name of a gruesome and unrelated L.A. murder (“the Black Dahlia”), and earned Chandler an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.
“Phantom Lady” is the most intriguingly atmospheric of the three films. Based on a Cornell Woolrich novel and directed by underappreciated noir master Robert Siodmak, it follows the classic Man Wrongly Accused template, but with a fascinatingly feminist twist. Instead of proving his innocence, this man wrongly accused (Alan Curtis) goes to prison and awaits his date with the gas chamber. Meanwhile, his intensely focused secretary, Carol (Ella Raines), takes on the case herself, tracking down a slew of key witnesses who refused to come forward during the trial. A brilliant sequence finds Carol menacingly stalking a bartender twice her size. She simply waits at the bar, night after night, glaring the man down, niggling away at his conscience. When she accompanies a horny, googly-eyed drummer (ubiquitous character actor Elisha Cook Jr.) into the underworld of jazz dives, the grimy New York vibe and chiaroscuro close-ups of Cook Jr.’s rabid face make for one of the finer noir scenes in recent memory.
The plot is strange and admittedly contains a few holes -- but as Eddie Muller wisely notes in the DVDs’ brisk, informative special features, an airtight plot doesn’t matter all that much in a genre that hinges on mood. The interview excerpts with Muller, a passionate film noir expert who gesticulates enthusiastically with his many-ringed fingers, are a delight. His commentary for “Phantom Lady” is particularly good, as he identifies Siodmak as his favorite noir director, a filmmaker who knew the seductive qualities of the crime film. “The characters in these movies are doing things that they know are wrong, and they do them anyway,” says Muller. “The whole point of this is to empathize with those people, and feel ‘They’re doing this in place of me. But I totally understand.’ Noir is all about the darkest impulses that the audience has.”
The “Dark Crimes” box set is available exclusively through TCM's online store.