Noirvember Review: ‘This Gun For Hire’

In 1936, Paramount purchased the movie rights to the latest work from acclaimed British writer Graham Greene, This Gun for Sale, which they retitled This Gun for Hire. Pre-production started new and abruptly shut down, and for years, they sat on the property. In 1942, they picked it back up and dusted it off and it just so happened to the move coincided with the dawning of the film noir. This style of film would fit perfectly to this lurid tale of a hit man seeking revenge on the crime boss who set him up. The result is one of the most popular movies of the era, and unintentionally became the starmaking role for then newcomer Alan Ladd.

For a professional hitman like Raven, his job to kill a scientist and take what the target was working on to his client was simply a piece of business. This was until he discovered Willard Gates the man who hired him, paid for the job in marked bills putting the cops right on his trail. Naturally Raven embarks on a violent quest for payback. Following the trail of these bills is Lt. Crane whose singer girlfriend Ellen has been brought on as a client of Gates in his moonlighting as a talent agent. Raven’s path of vengeance crosses with Ellen’s path to hopeful stardom and the remorseless killer realizes just how deep he is in it. The scientist he took care of was working on a dangerous chemical weapon; Gates has now passed on that work to a wealthy tycoon looking to sell it to the Axis forces. To Raven this simply means there is more people to add to his hit-list, but Ellen hopes to appeal his to his wartime patriotism and turn these men over to the authorities and get them to confess to the conspiracy.

Much like other great noirs like: Berlin Express, Hangmen Also Die! and Pick-up on South Street, conflicts occurring on a global scale cast a dark shadow over the seedy little world of this film. In this case it is the Second World War. What starts as a standard job for Raven embroils him in a treasonous conspiracy with worldwide implications. Given that Graham Greene built a career on tales of international intrigue with classic works like: the Third Man, Our Man in Havana, and the Quiet American, on his CV, this is definitely his strength as a writer. Screenwriters Albert Matz and WR Burnett, rightfully made changes to the story by moving the setting from London to the West Coast United States the de facto capitol of film noir. They also made the ultimate villain of the story a greedy war profiteer, a more fitting evil for the era, which also allowed them to keep the book’s theme of a lone gunman going up against an entire industry.

As mentioned earlier Alan Ladd who was fourth billed in this flick had an unexpected breakout performance in This Gun for Hire. His take on Raven is cold and without mercy. In introducing his character, we see him not only gun down the target as he was hired to, but also the victim’s housekeeper unapologetically stating “they said he’d be alone”. Despite hit ruthless nature Ladd’s cool charisma radiates in this film so that no matter what he does the audience can not help but be on his side. That being said he shows glimpses of being capable of decency, especially in his repeated fondness for cats. His likability is aided immensely by the pairing of co-star Veronica Lake, who effortlessly endearing in this film. With a radiant screen presence, she is the perfect contrast to his dark brooding nature and the chemistry between the two drives the movie forward. In a movie full of darkness and grittiness she is something akin to a singing angel, to the point where she legitimately seems to glow against the bleak backdrops in some scenes. The insane chemistry Ladd and Lake showcase would not go unnoticed as the two were reunited for later noir favorites like; the Glass Key and the Blue Dahlia.

Director Frank Tuttle had been making movies since the silent age and proved to have no trouble adapting to this new moody style that pulp crime movies would now be showcased in. He and his cinematographer John Seitz made the conscious decision that a character like Raven was someone who operated in the shadows and made sure that came across in the visual language of the flick. At the behest of the studio that wanted to bring some levity to the picture for the wartime audiences he injected a few spots of lightheartedness, but not so much that it ruined the grim atmosphere of the rest of the flick. While he did not make many films following This Gun for Hire, he did largely remain in the noir style. This includes one of my favorites of the genre, a Cry in the Night. His work on This Gun for Hire proved invaluable in the early days of the movement. While conventional wisdom at the time assigned the role of main character to the moral and steadfast cop Lt. Crane. However, Tuttle made the cool but dangerous hitman the focus, thus cementing the idea of the antihero as the protagonist in film noir.

Not only was This Gun for Hire important for film in a historical sense, it is easily one of the best-damned movies of the 1940’s period. Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake are such a stone-cold cool duo, they could give Bogart and Bacall a run for their money. This was a film in the burgeoning days of the film noir movement that proved the style was here to stay. Since then countless other films have taken influence from this story of a coldhearted hitman turned antihero on a quest for revenge, but few can compare to this one.