Frank Tuttle, 1942
Starring: Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Laird Cregar, Robert Preston
A cold-blooded assassin named Raven is hired to kill a scientist and blackmailer, and then recover a stolen formula. His boss, Willard Gates, owner of Nitro Chemicals, double crosses him and pays him with marked bills, then turns him over to the police. Though he wants to spend time with his girlfriend, lovely nightclub singer Ellen Graham, Detective Michael Crane is hot on Raven’s trail, which leads from San Francisco to L.A. It just so happens that Williard Gates is also a club owner and hires Ellen to be his new act. A Senator secretly implores her to spy on Gates, who is under investigation. Ellen and Raven cross paths and Raven takes her hostage, but he later saves her life when Gates tries to kill her. The two reluctantly team up to reveal Gates for what he really is – a traitor trying to sell chemical warfare to the Japanese.
One of the best early riffs on film noir and one of the best thrillers of the war period, the underrated This Gun for Hire was also the first pairing of stars Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake. Though the tiny, blonde Lake was already famous by this point, thanks to Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and I Wanted Wings, as well as I Married a Witch, this was one of her most iconic roles. Ladd, who had only been given bit parts or side roles up to this point, became a star seemingly overnight. His portrayal of the ruthless, lonely, and nihilistic Raven is the first of its kind, and This Gun for Hire was an obvious influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s iconic Le Samouraï (1967). Raven was one of the first cold-blooded, murderous antiheroes in cinema and also one of the first to suggest that an abusive childhood led to his current lot in life.
Ladd’s Raven is truly the centerpiece of the film. He is a character with extensive emotional and physical scars and is immediately identifiable (to the police) by his deformed wrist. Despite the fact that he is a killer – and admits to killing the aunt who raised him – he is a sympathetic character. He genuinely cares for cats and becomes protective of Ellen as he begins to trust her. Lake pales in comparison to Ladd, but is well-used for the moments of brightness and lightheartedness she provides. Ellen is a multi-talented performer and there is an amusing scene where Lake sings, flirts, and does magic. In a nice twist, she leaves behind playing cards so that Detective Crane can follow their increasingly dangerous trail.
Ellen’s boyfriend, Detective Crane (Robert Preston of Victor Victoria and The Music Man) is a fairly useless character. He exists seemingly for there to be an additional layer of tension between Graham and Raven, and as a barrier that keeps their relationship chaste and (mostly) unromantic. In hindsight, this is an odd choice as nearly every film noir that would follow it was concerned with destructive sexual relationships and the breakdown of gender roles. Though This Gun for Hire does have plenty of noir elements – including some mind-blowing cinematography from John Seitz (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Sullivan’s Travels, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, The Big Clock, and many more) – it is oddly asexual, which perhaps highlights its themes of personal isolation and self-destruction.
The most sexual character of the film is undoubtedly Laird Cregar (I Wake Up Screaming, The Lodger, Hangover Square) as Willard Gates. He is amazing, as always, and comes close to stealing the film from Ladd. The hulking actor was known for playing villainous, ambiguous roles, as if his real-life bisexually intruded upon the production – though always with great effect. His interest in Ellen Graham seems to be both business and pleasure; he wants to hire her for his club, but also presses for a private dinner at his home. When he believes she has double-crossed him, he suggestively has her tied up, but leaves before any real violence can take place, using his chauffeur as a surrogate.