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Film Noir February: This Gun For Hire (1942)

The weather is unfriendly, the skies get dark early, and the world is a scary place. Join us this month as we embrace dark, gritty movies in the film noir genre.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Based on a 1936 novel by Graham Greene (A Gun For Sale), This Gun For Hire tells the story of Raven (Alan Ladd, in his breakout role) a hired killer that has found himself mixed up with Fifth Columnists during the early days of the US involvement in World War II. The source novel was written in 1936, so you can tell right away that liberties have been taken with Greene’s novel. After being double-crossed by his employer for a job, Raven is bent for revenge, and unknowingly takes up with an undercover agent/singing magician played by Veronica Lake.

This is the first of several pairings of Ladd and Lake, and their chemistry crackles (someplace I read once that this is due to the fact that Veronica Lake was so tiny that Ladd didn’t have to wear lifts in his shoes. I don’t really think that’s true, but it does amuse me).

SAMANTHA GLASSER: I felt love for Lake even before I saw her in a film because I read that she was under 5 feet tall, just like me. I had seen Lake and Ladd in a few other films together, but neither of those jumped off the screen the way this pairing does. Maybe it is their youth that makes this one so appealing, but they both convey a lot of intensity with minimal movement and few words.

RB: Robert Preston (perfectly competent, by the way), may have the higher billing, but there is no disputing that it’s Ladd’s show, and in his hands, the dialogue, harsh in the perfect film noir way, comes to life. While Preston and Lake got top billing on the poster, it was Ladd who really got the attention in the trades, even when Paramount was plugging their own picture. “DYNAMITE…AND THIS IS THE LAD WHO KICKS IT OFF!” proclaimed one ad, that hosted a gaggle of positive reviews focusing on Ladd’s performance. One could argue that this film all but typecast him right out of the gate, and I wouldn’t be one to disagree with that, but when he does it well, he does it very, very well.

SG: My knowledge of Ladd is heavily informed by the fact that he and June Allyson had an affair when they made The McConnell Story together in 1955. She believed that had they not both been married at the time, they might have had a happy life together, but that Ladd was generally an unhappy, depressed person. He attempted suicide later in life and eventually died of an overdose which was labeled accidental.

Another capable actor who had an early demise is the villain, Laird Cregar. He insists he hates violence throughout, but what his character means is that he hates to be the recipient of violence. He surrounds himself with it chronically. This is a charismatic baddie played to the hilt by a man who was openly gay in an era when that could have ended his career or gotten him attacked or even jailed. Unfortunately, he struggled with his weight, and took prescription amphetamines combined with crash diets to control it, which caused severe health problems. He went in for surgery in 1944, but he had a heart attack in the hospital and died at age 31 in 1944.

RB: I also have to give some praise here to Veronica Lake, who was SUCH a talented and charming actress. I can’t really say that I see the sex appeal that she’s known for so much in the 40’s, but she’s really wonderful in this, and her (dubbed, but by who?) singing numbers are delightful and provide some much needed levity to the proceedings. She had a run of really wonderful pictures, and I’d definitely consider this among them. It’s so sad that things turned out so tragically for her. Quite a presence.

SG: She was pretty voluptuous for such a petite woman and her voice was deeper than one might expect as well. I can see why she was considered sexy, though her hair is more memorable than her facial features. I've seen her in later films where her hair is pulled back and she is almost undistinguishable as the glamorous star from the early 40s.

RB: The "What the Pictures Did For Me" column in Motion Picture Herald has become one of my favorite sources to look for information on how the movies really hit during their original release. This one was pretty well liked. “Ranks with the better product of its kind” – said Leon C. Boldue of the Majestic Theatre, Conway, NH. “We are not sorry that we played it to average business” raved (?) K John of the Legion Theater in Saskatchewan. Running the film during a 1948 reissue campaign, Harland Rankan of the Beau Theatre in Toronto felt that “Alan Ladd has appeal, but the picture didn’t take”. Hard to imagine that being the case, but perhaps his audience recalled it before?

SG: I can see why the film would have immediate appeal, but it also has lasting appeal. The photography is gorgeous. Some of the shots look like still portraits of the era, so clear we can practically see the pores on the actor's young unlined faces and every single safety-pin-separated eyelash. The shadows are used to full effect, demonstrating malice and secrecy. The scene in the railyard is absolutely perfect in black and white and would not have worked as well in color. The shadows and the way the focus blends with the background in shades of grey keeps the viewer engaged in following Lake and Ladd as they try to stay under cover.

The storytelling is sophisticated and complex. There are many wonderful lines to grab onto, and the characters are fleshed out with little exposition. This is thanks to Greene's source material and an adaptation by W.R. Burnett and Albert Maltz. Lake looks like an innocent, but she is street-wise without being hardened. When Ladd attempt to rob her on the train, she discovers the missing $5 immediately, calls him out without making a scene, and forgives him the sin only if he agrees to make it right. Ladd's character is not a cold-blooded killer because of the money he could make or out of desperation. He has been abused his entire life and never given love by the people who should have given it. We feel sorry for him. It makes Lake's small kindness seem monumental enough to go against his principals to honor.

The use of the cats as his alter ego is effective. The film opens with Ladd in his boarding house letting a kitten into the window to eat from a bowl he has left out for it. This show of affection is distinctly different from the way he treats the maid who experiences his violent streak when she treats the cat harshly. Later in the movie, when Ladd is hiding out from the police, he comes across a stray cat and welcomes it into his arms, calling it a sign of good luck while he gently pets its fur. People have been vicious to him his entire life, but animals bring solace, a marked difference between a sociopathic serial killer and Ladd's character. I can't think of a more effective use of a cat as an alter-ego until Breakfast at Tiffany's.

That's a big little word, all.

RB: Immensely popular at the time, This Gun For Hire was reissued at least twice during the forties. Even when audiences had soured on pictures with a wartime theme, this one seemed more resilient than most, continuing to chalk up good box office throughout the decade, before Paramount sold it, along with nearly all of the rest of their sound pre-1948 output to Universal. A short-sighted decision, but one that ensured TV screenings for decades to come. Maybe this isn’t a true noir film. I’m not one to say for sure, and I tend to grade on a larger curve than some of our more educated readers and scholars, but I do know this is an energetic, exciting and dramatic movie. Four stars, all day long.

SG: This Gun For Hire is an excellent movie. If the performances don't grab you, the dialogue will, and if that doesn't impress you, the photography will. Four stars.

Just give them a week's notice starting last week.

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