Crooked politician Paul Madwig (Brian Donlevy) resolves to clean up his act by allying himself with respectable reformist candidate Ralph Henry (Moroni Olsen) whose outspoken daughter, Janet (Veronica Lake), he resolves to marry. This new leaf does not sit well with mob boss Nick Varna (Joseph Calleia) who had been paying protection money for Paul to turn a blind eye to his criminal activities. Meanwhile, Paul’s stalwart right-hand Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) discovers his boss’ sister is having an affair with Henry’s son, Taylor (Richard Denning), a compulsive gambler up to his eyeballs in debt. One night Ed discovers Taylor lying dead in the street after which a string of poison pen letters imply Paul killed him. Seizing control of a local newspaper, Nick Varna pressures editor Clyde Matthews (Arthur Loft) to run a series of headlines to ensure Paul is convicted of murder. With Paul unwilling to account for his whereabouts, Ed delves into the seedy underworld to uncover the truth, his investigation further complicated by his growing attraction to Janet.
After the success of This Gun for Hire (1942), Paramount quickly re-teamed Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in another film noir thriller although it is a mark of how complicated rights issues are that this was released on DVD by Universal. Based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, the studio previously filmed The Glass Key back in 1935 as an atypically well-regarded vehicle for George Raft directed - ironically enough - by Frank Tuttle, the man behind This Gun for Hire. Later on Akira Kurosawa incorporated elements from the same novel - specifically the gruelling, suspenseful scene where Ed is sadistically beaten and tortured by thugs in a seedy backroom - as well as Hammett’s Red Harvest into his trendsetting chanbara masterpiece, Yojimbo (1961).
Scriptwriter Jonathan Latimer, whose work includes classic noir The Big Clock (1948) and Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) for underrated director John Farrow, was a crime novelist in his own right best known for a series of novels featuring private eye William Crane that combined the crime genre with elements of screwball comedy. Latimer’s background as a journalist based in Chicago, where he encountered the likes of Al Capone and Bugs Moran, meant he was the perfect person to translate Hammett’s gritty source which is considered a key work in detailing the interaction between politics and organised crime. Some critics however claim this version fumbles the underlining homoerotic tension between Ed Beaumont and Paul Madwig. Nevertheless it is conspicuously there given the way Ed clucks over Paul like a mother hen and for the most part seemingly regards the spirited Janet Henry with utter disdain. The film also retains the twisted, sadomasochistic relationship between Ed and mob thug Jeff (William Bendix), who practically cuddles him during their tense confrontations.
Despite crackling chemistry between the charming Lake and charismatic Ladd, the love story is unconvincing. Frankly, Ed behaves like something of a prick, telling Janet at one point her “crummy brother deserved to get killed” then later almost framing her for murder to coax a confession from the real killer. Indeed, like its hero, the film takes a fairly dim view of the fairer sex. We have a woman who writes poison pen letters, another who betrays her brother, and an unfaithful spouse whose smooching with Ed drives her husband to shoot himself. On the other hand, such misogynistic characterisations are part of the hardboiled tradition of duplicitious dames, echoing Hammett’s definitive femme fatale, Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941). More problematic perhaps is the film’s attempt at moral ambiguity which results in a muddled political outlook that casts a brazenly corrupt thug like Madwig as somehow more admirable than the left-leaning Henry family who are depicted as snooty hypocrites.
What keeps the film entertaining are the snappy screenplay (classic line: “My first wife was a second cook in a third rate joint on fourth street!”) and strong performances from the ensemble cast, including top-billed Brian Donlevy even though his character’s total lack of guile leaves him a less than convincing political figure.