Noir meets reality

Notes on: The Glass Key (Laurie Dix)

The Glass Key, a detective story by Dashiell Hammett was adapted for screen in 1942 by Jonathan Latimer and directed by Stuart Heisler.

The story revolves around politics, relationships and murder, and features what could be called the iconic straightlaced detective as the protagonist.

Whilst watching the film I made some notes about things which occurred to me, which would hopefully come in useful while making Johnny Noir, or which might come in useful in the future if I wrote another script in this style:


  • A lot of the ‘Feel’ of the film comes from the lighting and camera work, and each character has their own specific lighting.
  • Men tend to be dressed in grey or black depending on their mentality at the time, and the only people we see dressed in white are women.

  • The reason women dress in white is that they are light much more strongly than the men, and casting so much light on white clothes causes a lot of bloom. This combination of soft focus, also retained almost exclusively for women, produces an almost angelic glow around the women. This is not uncommon for films from this era, but is especially noticeable in Film Noir given the reserved use of light. The women are also filmed with a much shallower depth of field, whereas everyone and everything else has a tendency to be filmed with a much deeper depth of field, enhancing the softness of the focus and the ethereal quality that the female characters have in these films.

  • When shooting important dialogue between two characters, the camera has a tendency to follow a pattern:

    Medium shot, close up, close up, medium, close up, close up, medium, etc.

    This means that we can see the faces of the two people talking as well as their relationship to each other spatially.

  • As an aside to the above point, the only time we ever see over the shoulder shots is when it is shooting a conversation between a man and a woman.

  • The lighting is incredibly reserved, using as few sources of light as possible.

  • The female characters speak their minds and have a tendency to be quite brusque, but the male characters still act incredibly misogynistically.

  • The male characters have a tendency to use violence frequently and carelessly. Whereas they may have an argument which is won by having a particularly quick tongue, other times an argument may be solved by being thrown through a window.

  • The dialogue is not naturalistic and contains a lot of unnatural exposition. People will vocally identify their emotions at the time, or the actions of other characters.

  • There is very little use of true white or true black, most of the film is represented in various shades of grey, usually tending towards the darker end of the spectrum.

  • Female characters tend to have two emotional defaults: Hysterical or deadpan.

  • Editing:
    – In-scene relies only on cuts.
    – Staying in the same location, but going to a different time relies on a fade to black.
    – Changing location relies on a cross fade.

  • None fatal wounds heal quickly, only leaving superficial marks.
    Fatal wounds act within moments; thus a bullet to the head takes the same amount of time to neutralise the character than one too many punches.

  • There is one example of a wipe transition: during a vehicle segment.

  • The credits happen at the beginning, while the orchestra plays the full score. The only credits at the end are the ‘Cast of Characters’.


It would be interesting to see if these same rules apply across any other films of this style.


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