The Laddie and the Lake

I feel like wallowing in Paramount’s Alan Ladd/Veronica Lake pictures for a while (there are three, really, but I suppose I might get around to STAR-SPANGLED RHYTHM in which they cameo separately).

I used to think that the tiny Veronica Lake was invented specially so that the tiny Alan Ladd would have somebody to star opposite that he could look down on, but no, her stardom predates his. You might more convincingly argue that she made him possible. So it’s unfair that her stardom sputtered out before his, principally because she was forced to change her peekaboo hairstyle, but no doubt also because she didn’t have the right allies at the studio to keep her career going in the face of such an obstacle (her wartime, factory-safe new ‘do didn’t suit her as well as the old one, but something could have been worked out).

Her smile at the end of her sequence here is heartbreaking, because it’s The End and she doesn’t know it.

There was a lot more to this girl than a spectacular and distinctive (if inconvenient/dangerous) hairstyle. Lake is pretty much always the coolest, most modern player in any film she’s in, even giving noted underplayer Joel McCrea a a run for his money.

Now. Someone explain to me how THE GLASS KEY got made, and got past the censor? The whole “Crime Must Not Pay” dictum is gleefully thrown out the window here, like it annoyed Brian Donlevy or something. Everybody’s a gangster, fixer or moll, the respectable people are crooked too, and the cops are just a nuisance likely to pick up the wrong guy. Nobody reforms, and the happy ending allows vice and corruption to continue untrammelled. And we feel pretty good about it all. Well, leading man and leading lady are united, so at least the matrimonial norms are to be respected. Some liberties are no doubt taken with Dashiell Hammett”s original, but it’s still a wow on all fronts.

I must watch the George Raft version, curiously enough directed by Frank Tuttle who helped make a star out of Ladd in the previous Ladd-Lake vehicle, THIS GUN FOR HIRE. It should have been a precode but isn’t. Then there’s the other adaptation, MILLER’S CROSSING, for which the Coens could plausibly have been sued for plagiarism, and there’s YOJIMBO, which is theoretically an unlicensed version of Red Harvest — serves Kurosawa right that Leone ripped off his rip-off with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS — but which steals the giant sadist character (played by William Bendix here and by a pituitary case in YOJIMBO) from The Glass Key, quite unapologetically. Kurosawa’s claim that The Servant of Two Masters was his real source strikes me as untrue and lawyered-up.

I once read a Michael Caine quote where he claimed, with what accuracy I don’t know, that in Japan, being a lawyer is not a very respected profession because, “In Japan, if someone cheats you and gets caught, they kill themselves. Whereas over here, they try to kill you.”

Anyway, THE GLASS KEY. Very stylishly directed by Stuart Heisler, who had great talent but only occassionally seems to hit the ball out the park. Here, he smashes a floodlight with it, to explosive and scintillating effect. The luminous Paramount style adapts well to noir if you take it by the throat and talk softly to it. Fiona points out the weirdness of Ladd getting a spectacular introductory shot in his SECOND scene, which does seem like a blunder, but it’s still a nice shot (see top).

And we have an ideal cast, with Donlevy just the right kind of honest-hearted crook (Spencer Tracy would have worked too but maybe he’d have wanted to get the girl. Or the guy?). With his elevator shoes he can just barely see over Ladd & Lake. Bendix is extraordinary, unlike any other role he had, as Fiona remarked. A guy with a very distinctive look suddenly seems like someone you’ve never seen before — a malign garden gnome, shaved and soaked with oily sweat and somehow pumped up to giant size with an injection of testosterone right in his nose. His demonic glee in beating up Ladd is clearly sexual, even more so than in the book.

Ladd is beyond perfect. For me, he only works in anti-hero roles. Allow him a measure of rectitude and he’s a colossal small bore. Even playing a gunfighter in SHANE he’s a little too nice. Here, he gets his cold smile out a lot, and is a real Hammett hero, cards close to his chest, which beats with an icy heart. We’ll allow that he has a code, but it has nothing to do with legality or conventional morality, just maybe his own idiosyncratic understanding of the latter.

Anyway, by the end he’s found love and can express warmth but that’s OK because the movie’s over and we don’t need to see him again.

THE GLASS KEY stars Shane; The Girl; Quatermass McGinty; Nancy Drew; Hunk Jordan; Det. Maurice Obregon; ‘Babe’ Ruth; Nyoka Meredith; Big Mac; and the voice of the Senior Angel.


14 Responses to “The Laddie and the Lake”

  1. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, Ladd is superb in this role. I ran the film last year in class with an extract from the Raft version. I suppose the reason it beat the Code was that it could claim the right of fidelity to a well-known literary original. Yet, THE LADDIE IN THE LAKE would have been another good title. Was the Code working on you? Robin Wood once described Alan Ladd as having “the sex appeal of a dead goldfish”. Yet he makes a good Ned Beaumont in this version and Brian Donlevy a much better Paul Madvig than Edward Arnold in the 1935 version – perhaps Flagg and Quirt in Hammett land?

  2. Sinton Stranger Says:

    Dear Shadowplay, I very much enjoy your column and this particular one about Alan Ladd. I’d be interested in what you think of his performance in The Great Gatsby. I think he’s the best Gatsby of all three for sure and ‘is’ very much the character from the book. I can’t abide the Daisy portrayal by Betty Field….a difficult character to play. I pass on mentioning the newest film Unfortunately not a fan of DiCaprio. But the second one was a disaster….. I was at university when it came out and It was chock full Of literature majors and professors- I believe I heard people groaning. But Ladd seemed to really ‘have’ Gatsby. Perhaps you’ll mention it in the future or have mentioned it – though, his gangsters are the very best! Thank You. Sinton Stranger

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Sinton, I very much agree with you here. According to a conversation on youtube between Michael Curtiz biographer Rohde and Alan Ladd Jr. GATSBY was his father’s dream project so he used his box-office clout with the studio to get a film version made. As long as he would agree to gangster elements in the flashback and publicity, the studio went ahead. I saw this version on BBC TV years ago and Ladd conveyed the awkwardness of someone being out of depth in society. He had a good supporting cast such as Barry Sullivan Howard DaSilva, and Shelley Winters.

    Loenardo’s version is indescribably awful.

  4. The Red Harvest – Yojimbo – A Fistful of Dollars series had an ironic twist when Walter Hill adapted Yojimbo as Last Man Standing this time with Kurosawa’s approval. He ended up making a 1920s gangster film set more-or-less where Red Harvest was set.
    It just wasn’t anything like as good as a film of Red Harvest probably would have been, unfortunately.

  5. You’ve made me curious about the Ladd Gatsby. The one I’m most curious about is the lost silent version though. But I’ve only read Fitzgerald’s short fiction, disgracefully.

    I love Jack Clayton but his version is weirdly blank. Maybe intentionally, but I don’t think it works.

    I’ve avoided Baz Lurpak’s films since Moulin Rouge, which Fiona accurately described as being like having glittered fired into your pinned-open eyes for two hours.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    The best RED HARVEST version would have been the one from Bertolucci’s script with Jack Nicholson as The Op. I’ve read it several years ago and remember it as impressive.

  7. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Alas Bernardo est mort.

    Michael Caine on lawyers in Japan was to paraphrase W.C. Fields “Fooling and pretending.”

    Veronica Lake was a hairdo with tons of “tude” underneath.

  8. I believe Bernardo was also going to cast Brando in it, instead of which we got Jack and Marlon in The Missouri Breaks. “Another day, another million dollars,” quoth Jack.

  9. The Continental Op – at least as Hammett saw him – was stocky and pot-bellied – an anti-Hammett in appearance. Brando at his worst could manage the look, but neither he nor Nicholson could deliver the cool efficiency of the Continental Op. You don’t want a film star playing him, but a good supporting actor: Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmett Walsh if they toned down their personalities, perhaps.

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    Yet, James Coburn portrayed him like Hammett in the TV mini-series THE DAIN CURSE. Nicholson could have done it since he alter physically resembled Brando “at his worst.” But the whole issue raises the question of fidelity criticism that most modern studies of adaptation tend to reject. Stanton and Walsh would not have the “star clout” for a Hollywood version

  11. Bogart looked nothing like Hammett’s description of Sam Spade, too, but he’s persuasive as a cynical PI with quixotic tendencies. The Continental Op is a very efficient operative doing his job well. He doesn’t have – doesn’t want – “star clout”, but the ability to merge into the background and get people to think and do what he wants them to. As you say. that may make fidelity to the character’s main attribute impossible.

  12. Well, star clout is what’s generally needed to get a movie made. That’s why any Harry Dean Stanton vehicle that’s also an expensive period piece was likely to be a non-starter.

    In the 40s, maybe one of the heavy-set guys like Edmund O’Brien would have made a good op.

    I love The Dain Curse as a book – that structure! – but I’ve never gotten around to the James Coburn version.

  13. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, THE DAIN CURSE TV mini-series is misbegotten and a waste of all the talents except Coburn who manages to deliver a good performance.

  14. […] my way through the Ladd-Lake catalogue (see here, and here). For some reason, SAIGON (1948), their last collaboration, was only findable on fuzzy […]

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