This Gun for Hire (1942)

Cinematography John Seitz
Directed by Frank Tuttle

When assassin Philip Raven shoots a blackmailer and his beautiful female companion dead, he is paid off in marked bills by his treasonous employer who is working with foreign spies.

This Gun for Hire is a 1942 film noir, directed by Frank Tuttle and based on the 1936 novel (published in America with the same title, and in Britain with the title A Gun for Sale) by Graham Greene. The film stars Veronica Lake, Robert Preston, Laird Cregar, and Alan Ladd. The movie made a star of Alan Ladd.

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Excellent film, but falls short of its potential

18 September 2005 | by ecapital46 (Maplewood, NJ) – See all my reviews

This is definitely an enjoyable film to watch. It starts out like gangbusters with great film noir qualities having the trajectory of a bona fide classic. Alan Ladd is superb as the cold-blooded killing man for hire and Laird Cregor – who unfortunately was to die at 30 only two years after this film – is equally superb in his role. The film misses the mark, however, when the patriotic aspects of World War II (then a current event) are used in the end to appeal to the conscious of the cold-blooded killing Ladd. For a character of Ladd’s ilk to be won over on such a near-corny patriotic appeal is a bit of a stretch, and takes away from the true grit realism of the movie’s potential. Sort of reminds me of all the romance and self-righteousness that frequently is the focus of movies or intellectual discussions of the U. S. Civil War, rather than simply telling the true plain cold-blooded reasons for its initiation and declaration, regardless of how evil, and immoral the facts. But alas, Hollywood is about entertainment, not necessarily realism. And, we can’t forget the near-mandatory Studio happy-ending requirements.

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On a lighter note, those with an ear for a good tune with their flicks will enjoy two Frank Loesser compositions in the film, particularly “Now you see it, Now you don’t,” where Veronica Lake does an excellent job lip-synching Martha Mears’ vocal.

Reception

Ladd received fourth billing. Because of fan reaction and critical praise, the film made him a star.

Bosley Crowther, the critic for The New York Times, wrote a rave:

One shudders to think of the career which Paramount must have in mind for Alan Ladd, a new actor, after witnessing the young gentleman’s debut as a leading player in that studio’s This Gun for Hire… Obviously, they have tagged him to be the toughest monkey loose on the screen. For not since Jimmy Cagney massaged Mae Clarke’s face with a grapefruit has a grim desperado gunned his way into cinema ranks with such violence as does Mr. Ladd in this fast and exciting melodrama. Keep your eye peeled for this Ladd fellow; he’s a pretty-boy killer who likes his work… Mr. Ladd is the buster; he is really an actor to watch. After this stinging performance, he has something to live up to—or live down.

Crowther characterized the film itself as a “fast and exciting melodrama.”

The Los Angeles Times wrote that “to say the film is a success is an understatement.”

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Breath-taking Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake film noir

Author: cyril aubaud (cyril_aubaud@yahoo.fr) from Le Carbet, Martinique FWI
5 July 2004

Philip Raven (Alan Ladd) is a gun for hire. He lives alone in a small room and gives milk to a lonely cat every morning. But he doesn’t seem to appreciate the company of humans. He never smiles and he won’t trust anybody. He is asked by Willard Gates to kill a man and steal documents from him. After Gates paid Raven with hot money, Raven decided to find Gates to settle a score with him. In the meanwhile, a cabaret performer Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), the girl friend of a Police lieutenant, is secretly charged by a senator to infiltrate a company – Nitro – that is suspected to sell army secrets to the Japanese. For this, she goes to an audition to be hired by Willard Gates, owner of a cabaret, but also an employee of Nitro. In the train on her way to Los Angeles, Ellen Graham meets Philip Raven, both unaware that they are involved in the same case. When they arrive in Los Angeles, the Police is after him and he has to kidnap Ellen to get away from it. Realizing they have the same enemy Ellen convinces Raven to forget his own interest and start to fight the people of Nitro in the interest of the country.

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This is the first Alan Ladd Veronica Lake movie but it is also probably the best. The plot, the acting, the dialogue and the direction are so great that these make ‘This gun for hire’ a classic film noir. At the beginning, the credits mention: introducing Alan Ladd. For his first leading role, the least we can say is that Ladd gives a great performance. It is obvious that his character inspired the character of Jeff in ‘Le samourai’ by Jean-Pierre Melville with Alain Delon. Both characters have the same attitude and the same clothes. They live alone a small room. They never get involve in any relationship and both are very professional. They are only kind to animals and children (in `Le samourai’, Delon had a bird in his room). Also, the sequence on the pedestrian bridge of the railroad has clearly its equivalent in ‘Le Samourai’.

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I was really impressed by the first sequence, when Ladd execute his contract and also by the sequence where Ladd and Lake are running across the city to escape from the Police (which is much of the movie). How breath-taking! This is truly great cinema, quiet a good surprise for a director (Frank Tuttle) who is not that well known. I’ve seen ‘The Blue Dahlia’, `the Glass key’ and `this gun for hire’ these last three days (film noir retrospective in Oak Street Cinema, Minneapolis) in this order (reverse of the chronological one) but I must say that the quality increase in this order. ‘This gun for hire’ is much darker and less funny than the movie they made together after that but it is a better film noir. Definitely a masterpiece. High recommended 9/10.

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Hooray for Gates and Tommy!

Author: theowinthrop from United States
6 July 2004

Frank Tuttle is one of those directors (like William Seiter) who is not consistently good, but who could do a terrific job now and then that retains our admiration. Seiter directed Laurel & Hardy in their best feature film, THE SONS OF THE DESERT (and turned in an above average job with the Marx Brothers in ROOM SERVICE). Tuttle did this film noir classic, and did it well. Based on a novel (or, as the author called it, an “entertainment”) by Graham Greene, Tuttle made a star of Alan Ladd, and created the first of a series of films co-starring Ladd and Veronica Lake (as his cool, opposite number). He was ably abetted by a good cast of character actors: Laird Cregar, Tully Marshall, Robert Preston (at the start of his career), Marc Lawrence…. It was a terrific little thriller.

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Laird Cregar’s Willard Gates is one of the funniest neurotics in film noir. An overweight lady’s man, he seems to go in both directions: using his money and nightclub to pick up women, and yet being a trembling tub of lard who enjoys reading “Naughty Paris at Night” while eating a box of chocolates in his private bedroom on his train. Cregar’s Gates is augmented by his chauffeur – bodyguard – factotum Tommy, who has a wicked sense of ghoulish humor, and is able to make his queasy boss go nuts with fear just by describing a possible method of getting rid of Lake’s prospectively dead body tied with cat gut that would disintegrate in a month (allowing her body to rise in a river, and leave her death a mystery. “Cat gut, what a horrible word!”, quivers Gates. Marvelous – just look at Lawrence’s grin as he speaks. He knows what he’s doing.

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The novel is a peculiar problem, not too frequently mentioned in discussing the film. It was set in 1935 in the midlands of England. At the beginning Raven is shown going to the office of a man who turns out to be Europe’s leading peace advocate. He comes in using a letter from an unknown person. The peace advocate is happy at the recognition given to him by the letter’s author and sits down to read it. In a moment Raven kills the man and then his secretary (who is a witness). This is changed in the movie to the murder of Baker, a blackmailer, and his girlfriend by Raven. The letter is from an important industrialist and munition dealer – Sir Marcus. His associate is the middle man between Sir Marcus and Raven, as Gates is in the film. But it is not in southern California in 1942 (and not dealing with treason with Japan). Instead Greene’s villain is planning to help cause a new European War, for his profit.

Who is Sir Marcus? How is he different from the industrialist played by Tully Marshall? Marshall is a traitor for profit working for the Japanese Empire. Sir Marcus was Jewish.

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Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were the two greatest English Catholic novelists of the twentieth century, but in different ways. Greene’s novels dealt with the issues of good and evil in us all, usually told in stories of crime or spies. Waugh wrote of a fading Catholic English aristocracy, and had a masterful sense of comedy. They complement each other as writers. Both were deserving of Nobel Prize recognition, and both failed to achieve it. Other Englishmen did get the prize (Shaw, William Golding), but they never did – though repeatedly they were recommended for it. The possible reason was their open anti-Semitism. Waugh’s novels are full of Jewish stereotypes, like Augustus Fagin in DECLINE AND FALL. Greene did the same, with Sir Marcus and Colleoni in BRIGHTON ROCK. The only difference is that Greene (in later years) edited out the anti-Jewish sentiments in the novels. But if you get the original novel you have Raven (a murderer-for-hire, mind you) telling off Sir Marcus about his ancestry before shooting him. The screenplay keeps to the storyline, with the American and non-religious changes. It was all to the good, but we all should be aware of Greene’s religious bigotry.

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Digging below the surface…

Author: keihan (keihan@usit.net)
25 January 2001

My first glimpse of this film was in “L.A. Confidential”, where Kim Basinger, a Veronica Lake look-alike hooker (I’m totally in agreement with Russell Crowe’s character when he comments that Basinger looks better than Veronica Lake), has the movie playing in the background during the train scene. Having finally watched the whole thing, I can easily see why Curtis Hansen and Brian Helgaland gave “This Gun For Hire” that respectful tip of the hat.

It is obvious that this was made during WWII from its references to the overseas menace, but I personally wouldn’t let such politics get in the way of enjoying and understanding this movie. To do that, one must focus on the character of Raven (as played by Alan Ladd), a vicious, detached hitman with a soft spot for kids and cats…but no friends. He doesn’t kill because it’s fun for him; it’s just a job. He does live by his own code, a major tenet of which is never to doublecross him. One thing that seems to sail right over people’s heads is the fact that Raven is the product of an abused childhood. That such a defining bit made it to the screen (and that the abuser was female) should tell one how little audiences paid attention to such things, in spite of the fact that such were not and are still not isolated incidents.

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Patriotism does not motivate Raven in the slightest, just his own self interest. The reason he eventually does what he does has more to do with Veronica Lake, probably the only friend he has ever truly had. I almost wonder if, in her, he sees the mother that he never truly had…but one can also write that one off as Freudian BS so make of it what you will. One thing that shouldn’t be ignored, on the other hand, is the fact that, but for a lucky distraction, he would have plugged her to leave less of a trail. It’s only when she refuses to hand him over to his enemies that their strange friendship really begins. All this makes Raven one of the most unromantic, unglamourous hard-boiled protagonists that have made it to screen.

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Now, as to Ms. Lake, the thing that struck me about her was how unglamourous SHE was here. I don’t mean that as an insult, mind, just that she seemed to share a characteristic with Kathrine Hepburn in that comparing her with the other sex goddesses of the time would be like comparing the moon to the sun. As is fitting with the story, she strikes one as being more motherly rather than gun moll material. Not that she can’t bring the house down; her opening song-and-magic routine is one of the great all-time showstoppers. In fact, the only time I really had cause to hate her is when she gets into the arms of her cop fiancee and says “Hold me.” at the end, but it’s a minor complaint. Had there been a more radiant actress, the whole thing would have fallen apart. As it is, she fits perfectly.

Don’t let the overt mobilization messages distract you. “This Gun For Hire” has a lot more on its mind that’s still with us today.

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solid film-noir in all areas

Author: chris miller (chris@aptpupil.org) from davis, california
12 September 2004

one of the things that can make a film noir great is the ability to, at each turn, make the audience think that things are going to turn out okay, and then slam the door in its face. this film is able to do just that. alan ladd doesn’t get the lead billing (that honor goes to lake and preston), but make not mistake – he is the star of the film. he plays a loner hit-man and we pick up the action just before he’s set to do a job. he holds up his end of the bargain, but the man who hired him pays him in marked bills in an attempt to pin a robbery on him. ladd goes on the lam, but runs into the girlfriend (lake) of a cop (preston) who is after him for having passed one of the marked bills. little does ladd, or even preston, know, but lake has been enlisted by the government to do some investigative work on the man who paid ladd for the hit with the marked dough.

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it’s quite a criss-crossed story, but it’s all very easy to follow and very fun to watch while it unfolds. lake is sworn to secrecy because of the sensitive nature of her investigation, and she has no idea that the man she meets on the train (ladd) is the same man her boyfriend is pursuing. it’s not as dark a noir as detour, but the ending is surprisingly affecting and certainly dark enough to qualify as a noir. the lighting is more subtle than it is in some noir and i made a note of looking into the cinematographer on this film. my hunch was right – john seitz did the cinematography for this and such films as invaders from mars, sunset blvd., double indemnity, sullivan’s travels, and big clock. it’s a crime that i’ve never heard of the guy. but i redeemed myself by finally looking into his work after watching this film. with sunset blvd and double indemnity i probably attributed the good lighting and camera work to billy wilder and the same is true for sullivan’s travels and preston sturges. at any rate, this is a good film – ladd and lake do a good job, preston is capable; the cinematography is good even though it doesn’t knock you over the head with its brilliance; and the story is well-constructed despite being a little far-fetched in places. B+.

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The blonde raven

10/10
Author: Christian-Doig
3 June 2006

Two of the most beautiful actors in film history, Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake got together for the first time in this crime drama that also launched the former’s career; a combined fact that in itself is enough to make this a must-see feature. Ladd is justly remembered as the star of Shane, the classic George Stevens’ revision on the Western mythology, but his legacy remains overlooked beyond that great achievement. He could be a fine performer, against the average public opinion, and a film like This Gun for Hire proves his neglected status as one of Film Noir’s prime antiheroes.

As witty as she’s a long-haired blonde, Miss Lake has a sexiness and a childlike casualness about her that only underline her smartness. Her character is neither a typically passionate nor a bitchy femme fatale, and it’s kind of a relief that we see the Ladd’s character through her eyes ultimately. I can’t remember another female role in the genre — or any noiresque role for that matter — of such a personal balance and empathy.

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This is a Graham Greene movie that somehow looks more a Dashiell Hammett one*. Greene’s concern with morality puts things in motion as it would do in The Third Man and Our Man in Havana, both films directed by Carol Reed. Lake apparently plays the angelic symbol of redemption to the fallen angel of her captor, a reminder of the peculiar Catholicism the novelist professed.

* Next to This Gun for Hire, Ladd and Lake did make a Hammett film: The Glass Key (1942).

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