Sunday, December 8, 2013


Paramount Pictures, 81m 17s

In his first featured role, Alan Ladd portrays Philip Raven, a hard-boiled contract killer. Introduced in a fleabag rooming house in San Francisco, Raven reveals a fondness for stray cats, who survive much the way he does. That fondness, however, absolutely does not extend to humans. He shows a quick temper when he backhands the maid Annie (Pamela Blake), but demonstrates a more calculated manner when completing that day's major assignment:  the elimination of chemist Albert Baker (Frank Ferguson), who had become a threat to the anti-American activities of LA-based Nitro Chemical Corporation. With a no-choice second killing, Raven takes out Baker's secretary (Bernadene Hayes) in a prototypical film noir murder, suggested by the sound of a lifeless body hitting the floor after Raven fires his weapon through a closed kitchen door. Mission accomplished, Raven is paid for his services via marked tens from Nitro executive Willard Gates (Laird Cregar), who promptly reports the money stolen, thus causing Raven to seek revenge. Meanwhile, elegant blonde night club entertainer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) is recruited to spy on Gates, and her fiancĂ© Michael Crane (Robert Preston) is the lawman in pursuit of Raven.

Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) is ready to become THIS GUN FOR HIRE

An adaptation of Graham Greene's 1936 novel A GUN FOR SALE, co-written for the screen by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett, THIS GUN FOR HIRE is one of the early noir films that mapped out the territory of an emerging American film movement. The Raven character in many ways is the definition of the classic alienated noir protagonist, a complete outcast who lives by a moral code that makes sense to him. "I'm my own police," he observes. His tough-cookie moments are plentiful:  he rancorously shoves Gates's adjutant Tommy (Marc Lawrence) down a basement staircase (noir staircases tend to be dangerous), at one point prepares to shoot Graham in the back, and later in self-preservation mode, kills a cop.

Branded with a troubled past, Raven was among the first of many dispassionate loners to surface during the WWII-noir era, a time when many returning US vets would find adjustment to civilian life difficult. A Freudian angle is used to explain Raven’s temperament; he endured vicious beatings from the aunt who raised him. One particularly nasty incident left the young Raven with a badly deformed left wrist emblematic of deep psychological scars; notice Raven shows a certain kinship with a young girl (Virita Campbell) restricted by leg braces who asks for his help. The film's other cripple is far less sympathetic. Nitro president Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall) is the devil in a wheelchair, a man selling out his country. The crippled male would become a common noir trope (i.e. DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944], THE BIG SLEEP [1946], GILDA [1946], THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI [1947]). Wheelchairs, crutches and canes imply that the men dependent on them are effectively impotent.

So, what, or who, is to blame for all of these hobbled men? Frequently, a woman is responsible, such as Raven's cruel aunt. In THIS GUN FOR HIRE's crucial noir moment of fate, Raven takes a train seat next to the femme fatale who will finalize his condemnation. The danger associated with the noir female, well embodied here by Lake, is suggested during her first musical interlude (dubbed by Martha Mears), when Graham sings, "next moment, instead of her heart, the ace of spades is there." This somewhat comical performance might be overlooked as harmless fun, and of course the female club singer would become a tiresome Hollywood trope; it is a chore to name a significant amount of important film noirs that do not feature a female character who is a night club performer of some sort. But Graham is no ordinary entertainer—she's working as an informant for Senator Burnett (Roger Imhof), and while forced to stick close to Raven, she cleverly leads police to him with her monogrammed playing cards. Raven is not alone in his fascination with Graham—like Raven and so many other male noir characters, the cultivated man Gates has what proves to be a fatal weakness for complex women like Graham (Gates hires her for his Neptune Club, but obviously is more interested in wining and dining her). Graham closes the film with one of the greatest "WTF" lines in cinema history. After Raven takes his final breath, she responds with, "Oh Michael, my darling, hold me!" THIS GUN FOR HIRE makes a strong appeal to the viewer's sense of patriotism, and the necessity of human sacrifice for the greater good. Graham really is speaking to the audience when she says, "This war is everybody's business, yours too."

Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake) on the run with Philip Raven (Alan Ladd)

Rather oddly with hindsight, Lake shared top billing with the incredibly bland Preston, who brings an annoying textbook-acting quality to each scene in which he is featured. Stranger still, director Frank Tuttle had given thought to casting Preston to play the Raven character. Lake and Ladd worked well together and became Paramount's most bankable couple, paired in two other noir classics:  THE GLASS KEY (1942) and THE BLUE DAHLIA (1946). They also appeared in STAR SPANGLED RHYTHM (1942), DUFFY’S TAVERN (1945), VARIETY GIRL (1947), and SAIGON (1948), all Paramount productions.

Studio and LA location footage are blended well by cinematographer John F. Seitz, who went on to lens some of the most well-regarded of all noir films, including the great DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE BIG CLOCK (1948), NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES (1948), SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and APPOINTMENT WITH DANGER (1951, with Ladd). Tuttle also helmed other noir films, i.e. SUSPENSE (1946), HELL ON FRISCO BAY (1955, again starring Ladd), and A CRY IN THE NIGHT (1956).

THIS GUN FOR HIRE is available on a no-frills DVD as part of the Universal Noir Collection. It was remade in 1957 as SHORT CUT TO HELL, the only film James Cagney directed. A made-for-television version was broadcast in 1991, with Robert Wagner cast as Raven.