Saturday, February 3, 2018

This Gun For Hire (1942)

This Gun For Hire was directed by Frank Tuttle for Paramount. Tuttle was a contract director who executed most of his assignments routinely without much enthusiasm. But every once in a while he surprised everybody by doing a marvelous job. With Gun he hit the jackpot. The film is a loose adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel A Gun For Sale, though the original story is transported from Europe to the Noir cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles.  

This Gun For Hire is an early (transitional) Noir that develops some of the cornerstones of the genre. Visually it fits the bill, utilizing Chiaroscuro lighting to stunning effect. There’s the hard-boiled ambiguous anti-hero, doom and inevitable Fate but the picture isn’t wholly Noir. It certainly isn’t the most fatalistic and bleakest. We get a bit of man-on-the-run story, a bit of cops and robbers and a bit of espionage with two kooky musical numbers thrown in.

Gun was the first pairing of pint-sized powerhouse duo Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Maybe their partnership was born out of necessity - both vertically challenged at 5’6 and 4’11 respectively - but it quickly became clear that their on-screen chemistry was dynamite.
They would be paired up again in three more movies. Unfortunately both of them later battled alcoholism, personal problems and mental illness and died at the fairly young age of 50.

It is 1942 and the US has just recently entered the War. Contract killer Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) is hired by Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), manager at Nitro Chemical Corps., to retrieve a chemical formula and kill the man who stole it for blackmail reasons. Nitro’s boss Alvin Brewster has manufactured a nerve gas that he intends to sell to the Japanese. Gates is also moonlighting as manager of the Neptune nightclub, where he likes to play impresario for reasons of purely personal amusement.
Unfortunately Raven’s contract is a setup, Gates pays off Raven in hot money and now there’s a price on his head. Police lieutenant Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is assigned to the case. Crane is engaged to Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), nightclub singer/magician at the Neptune Club. Ellen is hired by Senator Burnett to keep an eye on her boss Gates and his shady business dealings. Burnett suspects that Nitro Chemical is guilty of treason.
Raven takes Ellen hostage but they become allies pretty fast, because Gates wants them both dead. Raven simply wants to kill Brewster but Ellen appeals to his better nature to expose Brewster as a traitor…

Alan Ladd had been toiling in Hollywood obscurity for about a decade, struggling mostly in non-billed supporting roles, when he finally became an “overnight success” with Gun. Billed last as “introducing Alan Ladd”, he wasn’t supposed to be the star. Second-billed Robert Preston was but didn’t stand a chance. Ladd is magnetic and walks away with the picture. Preston, officially the male lead, has an utterly thankless role. Usually playing the best friend of the hero, he finally got the lead part in a movie only to be neatly outmaneuvered on every level by Ladd. Ladd not only became a star, but a romantic star by playing a merciless killer with glacial charm.

Raven is at the same time a compelling and unnerving character. He’s no shallow puddle. Ruthless, laconic, with ice-water in his veins, a steely gaze and a voice to match, he is the ultimate loner detached from humanity. The code of a professional hitman doesn’t allow for friends, family or personal feelings. Raven could refute John Donne’s idea that no man is an island. 
Ladd was plagued his whole life by a harrowing self-doubt about his small stature. He was full of self-loathing, about his height and his acting abilities. He let his fears devour him. He needn’t have worried. It was always astonishing to me that such a small guy could convey so much menace, sensuality and commanding presence.

Killing comes easy to Raven. His brooding menace is no show, he makes good on his threats. When asked by Gates how he feels about his profession, his utterly emotionless answer is “I feel fine.” Feeling nothing is his perpetual state of mind. 

Just how cold-blooded he is we can see when he goes to kill the blackmailer in his apartment. It’s one of the great entrances in cinematic history. Unfortunately the guy’s “secretary” is there too. Poor woman is in wrong place at the wrong time. Appeals for mercy fall on deaf ears. He guns her down anyway, he can’t afford witnesses. No hesitation, just an ice-cold: “They said he’d be alone”. It’s not an apology, just a simple clarification. Right afterwards leaving the scene, he’s spotted by a crippled little girl. For a short moment we hold our breaths, but he just retrieves her toy. Talk about ambiguous and morally complex. Raven is a study in contradictions. A hired gun with principles.

It is to Ladd’s credit that he pulls off the almost impossible and turns Raven into a sympathetic character which may have something to do with the cute little four-legged cat burglar he’s feeding. He has a soft spot for cats, because they - like him - need no-one and can fight for themselves. Just for that we’re willing to forgive him anything. When a slatternly and tarty maid - clad for work in a dress clearly designed to attract some special attention -  tries to kick his cat, he rips her dress and slaps her. We don’t even feel sorry for her. 
If there’s one thing Raven believes in, it is that cats bring good luck. Later he unintentionally kills a cat and his luck runs out.

The movie goes out of its way to humanize Raven. While under siege by the police and hiding in an abandoned railway car, he tells Ellen his life story about the cruel and abusive aunt he grew up with until he was 14…when he finally had enough and took a knife to her. He was then sent to reform school where he was beaten some more. It bred a seething rage and hate in him. Ladd plays it magnificently, with just the right amount of vulnerability. For a few moments, he gives the audience a glimpse of the hurt kid lurking beneath the ice-cold facade.

Raven is not a natural-born killer, the roots for his warped psyche lie in his environment and traumatic upbringing. He was doomed on the day he set foot into his aunt's house. 
It’s an amazingly modern school of thought. Or maybe just a touch of bargain-basement Freudianism, 40s Hollywood’s favorite infatuation.

Veronica Lake is luminous and sizzles as Ellen. Her little nightclub acts are a bit cheesy, but adorable and sexy, especially the one that has rather racy fetish undertones. She’s sultry and with the peek-a-boo hairdo that would become her trademark, but she only looks like a femme fatale. She’s a good girl and a smart little cookie who gets herself out of several bad situations by using cool wits and her sleight of hand abilities.

Through Ellen Raven experiences something he’s never experienced before, human kindness. She believes there still may be some good in him. Because of her influence his armor begins to crack. He saves her life when Gates wants to kill her. When she urges him not to kill anymore, for a second there’s a yearning in his eyes that maybe in another time and place, if things had been different… but he knows he’s too far gone to reform. Soon after he shoots a cop to get away from the police. “I don’t go soft for anybody.”
In the end he commits another act of mercy. He spares Crane’s life who he could have effortlessly plucked with one shot. But he knows Crane is Ellen’s man.

Laird Cregar is always a welcome addition to any cast and obviously has fun hamming it up as fat, gutless, effeminate and occasionally infantile Willard Gates. Here's a word to the wise for him though: don't try to double-cross a guy who bumps off people for a living. It never ends well.
Cregar had a tendency to steal the show and make his short screen time count.

A lot of reviewers leveled their criticism of the movie at the “dated” heavy-handed wartime propaganda. Well of course there’s propaganda! And why shouldn’t there be? According to Blackout: WW2 and the Origins of Film Noir by Sheri Chinen Biesen film production ran from October 27 to December 6 (!) 1941, with two extra days of filming on Dec. 15 and 16. Pearl Harbor happened and put the nation and Hollywood on high alert. In the aftermath of the attack the PCA granted the film approval despite more violence and ambiguity in the script than they initially intended to let pass…as long as Raven would be on the side of the angels again in the end.

America’s politics of isolationism could not longer be sustained. Mobilizing the home-front to support the war effort became crucial. And if that included hired gunmen, so be it. Moral judgement could be suspended for less than squeaky-clean Americans willing to leave their pasts behind and go fight the good fight. Raven may be a killer, but that was nothing against the threat of traitors who were willing to sell out their country for sheer monetary gain.

The propaganda may be a laid on a bit thick, but so what? There is no reason why a bit of propaganda should stand in the way of enjoying and understanding the movie.

In the end Raven is both: ruthless killer and patriotic hero. It must be stressed however that it is not really the patriotic cause that is eventually his redemption, it is Ellen. His choice to go after Brewster is more personal than political. The stone-cold hitman develops a conscience because Ellen is the only friend he ever had. With his last breath, Raven seeks Ellen's assurance that he did good. He receives her absolution and dies peacefully.
The old bromide holds true: he just needed the love of a good woman. Oh God, I didn’t just say that, did I? 

Hoping against hope, of course I wanted Ladd and Lake to live happily ever after. There’s an amazingly sensual undercurrent between the two. Dammit, Raven saves the country but he can’t get the girl? Of course not. This is Noir, not a fairytale.

That final clinch at the end of the movie between Ellen and Crane is not too convincing, and it’s all Ladd’s fault. It seems the producers desperately wanted to push the idea that Crane is the right man for Ellen. It didn’t fool anybody.


  1. I like the way you dealt with the criticism of the movie "dated". I don't know where the expectation that something shouldn't be of its time came from, but it is extremely annoying. If you are not going to place a book or movie in context, you may miss the reason for its existence.

  2. So very true. If you can’t see it through the prism of the time in which it was made, don’t watch.

  3. I enjoyed This Gun for Hire, and I thought the patriotic intrigue and the addition of Raven's back story actually made the film seem a bit more modern. I didn't think it was all that different from agents slipping poison to former Soviet spies. Go figure!

    1. True, there is really nothing new under the sun.

  4. Well, I guess I'm just going to have to follow your blog. Excellent review of this strange, snappy little noir that not enough people know about. Ladd is luminous in it, outshining everyone, and it's obvious why he shot to stardom with it.

    As for it being dated, I like that it's patriotic! It feels more real and relatable because it's grounded firmly in a specific time. To me, anyway.

  5. Thanks for following. :) I'll check out your blog later.
    I don't mind a bit of propaganda either.