09 April 2007

Early Noir: This Gun for Hire

This Gun for Hire (1942)
Directed by Frank Tuttle. Starring Alan Ladd, Veronic Lake, Laird Cregar, Robert Preston.

It was 1942 and film noir was just beginning—although no one would know that until the French made the discovery in the mid ‘50s. This Gun for Hire helped form the new language of the crime film: literate, bleak, psychological. Its source novel from British author Graham Greene, 1936’s A Gun for Sale (This Gun for Hire is the U.S. title, but I’m a purist when it comes to titles), gave it a boost in the literary department and bequeathed the world of crime literature a fascinating anti-hero in a hit-man known as Raven.

Greene introduced his character in a perfect show of amorality so common the emerging genre:
Murder didn't mean much to Raven. It was just a new job. You had to be careful. You had to use your brains. It was not a question of hatred. He had only seen the Minister once: he had been pointed out to Raven as he walked down the new housing estate between the small lit Christmas trees, an old grubby man without friends, who was said to love humanity.
From such a description—appearing on the first page of the novel—could anyone else but Alan Ladd have played the part? Fresh from radio, but new to the big screen, Ladd got fourth billing (but a special "Introducing" credit in the main titles) but turned into a tough-guy celebrity forever linked with dazzling co-star Veronica Lake. This was especially surprising considering Ladd's unimpressive height did not usually indicate leading-man stature. But some clever camera work (Ladd always walks behind people on the stairs) and unflappable icy acting made Ladd appear a giant, an invincible calculating killer who never lets anyone get the better of him. I guarantee you'll never remember the name of the guy who got second billing with Veronica Lake. This is a Lake-Ladd picture, without a doubt.

Shot against the background of World War II, which the U.S. had just joined, This Gun for Hire had to insert requisite doses of patriotic speeches. But unlike many other films of the era, the propaganda element is subdued in favor of Raven’s unpolitical revenge. He doesn’t care that the people who hired him are selling poison gas secrets to the Japanese government. He only cares that they tried to frame him for the murder they hired him to commit. You don’t double-cross a man like Raven. Through his encounter with Ellen Graham (Veronica Lake), a singer roped in by a senator to investigate the suspicious activities of her boss (a perfectly smarmy Laird Cregar), Raven starts to awaken to the larger implications of his vengeance quest. But even at the conclusion, when he finally faces his framers and his own end, Raven remains Raven, the ice-cold killer we met in the beginning. And so we see the beginnings the film noir’s potently immoral and confused world, mirrored in the implacable face of one of its acting icons.

This Gun for Hire is quintessential film noir viewing. For a film so young in an emerging style, it shows immense maturity. It’s also the origin point for one of the greatest tough-guy actors in the business.